AT THE EDGE OF MY SEAT, NJ – It’s April, one of the best times of year. Not only has the MLB season started, but both the NBA and NHL playoffs are in full swing. Oh, and the NFL Draft is right around the corner. But does this time of year really compete with the NFL Playoffs? Or the drama of October baseball? What about March Madness? All of these tournaments advertise themselves as the most exciting, so which is it?
To properly answer this we have to determine what makes a postseason great. First has to be the quality of the teams in the tournament. While seeing a great team is always exciting, what makes exciting postseason games is having close scores. So not only do we want a good top seed, but we need lower seeds that can hang with the big boys.
So how do we calculate that? For the NBA, MLB and NHL it’s more important that the series is competitive than each game is competitive. Obviously you want both, but a seven-game series is better than a four-game sweep even if all four games were won by a smaller margin of victory. Plus, calculating score can be misleading. What about a baseball game that was tied till the seventh, or an NHL game that features a couple empty-netters, and an NBA game with tons of free throws at the end of the game? So for this piece we’ll focus on series length for those leagues.
For the NFL, the only way to look at it is calculate the amount of blowouts, and close games. For the purposes of this exercise we’ll define a blowout as a win by 17+ points, and close games will be any game decided by < 3 points or in overtime. While this method can fall victim to the same fallacies as NHL, NBA and MLB games, there are far less of those elements in an NFL game. And with no series totals, it’s really the only method to determine it. The same can’t be said for NCAAB. You either get to a point where you’re including games that weren’t crazy competitive, or eliminate games that were.
Here are the numbers for the four leagues (All numbers since 2000):
League | Number of Sweeps (%) | Number of Seven Game Series (%)
MLB | 11 (26%) | 11 (26%)
NBA | 26 (12%) | 39 (19%)
NHL | 19 (9%) | 56 (27%)
League | Number of Blowouts (%) | Number of Close Games (%)
NFL | 50 (42%) | 38 (30%)
League | Championship Sweeps | Championship Game 7s
MLB | 4 | 3
NBA | 2 | 3
NHL | 0 | 6
League | Championship Blowouts | Championship Close Games
NFL | 3 | 5
Looking at the numbers above, the two that jump out are the NHL and NFL. Both have a high number of competitive games. But the NHL has had far less non-competitive match-ups; only 9 percent of all series ended in a sweep, and there wasn’t a single sweep in the title game. The NFL, meanwhile, had 42 percent of games end in a blowout. It’s not good if almost half your games aren’t competitive.
But that can’t be the only factor in deciding the best tournament. More importantly, we need a proper metric to rate March Madness. So why don’t we start with something the NCAA Basketball tournament is certain to win: the amount of “Cinderella” champions. To compute this we are going to categorize any tournament champion lower than a 2-seed as a “Cinderella” team. There is one drawback for this category, though. Since the majority of data on the MLB only has four teams from each conference in the postseason, there aren’t really any teams that qualify. Baseball has completely removed that aspect from their postseason. So while they won’t be included in the table, it’s pretty safe to say they finish in last in this category.
League | Percent of Cinderella Champions | Percent of Upsets
NBA | 14% | 16.7%
NHL | 39% | 39%
NFL | 34% | 25%
NCAAB| 26% | 34%
The NBA is just god awful at providing upsets. The first-round features almost no upsets, and only one lower seed has ever made it to the NBA Finals. The 14 percent is from two 3-seeds (the 06-07 Spurs and the 10-11 Mavericks) In fact, even the fifth-seed only has a 25.9 percent chance of winning their series. There’s a greater chance an MLB postseason series ends in a sweep than a first-round NBA series ends in an upset.
The NCAAB actually fairs pretty well in this metric. But both numbers fall short of the NHL numbers. Even more, upsets in the NCAA tournament have negative effects. Even with 16 of the 30 NHL teams making the postseason, all teams prove to be competitive. If you don’t count shootout losses (and there’s no reason you should) there hasn’t been a team below .500 that has made the postseason in over a decade. In addition, from 2000-10 five eight seeds won their first-round series, and two of those teams went on to win their next series as well. In fact, the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings beat the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Finals back in 2012.
In the NCAA, even teams that pull off an upset don’t prove to be great teams. No team lower than an 8-seed has won the tournament, only 26 percent of teams ranked lower than a 2-seed have won the tournament, and 11 percent below a 3-seed. So maybe low seeds manage to pull off an upset or two, but they basically never wind up winning the title. Even look to this season. It was exciting to see Mercer, Dayton and Stanford pull off upsets, but what were we left with? Neither Kansas nor Duke — two top teams with top 3 NBA Draft talent — even made the sweet sixteen. Instead we were forced to suffer through Mercer vs. Tennessee, Stanford vs. Dayton, and Dayton vs. Florida. That’s bad games in the top 32, Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight. When the stakes got higher, the games got worse.
So even in a category March Madness is known to dominate, the NHL postseason has proven to be better. In the end, the NHL has the most competitive match-ups, and the most upsets. It also has the most continuous action *cough*football*cough*, even in the final minutes (I’m looking at you basketball!). Even ESPN anchor John Buccigross agrees:
Using this data it looks like the postseason ranks: 1. NHL 2. NCAAB 3. NFL 4. NBA 5. MLB