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Tuesday, 27 March 2018

#FormatFrustrations

#BetweenTheSheets: Format Frustrations Continue
The debate on which playoff format is better for curling rages on *sigh*....


The World Women's Curling Championships wrapped up for another year this past weekend in North Bay, Ontario.  Fans were treated to some outstanding curling throughout the week.  We had some tight battles.  We had some #StealPants victories.  We had some lopsided scorelines.  Pretty consistent with most year's championships I would say.  Outside of course of the special mention to the fans setting a new women's world championship attendance record in Canada! 

The World Curling Federation also unveiled their new format for the world championships.  A new 13-team round robin played out with the Top 6 teams advancing to the playoff round, no tiebreakers allowed.  This is not new news as this format shift was announced months in advance and everyone "should" have been well aware of the new format.  Apparently, similar to the Brier/Scotties, once again we discover the old fact of life we all know and love: you can't please everyone!

#ButFirst.....

Congratulations to Canada's Jennifer Jones on claiming her second world championship and leading Canada to #defendtheice with back-to-back world titles.  Not only did Team Jones keep the title in Canada but they replicated the historic feat accomplished by Team Homan one year ago by going undefeated in the process.  Prior to last year no team had gone undefeated in claiming the world championship....and now Canada has done it twice!  In back-to-back years!  And Canada's Brad Gushue went undefeated in winning the World Men's Curling Championship last season.  As TSN's Vic Rauter would say, "Add 'em up" with 13 (2017 women's worlds) + 13 (2017 men's worlds) + 14 (2018 women's worlds) = 40 consecutive wins for Canada over the past two seasons at the world championships.  To make the streak even more impressive, add in the victories from Kevin Koe's world championship run in 2016 where he won his final 4 games and the running total is now 44.  The last loss for Team Canada was when Koe lost to Sweden's Niklas Edin on April 6, 2016!  If Gushue can run the table through to the playoffs when the 2018 World Men's Curling Championships kick off this upcoming weekend in Las Vegas, the Team Canada win streak will officially hit 2 years!  No Olympic medals?  No problem apparently at the world championships!

Props also go out to Sweden's Anna Hasselborg.  Team Hasselborg won Olympic gold in PyeongChang only a few weeks prior to arriving in North Bay to compete for a world title.....and they reached the final!  The #SwedishVikings were trying to become only the second team in history to win an Olympic and World Championship in the same season, a feat held by countrywoman Anette Norberg and her team back in 2006.  No team has curled more than Team Hasselborg and to continue the high level of curling, not even taking into account jetlag and the possible Olympic hangover most athletes say happen post-Olympics, is quite remarkable.  Plus their season isn't over.  They have the final two grand slam events, The Players Championship and Champions Cup, to compete in.  This is a great team who, throughout the championship final and really all week, were seen smiling and laughing and looked to be truly enjoying their time on the ice.  Plus they are great ambassadors for the sport off the ice.

Quick, name the only country to have landed on the world women's podium the past 5 years?  Time is up.  If you said Canada, wrong!  Switzerland?  Wrong again!  Sweden?  Nope, three strikes and you are out.  If you said Russia, congratulations (you must have also been watching the bronze medal game because TSN announcers mentioned it a few times).  Russia's Victoria Moiseeva continued the medal haul streak for Russia when her team picked up the bronze medal victory over USA's Jamie Sinclair.  Ok sure 4 of those 5 medals are bronze with the standout being the silver medal win from Anna Sidorova last year but still.  5 straight years on the podium is quite remarkable.  Of course the longest podium streak for a nation is 16 by Canada from 1983 to 1998.  But remember there were no bronze medal games from 1989 to 1994, at which Canada secured 2 bronze medals.  But times are different in 2018 compared to 1988.  The competition level has increased around the world.  The game itself has changed dramatically.  The fact is Russia is proving to be a consistent world contender.  Plus, similar to Team Hasselborg, Team Moiseeva also competed in PyeongChang prior to arriving in North Bay.  Sure they didn't win a medal and had a slightly disappointing Olympic run but they played outstanding this past week and are very deserving of their bronze medal in their world championship debut.

