Every December, the NFL gives out gifts to playoff teams, gifts that would make teams in any other pro sport green with envy. The first gift – a first round bye given to four teams– is the NFL’s version of Monopoly: “Win one home playoff game and go directly to the Championship Game.” The second gift, given to two of the playoff teams, is a guarantee that every playoff game they play until the Super Bowl will be played on their home field. By granting these advantages, the NFL is setting up a playoff street fight where the lower seeds start with an arm tied behind their backs. This creates an uneven playoff field, but it also is good business.
In the NFL, a first round bye immediately puts an NFL team within just one game of the NFL or AFC Championship Game. A team with both a first round bye and home field advantage enters the playoffs needing to just win two home games to get to the Super Bowl. An NFL team without a first round bye has to win three playoff games to get to the Super Bowl. With a first round bye, the higher-rated team has to play only 75% of the football that other teams must play to win the Super Bowl. In terms of other sports, it is the equivalent of letting an NBA playoff team skip an entire first round series!
Another advantage of a first round bye is that it allows the top seeded teams to rest for 25% of the entire playoffs. They have an extra week to game plan and practice for their next opponent—which they know must be one of two teams. They also get important time to recover from any nagging injuries that have built up over the season. And while they enjoy their R & R, the other teams have to slug it out in perhaps arctic conditions.
When the road to the Super Bowl involves skipping an entire round of the playoffs, and then playing 100% of the playoff games on your home field, this is a reward for regular season success that is exponentially higher than what other major pro sports offer.
Baseball, for example, made a big effort to give an advantage to regular season success by making the wildcard teams play a single elimination round. But that does not even begin to approach the effect of a first round bye in football. In MLB, a majority of the teams get to bypass one wild card game, thereby missing five percent of possible playoff games. In the NFL, however, a few playoff teams get to bypass 25% of the playoffs. Meanwhile in the NBA, they vacillate on an advantage that only comes into play in the event of a seven game series: the home road distribution 2-3-2 format vs. the 2-2-1-1-1, which is about as interesting as it sounds. While this format does play a critical role in a seven game series, seven game series are rare; and it’s nothing compared to the advantage in football where 100% of the series is played at home.
So whatever the NFL calls this– a first round bye, or owning “the road to the Super Bowl”– it’s the biggest advantage given by any major sport for regular season success.
So why is the NFL providing this gigantic playoff advantage for teams with good regular season records?
By doing this, the NFL adds importance to regular season games as seems battle for the playoff seeds often until the final week of the season. The NFL is wildly successful in making their regular season more dramatic than other sports. Can you name when and even if other sports have regular season games broadcast on major national network television these days? The NFL has three regular season games per week televised on the three major networks, and that’s not even counting the popular Monday Night Football Franchise that is now on cable. The 17 weeks of the NFL regular season are becoming like national holidays for football fans, in stark contrast to many of the late-season basketball and baseball games that have very little playoff significance, and thus little interest to casual fans.
And track the money! The NFL regular season is becoming such a cash cow that the NFL has created the “NFL Network” and started with Thursday Night Football–which someday could push out the middlemen of network and cable TV and they could sell their product directly to the public. There is certainly more to the NFL popularity than the playoff format, but it does show how the NFL is not afraid to give out a hefty advantage as it builds its business. In this case, the NFL playoff format also gives regular season stars and “faces of the NFL”–such as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning—a better chance to play late into the playoffs and in the Super Bowl. Keeping the teams of these media darlings alive through the end of the season heightens the excitement, which translates into ad revenues.
And, ironically, creating an uneven playoff field by granting gifts of the first round bye and home team advantage to the best teams actually brings more fairness to the game. Football’s single “one and done” format favors the lesser team, since a few lucky early turnovers and mistakes can allow the underdog to win, whereas in a seven game series there is more opportunity for the better team to establish itself.
Whatever the NFL is doing, it sure is working. The NFL has become incredibly successful. It’s not just the top seeded team who are relaxing and celebrating during the first week of the playoffs—the NFL executives and owners are relaxing luxuriously and celebrating their take during this holiday season.