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Why Divisions are Bad for Sports

Yankees-Red Sox. Patriots-Jets. Rangers-Capitals. Celtics-76ers. All of these are storied rivalries. All of these are made possible by the teams’ relative proximities to each other, which in turn is possible due to the establishment of divisions. Divisions break up conferences into geographical groups that a team plays the majority of its games against. They are great for promoting rivalry, making it easy to see your favorite team on the road, and…

Yeah, let’s cut the crap. Divisions are a problem, and the leagues need to do away with them. Far too often today, the divisional setup either robs teams of playoff spots or sets them back tremendously in bracket seeding. The buck stops here.

Baseball

Let’s take a look at the Yankees and Red Sox, currently the two best teams in baseball. The Yankees are currently in first place (albeit by decimal points), and have a relatively easy schedule after the break, so I’m gonna go ahead and say that they win the division. According to FanGraphs, they are projected to finish with 103 wins. The Red Sox aren’t too far behind with 100 wins. So, the Sox would play in the Wild Card Game. The 100-win Boston Red Sox would play in the Wild Card Game. Just reading that is bad. To top it off, say that they win said game, guess who their first-round opponent is? The New York Flippin’ Yankees.

That is appalling. First that a 100-win ball club would have to play in a Wild Card Game where they could very easily lose, and then if they win, have the Yankees get stuck with the second-best team in baseball instead of the fourth best in the AL. This series should be an ALCS. There’s no logical explanation for putting the Red Sox as a wild card team. There just isn’t. The Yankees should have to face Cleveland or Seattle, not the Red Sox, based off of their records.

Hockey

I’m gonna take a look into the 2016-2017 NHL standings here on top of the baseball fiasco. The Montreal Canadiens won the Atlantic Division with 103 points. Standard fare, by no means the mark of a bad team. Their first-round opponent happened to be the wild card New York Rangers. The Rangers wrapped up the year with 102 points, just one south of a division champ. On top of that, they actually won more games than the Habs did. Furthermore, the Metropolitan Division was LOADED. Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy, the Blue Jackets came out of nowhere as a divisional powerhouse, and the Penguins won their second of back-to-back Stanley Cups. So yeah, the Metro was pretty damn good. And the Rangers survived that gauntlet.

Despite winning more games in a tougher division, the Rangers got the shorter end of the stick, getting stuck with the wild card and having to beat a division champ. But, the better team pulled through, as the Rangers won the series in six games.

The NHL playoff organization is even weirder. They don’t re-seed the bracket. In this case, when the Rangers beat the Canadiens, they played the Senators (in a series we will not speak further of) instead of the Capitals, the one-seed. The lowest-seeded team should get bounced to play the highest-remaining seed. The NHL used to do this before they realigned the divisions. Why they went away from that model, I do not know.

Football

In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7-9 record. Yep, you read that right – they lost more games than they won, and still qualified for the playoffs. Tell me how that makes sense…

That same season, both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New York Giants finished 10-6 and missed the playoffs. I can’t speak as in-depth on the Bucs as I can the Giants, but that Giants team was a good one. They were one miracle punt return away from winning 11 games, which is an impressive accomplishment and the mark of a good team.

In 2015, the New York Jets finished the season with a 10-6 record. They had shown they could compete, playing two tightly-contested games against the Patriots, winning and losing one game. Unfortunately, due to a week 17 loss to the Bills, Gang Green missed the playoffs. At the same time, the nine-win Houston Texans from at the time the worst division in football, snuck in as the division champs. A good team, a better team missed the playoffs because of divisions. I also thought that that Jets team could’ve made a legitimate underdog Super Bowl run.

There’s really not much more I need to say here. A playoff team should not lose more than it wins. That’s simply not how this should work. A bad team shouldn’t make the playoffs over a good team just because they won their division.

 

Solution

First of all, just do away with divisions. Have an Eastern Conference, and a Western Conference. That’s it. No divisions, merely two big conferences. This way, strictly points or wins determine a team’s place in the standings. Pretty simple.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “but Sam, strength of schedule matters too. What if one division is particularly weak, so its winner is juiced up on points, while a better division will have more even point distribution?” There’s a solution to that too.

For a solution, look no further than the NBA. Kind of ironic, given how super teams run the NBA. Anyway…

Play the exact same amount of games against each in-conference opponent. While you’ll lose a bunch of games that are a quick road trip away, it keeps things balanced. You really would be what your record says you are. For out-of-conference games, stick to a home-and-home and that’s that. While this does require a bit more travel, it levels the playing field a hell of a lot more than it is in every other league.

Taking a look at football, that’s a different situation. There’s only 16 NFL games per year. So, play 12 games against teams from the same conference. Organize the games by a rotation (would play every conference team except 3), and 4 teams from the other conference, also on a rotation. You’ll lose a bit of balance due to the lack of games, but it would fix the problem better than the current system.

 

Do I anticipate the leagues seeing this post and implementing my ideas immediately? Absolutely not, no league is going to take suggestions from a high schooler and completely use them instantly. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting proposition to think about, and in order to make things fair for all sports, there need to be changes made to the way the playoffs are determined.

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