Ok now lets get into the debate: #FormatFrustrations!  It was quite interesting to read social media comments throughout the week as we approached the playoffs and see how many people were either for, against or undecided on the new playoff format.  At times the format seemed to take centre ice more than the actual competition, which was a bit disappointing to see.  Where was all this debate when the WCF made the announcement months ago?  I am all for having respectful (key word being respectful here) conversations about changes to the sport but in the middle of the event lets focus on the athletes actually competing and save the debates for after (as the #TwineTime blog is doing now!).

Now I could sit here and simply rehash the current format and either support it or trash it but many people have already done that on social media so why bother?  Instead how about we consider a few different formats and weigh the pro's and con's of each.  Lets slide a few ideas down the ice and see which, if any, make the perfect draw to the button for people.

1. WCF Playoff

Format: Top 6 qualify with Top 2 during RR earning bye to SF. Two qualification games (otherwise known as QF games) with 3 vs 6 and 4 vs 5.  Top seed plays lowest remaining seed in the SF.

Amount of Games Needed: 6

Pro: More teams have a chance at the playoffs.  With the expansion of 13 teams in the field, having only the Top 4 make the playoffs doesn't seen fair now.  Plus, the playoff picture could be decided early in the RR making the final few days of action relatively meaningless for most teams and for fans attending.  With many international teams receiving funding based solely on results at this event, the chance to say you reached the playoffs at the world championships sure sounds better from a marketing and strategic business plan perspective than saying I finished in 6th place.  In Canada we are not fighting for funding as much as our fellow curling nations around the world so perhaps we don't see the big financial picture as being as much of an issue but the reality is it is a huge issue for many of the teams competing.  Plus for a #growthesport perspective, seeing more teams have a shot at the playoffs increases the opportunity for some #TeamUpset results, which can be exciting.

Con: Nobody wants a 6-6 team winning the world championship!  At least this seemed to be the big argument when USA reached the playoffs and then upset Korea in the qualification game.  The fact we had a SF contested between a 12-0 vs 6-6 was concerning for many.  Had USA won the SF, maybe they would have pulled a "Shuster" and won the world title with a mediocre 6-6 RR record.  The bigger con here though, I believe, is the no TB rule.  China finished tied with USA and Czech Republic with a 6-6 record and, based on head to head results, was automatically eliminated.  If the H2H would have been a tie the last stone draw numbers would have decided who advances and who is eliminated.  Nobody wants to see a team eliminated based on LSD numbers!

Final Thought: I have no issue with more teams advancing to the playoffs.  The argument of seeing a 6-6 upset an undefeated top seed makes sense but who cares?  This is sport people.  The top seed does not always win.  Ok sure it did this week but it will not always be the case.  They earned a bye to the SF, rock choice and hammer...what more of an advantage do you want the top seed to have?  My other issue here is, had Canada faltered and finished 3rd in the RR, would this have been as big of an issue or did we see more of an ethnocentric argument being made here?  This is a first world problem argument.  Look at the NCAA #MarchMadness tournament.  Opening weekend the overall #1 team in the nation, Virginia, lost to a #16 seed, UMBC.  This is the first ever loss for a #1 vs. a #16 in men's basketball tournament history.  Upsets happen!  It is what makes sports fun.  I know the argument out there was a 12-0 team should have more of a "carrot" but come on now.  The top team already is handed a few advantages and is playing a SF game.  Look, if you can't win the SF you don't deserve to be in the final regardless. 

2. Page Playoff

Format: Top 4 qualify with 1 vs 2 and 3 vs 4 opening round.  1 vs 2 winner advances to F while loser advances to play 3 vs 4 winner in SF.  Loser of SF wins bronze.

Amount of Games Needed: 4

Pro: The tried and true format we have all become used to at major curling championships.  The format actually works quite well.  We have the double advantage for the top two seeds entering the playoff round.  The other two qualifiers have to take the long road, similar to a #CSideGrind mentality we see on tour.  Plus this format cuts down the amount of playoff games to only 4 games, allowing space in the draw for TB games if needed!

