The WNBA announced a new playoff format today that will increase the number of potential games in the tournament and completely get rid of single-elimination games. It will remain an eight-team playoff, with teams seeded based on overall standings over a 36-game regular season, but the first- and second-ranked teams will no longer receive an automatic double-bye into the semifinals. The third- and fourth-ranked teams also used to receive single-round byes, but the bye system has been altogether eliminated in favor of a classic first vs eighth, second vs seventh, and so on bracket style.
The new format consists of three rounds and has entirely erased single-elimination games from the playoffs, which formerly characterized the first two rounds of the four-round playoff format. This year’s playoff saw the sixth-seeded Chicago Sky face the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury in the playoffs — and since both of those teams were in the lower half of the playoff rankings, each had to make it through two single-elimination games and a best-of-five semifinal to make it to the best-of-five WNBA Finals. The first round games going forward will take place in a 2-1 location split format, with the higher seed hosting the first two games of each series.
This upcoming playoff should even out the field a bit more, as it takes on a structure reflective of other major tournaments, including the NBA, which made some of its own adjustments last year. Beginning in 2022, the eight-team first round will be best-of-3, with the semifinals and finals both remaining best-of-five. Though there is an Eastern and Western Conference divide in the WNBA, the seeds are not decided by conference, but by the overall record of the twelve teams in the league. The 36-game regular season (as opposed to the former 34-game format) was supposed to go into effect during the 2021 season, but the league was limited by COVID regulations.
This reconfiguration will increase the maximum number of WNBA tournament games from 19 to 27, and will increase the minimum from 13 to 17. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement that the league had been considering several different playoff formats throughout the past year. Between 2005 and 2015, the WNBA was playing an eight-team 3-3-5 tournament, but with conference divisions rather than overall seeding.
“The new playoff format being announced today will enable fans to engage with all of the league’s best teams and top stars right from the start of the postseason with all eight championship contenders immediately involved in exciting, first-round action,” Engelbert said.