Several WNBA players including Storm stars Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart voiced their dissent with the league’s playoff format. In response, the WNBA has made sweeping changes to its postseason structure.
Starting in 2022, the league will eliminate byes, single-elimination games and re-seeding in favor of a bracket-style structure in which eight teams participate in three rounds using a best-of 3-5-5 format.
“It was clear that while the prior format’s single-elimination games created a win-and-advance level of excitement to the start of the postseason, the new best-of-three series format will provide added opportunities to create and showcase rivalries with all playoff-eligible teams participating,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement released by the league.
Following a 36-game WNBA regular season, the top eight teams regardless of conference qualify for the postseason.
In one bracket, the No. 1 seed faces the No. 8 seed while the No. 4 seed goes against the No. 5 seed in best-of-three series. In the other bracket, No. 3 seed will face the No. 6 seed and the No. 2 seed will meet the No. 7 seed,
The first-round series games will include a 2-1 format in which the higher seed will host Games 1 and 2 and the lower seed will host Game 3 if necessary.
The first-round winners in each bracket will square off against each other in a best-of-five semifinal series. The semifinal winners meet in a best-of-five WNBA Finals to determine the champion.
The semifinals and WNBA Finals will follow a 2-2-1 format whereby the higher seed hosts Games 1, 2 and 5 and the lower-seeded team will host Games 3 and 4.
It remains to be seen how the new playoff format, which potentially includes eight additional postseason games, will impact the WNBA’s schedule that has to end before the start of the Sept. 23 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Sydney, Australia.
In 2018, the WNBA played a 34-game regular season that began May 18 and ended Sept. 12 when the Storm swept the Washington Mystics 3-0 to claim a league championship just 10 days before the start of the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Spain.
Unlike in 2018, WNBA schedule makers will also have to include the Commissioner’s Cup championship game, which made its debut this year, as well as the WNBA All-Star Game.
WNBA players may bemoan what figures to be a tight schedule that consists of more back-to-back games and fewer off days, but they have a playoff format that’s been coveted by many players and fans.
Before the No. 4 seed Storm were eliminated in the second round following an 85-80 defeat at home against the No. 5 seed Phoenix Mercury, Bird, who is vice president of the WNBA players union, pushed the league to change its postseason structure.
The prior playoff format, which was adopted in 2016, consisted of four rounds using a 1-1-5-5 format, with single-elimination games in the first and second rounds, the No. 1 and 2 seeds receiving double-byes into the semifinals, the No. 3 and 4 seeds earning a bye to the second round and re-seeding after each round.
“I said this when we were first and second (seeds), the third and the fourth team should not have to play single elimination,” Bird said. “The way this playoffs system has unfolded, that’s shown itself and that needs to change. There were reasons why we went to this playoff system and they were valid reasons. We’ve done it. We’ve tried it. And now we see, it’s not right to play an entire season only to have one game.”
Stewart added: “From the players’ standpoint we all would like the single-elimination to be gone just because you work all season for an opportunity, and to have one game just kind of makes it over really quickly. Yeah, it’s the format for college, but this isn’t college. This is the WNBA.
“I think extending the playoffs and making series out of all the rounds just makes for more viewers. More eyes to watch us, and more people to be a part of it.”