July 16, 2010
"People will say, ‘Why play 66 games to eliminate two teams?'" - CHL Fort Wayne Komets president Michael Franke, to The Journal Gazette.
It's an understandable response from critics of the Central Hockey League's ridiculous new playoff format.
Last season, five teams from the Northern Conference and five teams from the Southern Conference qualified for the playoffs; with the top-three teams in each conference getting a bye to Round 2, while the fourth- and fifth-place teams played a first-round series. This meant five franchises in the 15-team league missed the playoffs, or one-third of the league. (The NHL cuts roughly 47 percent of its franchises out of the postseason, by comparison.)
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The CHL's new playoff format? Putting 16 teams into the playoffs, leaving just two out of the playoffs.
And you thought the NHL regular season was meaningless.
Reviews of the new format have been harsh. Like, "The Last Airbender" harsh.
Ben Smith of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette called the format "totally ridiculous," while offering more of Franke's explanation we excerpted at the top:
"The thought process is the way the economy is going right now, it probably would make sense if all the teams coming into those last six weeks of the season had an opportunity to make the playoffs," he said. "There are so many other things people can do right now, and if teams are way out of it in late January, are they gonna continue to come to the games? No. 2, we looked at it from the perspective that we believe the league is going to grow the next two or three years, and be more than 18 teams. So why not institute a 16-team format now, rather than switch it around every year?"
Uh, because you've neutered the regular season to the point of ridicule? Just a thought.
What exactly is the purpose of the regular season, and extending it two games, to boot? So two cellar dwellers can be formally eliminated? The regular season has lost pretty much any importance it had. What's the reason for the casual fan to go to a game if it really has little to no meaning in the big picture? And what sports league on the planet allows 88.8 percent of its teams to advance to the postseason?
Contrary to what some people think, putting more teams in the playoffs won't help many teams financially. In my years covering the CHL, I'd say only a handful of teams actually made money during the playoffs. Why? Because it's hard to sell playoff tickets. You have to resell your entire season-ticket inventory and there's little lead time to go out and sell groups or plan for games. Plus, many playoff games fall on less than attractive nights, such as mid-week days and Sundays. Combine low box-office numbers and player salaries and it's not a pretty financial picture.
Rajan points to another problem with the playoff format: There will be four rounds, but the first two will be best-of-five series.
From a competitive standpoint, that stinks. From an economic standpoint, it would seem to run contradictory to financial motivations for bringing 16 teams into the postseason.
There have been calls for the NHL to expand its playoff format, and they're not outlandish. But those calls are reasonable: Even at 20 teams, the NHL would still be leaving a third of the league on the outside of the playoffs. (Although we're not really keen on five-game series anywhere in the postseason.)
The current CHL format is unreasonable; and hopefully, just temporary. Hopefully the league expands, and this "give everyone a gold star" playoff format is just an aching growing pain.
The only benefits to this playoff format are the heaping loads of ridicule that will be dumped on the two unlucky souls who miss the playoffs. You may actually see people in their marketing departments falling on samurai swords as the final buzzer sounds on the regular season.