Con: The sport is growing around the world and, as a result, the field is growing at international championships.  The idea of a Top 4 playoff picture just doesn't cut it anymore if the field is going to be 13 or more in the future.  Parity is becoming a fact of life as well where nations in the past perceived as "bingo space" W's for top contending teams are now competing with the best.  As the #wct grows around the world so does the competition.  Sure 6-6 or 7-5 records may not feel championship worthy in some people eyes but if the competition stands for it why not?  We see 8-8 teams reach the NFL playoffs, some even win a division title.  Parity does not equal poor competition or lack of skill.

Final Thought:  I like the Page Playoff system.  I feel I was raised with this system watching curling when I was younger and am used to it.  But all good things must come to an end as well.  Change is inevitable.  Should the format revert back to 12 teams or 10 teams, sure bring back the Page system.  But if the sport is to continue to grow and we have 13 or 14 or 16 teams competing at the world championships in the future the Page system simply does not cut it from a competitive standpoint.

3. Olympic Format

Format: Top 4 qualify with 1 vs 4 and 2 vs 3 in the SF.  Winners advance to play for gold, losers play for bronze.

Amount of Games Needed: 4

Pro: Simple.  Straight to the point.  Win and in.  Playoffs in all other sports basically come down to qualify for the playoffs and then never lose again or you will not take home the championship.  The Olympic format is simple and easy to understand.  Plus it does allow for TB games if needed.

Con: Nobody wants to see a top seed, especially an undefeated top seed, lose one playoff game and have their hopes of gold be gone just like that.  Everyone has a bad game.  And some teams can play light's out at times.  We see it at the Olympics all the time.  Team Shuster this year.  Scotland's Rhona Martin in 2002 where I believe she finished in 6th place but won TB games just to make the playoffs and then went on to win gold.  What we love about curling is teams are rewarded for a strong RR and this format eliminates a strong RR record.  Just make the playoffs!

Final Thought: The elimination of an advantage for the top one or two seeds is a huge con for this format.  I like the idea of a reward for a strong and consistent RR record.  Sure I am all about the #TeamUpset idea but an upset can still happen in other formats too.  For the Olympics I actually am not completely against the format.  For some reason I feel on the grandest sports stage of all the extra pressure of a true sport playoff where win and in mentality is used works for me.  At a curling-specific world championship, not so much.  Plus the schedule for the Olympics is very demanding and quite tight once you also factor in TV/media time.  I am not 100% supportive of the format but less against it at the Olympics than I would be at a world championship.

4. The Stepladder

Format: Top 8 qualify and win and in progression.  Qualifying games start with 5 vs 8 and 6 vs 7 with winners playing 3 and 4 and so on up the ladder.  Top seeds earn spots in the semifinal automatically.

Amount of Games Needed: 8

Pro: Again, a win and in mentality here where you come into a playoff knowing if you win you stay alive and if you lose you go home.  The top seeds earn advantages along the way as well with byes associated to their final standing.  Finish in first or second and you know you are playing for a medal regardless, an ultimate reward for a strong RR.  The excitement factor could come into play as well watching a 6 or 7 seed team run the gauntlet towards a championship.  This format is often used in NCAA basketball conference championship tournaments as per the example picture (pic is just the top half of the overall 16 team bracket btw).

Con: I actually think this format is a disadvantage for the top RR teams because they don't get to play and have to sit back and wait to see results.  A 5 vs 8 winner would have played, and won, 2 games just to reach the podium while the #2 seed would have been off the ice waiting for the results.  We see this often at #wct events where A-side winners will have a day off of competition and then a C-side winner will knock them off in the QF because they have been playing more games, becoming more comfortable with the ice and have been in the playoff mindset longer.

Final Thought:  I think this format adds a different element of excitement to a competition.  I actually wouldn't mind seeing this format come into play at a few #wct events throughout the season just to give it a shot.  Heck even at a grand slam event, looking at you Elite 10 since you are already a bit of a gimmick event anyway and carry less teams competing.  But I think the disadvantages overall outweigh the advantages here.

