WFTDA Creates New Playoff Format for 2013

Gone are the four regions, in are three divisions and a new ranking system. Plus, a look at last year's playoffs under this year's format.

One of the persistent issues facing the WFTDA over the years has been that of competitive balance. Teams want to play teams that are nearer to them in skills and abilities; fans want to see games that are competitive and entertaining, especially in the postseason. The WFTDA wants these things too, and have taken a step to try and get that to happen.

The WFTDA has announced there will be a new playoff structure in place for 2013. Next year, the teams that qualify for the WFTDA Championships playoff tournaments will no longer be the top ten from each of the four current regions. Instead, all 159 members leagues will be lumped into one group, with the top 40 teams based on performance and ranking invited to play for the Hydra.

The geographical regional playoffs will be no more, to be replaced with four of what the WFTDA is now calling the Division I Playoffs, “Division I” being the new name for the top 40 WFTDA teams. Everyone else ranked 41 and below at the time the championship invites are sent will be considered “Division II.” The WFTDA says there will new tournaments added so another 20 teams in D-II will get more competitive action.

Fans and skaters have been wanting the WFTDA to put teams into competitive divisions for a while, and at first glance that’s what the organization has finally decided to do. But look past the “division” moniker and you’ll notice that the WFTDA has just made sure the true top (inter)nationally ranked teams are guaranteed a shot at playoff glory.

Teams will not be segregated by performance any more than they already have been, as being “in the playoffs” (Div.I) versus “not in the playoffs” (Div.II). However, now comparatively weaker teams in the bottom ten of a region, like the South Central, will not get into the playoffs over stronger teams at the bottom ten of stronger region, like the West.

Since the new playoff format will seed teams without regard to where they are located on a map, it will provide a level of competitive consistency across the playoff season. The inevitable blowouts will likely be limited to the first day of each tournament. As seed numbers get closer together, the probability increases that there will be more competitive games.

Strictly from a competion standpoint, this is a very good move by the WFTDA. This format means all four tournaments are sure to have good matchups, the games will get better as the tournaments progress, and the 12 teams that advance to Championships will definitely be the best 12 roller teams in the country (or the world, as it is) based solely on their performance. This is critical if the WFTDA hopes to grow its platform, making it easier to sell pay-per-view passes to the common fan if they know they won’t see too many bad games.

It’s also great news for the Hydra-have-nots, as more WFTDA-sanctioned tournaments will be added for the teams that just missed out on the Big Dance. This may be a consolation for the handful of teams that would otherwise be squeezed out of the top 40 due to the killing-off of the regional-based invite system, but I think it’s great that the WFTDA is making sure there’s going to be another event where the small guys can have their chance to shine—and to win.

But in thinking about it, there are a few initial concerns that I would hope the WFTDA has taken into consideration.

Immediately, the question must be raised on how the top 40 teams will be determined in the first place. When regions were voting for their own regional rankings, it wasn’t too much to ask of a league to vote for, at most, 40 leagues nearby them. Surely, the WFTDA isn’t going to expect its population to rank all 159 leagues from top to bottom. Perhaps a system similar to (human) college football rankings will be implemented, where teams assign ranked votes to the teams they think are in the top 40 i.e., 40pts for 1st, 39pts for 2nd, 19pts for 22nd, etc. Total points would then determine rank.

Assuming a viable ranking system is put into place, the next question becomes how leagues are going to afford potentially sending their travel teams to a tournament venue that is very far away from their region. Since geography is no longer part of the criteria for who goes to a specific playoff site, you could get situations where a team like Rose City needs to go to Florida for their playoff opener, or London to a Los Angeles playoff site.

S-curve seeding snakes down columns of seeds (numbers) to find the teams that go in each (part of the) bracket. Now you know!

If the WFTDA is going to go with a rigid S-curve draw, you could have a lot of teams travelling a lot of taxing miles due to how the seeds fall and where the tournament sites fall. On top of that, a team won’t know exactly where they are playing until the final rankings (or the brackets) are released, not giving them a lot of time to plan for the logistics of flying and lodging 20 roller girls to a faraway city.

