New NHL Playoff Format Good for Business

Bk5lkNnIgAAlIv_2 The new NHL playoff format is already paying dividends for the league and its teams. If you are new to the NHL or its playoff system the league underwent a major overhaul in its design during the lockout last season. Here is a look at the before and after of the playoff format: Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 11.21.44 AM It may be difficult to understand through text alone how large of a change this was for the NHL. The most important change is that the bracket’s structure is now predictable beyond the first round. In the old playoff format teams would be reseeded according to their record every round. This created problems for fans, teams, sponsors…everyone. If an 8 seed defeated a 1 seed, while a 2 seed defeated a 7 seed, the 8 seed would then play the 2 seed rather than the winner of the 4/5 seed as most brackets operate. That may be confusing, so imagine this:

March Madness, America’s most popular and sponsored bracket, has teams seeded 1-16. Teams are only rewarded for their season’s final record with a high or low seed. Once they are seeded, their reputation takes them no further. Every game and matchup is decided solely by who wins or loses. For instance the winner of the 1/16 faces the winner of the 8/9. Upsets don’t determine their path through the bracket. It has already been determined by the bracket’s structure.  This scenario was never possible with former NHL playoffs. Re-seeding moved matchups. The 1 seed (after winning) could face the 7 seed (after upsetting the 2 seed) from the other side of the bracket, or they could face the 6 seed (should the 2 seed defeat 7, but 6 upsets 3)…

Baseball isn’t America’s past time, filling out a March Madness bracket is. Offices have betting pools, families create new turmoil and college roommates keep in touch by filling out brackets. This widespread activity, bringing people together, all while enhancing the sport’s brand, was never possible with NHL playoffs. Though it may be possible to determine upsets, and then predict possible matchups, the fun is lost immediately once a single series is picked incorrectly due to the fact that it creates a completely different round 2, which ensures an incorrect round 3, etc.

The new playoff format is static. That also means it’s accessible to everyone. And is the first time the NHL has been able to host a “Bracket Challenge” in modern day hockey. The success of the bracket can already be seen:

  • The official Bracket Challenge is sponsored by Cam-Am
  • All 16 playoff teams can host their own Bracket Challenge (all 30 for that matter)
  • The Boston Bruins public league has over 16,000 registered brackets, and Blackhawks over 10,000.

The sponsorship with Cam-Am is a display of corporate sponsorship for the NHL playoffs, and will be welcomed revenue. The Bracket Challenge also gives fans something to care about. Should their team be eliminated, or missed playoffs altogether, they have a reason to keep following playoff games. The Bracket Challenge creates communities, and those communities have created a successful product for the NHL to sell.

The business advantages don’t stop with this year’s playoffs. The new format forces division rivals to slug it out before even reaching Conference Finals. This not only creates interesting, marketable playoff matchups, but it cements those rivalries for the years to come. This is especially helpful in the Eastern Conference where it recently welcomed the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets from the Western Conference. Any sort of playoff series (4 games or 7, bloody, high-scoring) should create new rivals and better matchups for next season.

Imagine this scenario: Any sort of combination between Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, Blue Jackets (and the rest of the Metropolitan Division) spend 82 games fighting for a playoff spot, and then must conquer one another before reaching Conference Finals, for three consecutive years. Should the Flyers and Rangers spend the next couple of seasons matched up in the first round of playoffs, or even round 2, it could only create a lasting, strengthened rivalry over hurt feelings from playoff exits. This helps ticket sales, marketing and creates new (and stronger) fans. And this isn’t limited to a single team, division, but the entire league.

Playoffs won’t start until later this evening. The league, its teams and their fans will all be watching in anticipation tonight. And when the puck drops we will all be ready, brackets in hand.

FURTHER READING: The complete history of the NHL playoff structure can be found here.

WORTH NOTING: The NHL PR announced a total of 21,758,902 fans filled NHL venues to 96% of capacity in 2013-14.


Speaking of rivalries forming and new marketing opportunities, the Penguins published this tweet before tonights game…


And this from the Blue Jackets…