5. Top 5

Format: Top 5 qualify for the playoffs.  Top seed earns a bye to the SF.  2 vs 3 in a qualification game with winner advancing to face top seed in the double-chance SF.  The winner of this game advances to the final while the loser advances to the preliminary final.  4 vs 5 in an elimination game with winner advancing to face loser of 2 vs 3 in an elimination SF.  The winner of the elimination SF advances to the preliminary final game.  Winner of preliminary final advances to final and loser wins bronze. 

Amount of Games Needed: 6

Pro: Want a reward for a strong RR?  This format may just be the best option out there.  Not only does your top seed earn a bye to the SF but they have the double-chance SF option.  They could lose their opening SF playoff game and still reach the championship final.  PLUS the second and third place teams from the RR earn a little extra reward as well in playing a qualification game where the result would not eliminate either team from championship contention but rather help define the path they are on towards gold.  The final two playoff teams will have to face the #CSideGrind mentality to reach the championship, playing elimination games the entire way, but it fits with the playoff position.  At least they still have a chance to play for gold right?

Con: I have a tough time finding con arguments with this system.  The amount of games needed fits with the current 13-team RR schedule.  I suppose the only con here would be again no TB would be allowed due to the schedule.  Although perhaps you could work out a system where you max TB allowance to only one game and the TB game would be played at the same time as the 2 vs 3 qualification game?

Final Thought: Yes yes yes!!  I am a huge fan of this system.  We do not see this playoff system very often in sports, especially in the western hemisphere.  This system is often only used in a few rugby leagues, mostly in Australia (as per the picture example).  Although it has been adopted for the current European Super League and is starting to gain traction with other sports.  With this still being a relatively unknown playoff format, WCF could strike a gold mine here in bringing this format into the curling circle and trying something completely new.

6. Top 6 Hybrid

Format: Top 6 qualify with open qualification games between 3 vs 6 and 4 vs 5.  The qualification game winners advance to play one another in a Page Playoff System format with 1 vs 2 in the other playoff game.

Amount of Games Needed: 6

Pro: This is basically a hybrid system of the current WCF Top 6 system and the Page Playoff system.  You still have the advantage for finishing in first or second place in the RR.  You still get 6 teams reach the playoffs and the schedule remains in tact.  The change here is the qualification game winners would play one another rather than be drawn against the top two seeds. 

Con: Honestly, once again, I cannot really see many cons here.  The big argument with the current Top 6 format is no big advantage for the top two seeds and this hybrid option eliminates that argument by reverting to the page system for the four playoff teams.  Again, no TB would be allowed here though so that is the one con.

Final Thought: The current system really is a hybrid between Top 6 and Olympic playoffs.  This would bring together the Top 6 mentality, which is needed with a 13-team (or more) competition field while also keeping the tradition of the page playoff system which fans and athletes seem to enjoy.  This may be the easiest transition fix for the #FormatFrustration argument.  Whether it is the most exciting, debatable?!

7. Double Elimination

Format: Top 4 qualify with 1 vs 4 and 2 vs 3 opening round qualification games.  Winners advance to the SF with SF winner advancing to the final.  Opening round qualification game losers advance to play one another in an elimination game.  Winner of the elimination game advances to play the SF loser with the winner of this game advancing to the championship final and loser receiving bronze.

Amount of Games Needed: 7

Pro: The double elimination system gives all teams an equal shot at staying alive and eliminates the "one bad game" argument.  The top two seeds would still receive advantages in the opening qualification games of rock selection and hammer.  The highest seed in each game thereafter would also receive the same advantage.

Con: Only 4 playoff teams and no TB opportunities due to scheduling are huge cons against this format.  The other con in a double elimination is the need for a two game championship final.  While this may be considered a pro for the team who comes through the "A Bracket" it can be a scheduling nightmare trying to add in the one extra game.   

Final Thought: This isn't a horrible format.  In fact this is the format I would like to see at the Olympics moving forward.  We see this format in the NCAA baseball and softball world series as well as the Little League World Series (picture example) and it works well.  The cons are too strong though given the growth of the sport on a world championship level.  Although if you made the rule the championship finale was a simple one game winner take all, regardless of who wins and how they got there, perhaps it is doable.  However, the IOC certainly should look at this option for curling in the future.  Hmmmm, Calgary 2026 would be perfect actually!!

8. Elite Eight

Format: Top 8 qualify in a simple single elimination tournament with QF games of 1 vs 8, 2 vs 7, 3 vs 6 and 4 vs 5.

Amount of Games Needed: 8

Pro: Simple. Easy. Win and in. The higher seeded team earns rocks and hammer for each round.  Teams could be reseeded for the SF round or a simple bracket with 1 vs 8 W vs 4 vs 5 W and 2 vs 7 W vs 3 vs 6 W for the SF round.  This is the true definition of sports playoffs folks.  Plus more teams in the playoffs does support the #growthesport mentality and would mean the full run of the RR draw would always have meaningful games on the ice as teams either are competing for a playoff spot still in the final RR draw or jockeying for playoff position and possibility of hammer in their QF game and beyond.

Con:  Too many games.  Really this is the major disadvantage of this format.  Trying to squeeze in all these games for the schedule, which may be doable, but also for the players.  It could become even more tiring than the current championship is.  A con could be the one and done format idea here as well, depending where you side on that argument.  I don't buy into that argument as being a deterrent but I can understand others feeling that way.

Final Thought: I don't mind the straight up elimination bracket style.  I like the idea of more nations being in the playoffs.  But I also don't like curling just doing what most other sports do with a simple elimination bracket.  Curling can get a bit more creative and I think a few of the other options listed above would be more exciting.  However, if the world championships were to expand to 14 or 16 teams entered I would be in favour of this simple Elite Eight single elimination bracket style.

There you have it folks.  Eight different ideas on playoff formats curling could possible employ in the future.  What do you think?  Do you have a favourite format listed above?  Is there a format listed you absolutely dislike?  Maybe there are pro and con arguments to the above formats not mentioned?  Either way, share your thoughts and opinions with me and the #curling world through the comment section below and/or hit me up on twitter. 

Also, #VOTEToday on which format you would like to see at the world championships in the future.  Head over to the #TwineTime Home Page and vote for your favourite option.  Props to those who voted in the last poll predicting Canada's Team Jones would emerge from North Bay as World Champions.  59% of you in fact supported the Maple Leaf.  33% threw their support behind eventual silver medal winners Sweden's Team Hasselborg.  3% of you selected Korea's Team Kim and another 3% went with the #TeamUpset choice.

#StayTuned folks as #TwineTime will also have your World Men's Curling Championship preview blog post slide from my house to yours later this week.  Can Team Canada repeat?  Can Sweden rebound from the disappointing Olympic final loss?  Could we see a #TeamUpset emerge?

On a final note, debates aside, I think #TwineTime fam member Nolan Thiessen said it best this weekend during all the chatter on social media in regards to #FormatFrustrations: "Here's the thing folks.  With all current formats, we have to take into account all stakeholders.  I'm an athlete and do understand there are better formats.  But we have to weigh everything and compromise if we want the sport to have fans, broadcasters, sponsors, full buildings ect."  Thiessen hits the nail on the head with his comment and supports something this blog has been saying for quite some time now.  The sport of curling and the future growth of the sport is a responsibility for ALL stakeholders.  Athletes cannot have the only say.  Nor should governing bodies or sponsors or fans.  ALL of us need to come together to discuss the future of the sport.  Curling is unique in still having the grassroots amateur sport label where all stakeholders can still come to the table and have open, honest discussions about the sport.  This has been lost in professional sports like football, hockey and baseball.  When making an argument, for or against, sure it is great to have your personal opinion but also remember decisions made have a greater impact than just you sitting on your couch or in your seat or sponsoring the #patch or competing on the ice. 

We are all in this together with a common goal: the love and passion for the sport of curling!  Rather than tear one another down for differing opinions lets support an opportunity curling has to have all stakeholder voices at the table and embrace the uniqueness of this great sport!