Finally, there’s the matter of fan support and crowd atmosphere. If a team has to travel a long way, will their cheering sections also make the trip? Since events are more likely to have teams coming in from all around the country (or world), it will by default create a more neutral crowd. Also, a lot of derbyfolk like cheering for their region if they can’t cheer for their team. But when there’s the very real possibility that a tournament located in the south may only have one or two teams based in the south participating, that could lead to issues with marketing and/or event ticket sales, or worse, a mostly disinterested patronage.

So there are a lot of unanswered questions from this announcement. Potential pitfalls, too. However, since I’m a guy that only wants to see good roller derby happen on the track, I’m positive on this news. I like the fact that each site will have a mostly equal distribution of top-, middle-, and bottom-ranked teams. I love the fact that there will be an opportunity non-playoff teams to have a shot of taking home a WFTDA trophy of some kind.

The WFTDA will be releasing further details on their new playoff structure following next month’s 2012 WFTDA Championships, so we’ll see if there are already contingencies in place to guard against some potentially big issues with the new format. While no one can know how this, along with the forthcoming rules update, will shake things up for 2013, there is something we can do to get some insight into what we could expect come next September.

We already know who, roughly, the 25 best teams in the WFTDA were before the playoffs, thanks to the DNN Power Rankings. Just for experimental purposes, we can fill out the remaining 15 teams with an in-no-way-100%-accurate ranking of the remaining teams got in to their regionals.1With this quick estimation, we can ask:

Which teams would have likely reached the WFTDA Championships if the new playoff format were applied this year? How competitive would the weekends wind up being? What would each of the four regional brackets have looked like? How much travel would teams have to do in total?

Before we can answer those questions, first things first: The 2012 Pre-Playoffs Forty are…

 1. Gotham              21. Atlanta
 2. Oly                 22. Carolina
 3. Denver              23. Tampa Bay
 4. Rose City           24. Ohio
 5. Bay Area            25. Houston
 6. Rat City            26. Sacred City
 7. Windy City          27. Angel City
 8. Philly              28. Brewcity
 9. Rocky Mountain      29. No Coast
10. Minnesota           30. Cincinatti
11. Texas               31. Nashville
12. Charm               32. Wasatch
13. Montreal            33. Madison
14. London              34. Dutchland
15. Steel City          35. Omaha
16. Arch Rival          36. Arizona
17. Naptown             37. D.C.
18. Detroit             38. Chicago Outfit
19. Kansas City         39. Tallahassee
20. Boston              40. Jacksonville

Seeding for each of the four playoff tournaments will drawn on an S-curve, ensuring equal distribution of power throughout the brackets. If you want to see what an S-curve seed system looks like on paper (and why it’s called that) see the above image. But if you want to see what this year’s playoffs might have looked like under the new format, check this out:

Bracket A

Sample Bracket A
  1. Gotham (1)
  2. Philly (8)
  3. Rocky Mountain (9)
  4. Arch Rival (16)
  5. Naptown (17)
  6. Ohio (24)
  7. Houston (25)
  8. Wasatch (32)
  9. Madison (33)
  10. Jacksonville (40)

Surprisingly, Gotham and Philly wind up in the same bracket, as do regional foes Arch Rival and Naptown, and Houston and Jacksonville. Unsurprisingly, Gotham finds themselves with an easy path to Championships again, albeit against somewhat stiffer competition in their second game. That’s already a positive mark on the new seeding format.

If this were an actual bracket for next year’s champs, Gotham would be the only shoo-in to advance. Philly would be pretty safe as well, since they comfortably beat Rocky Mountain at Rollercon earlier this year. With how hot Ohio was this season, you couldn’t count them out in their opener, but I would think Rocky Mountain would ultimately come out ahead there and in the third place game against whomever they face, owing to previous results against the North Central this year.

Bracket B

Sample Bracket B
  1. Oly (2)
  2. Windy City (7)
  3. Minnesota  (10)
  4. Steel City (15)
  5. Detroit (18)
  6. Tampa Bay (23)
  7. Sacred City (26)
  8. Nashville (31)
  9. Dutchland (34)
  10. Tallahassee (39)

Another easy path for the top bracket seed, which is good for Oly considering every path what will be the former west regional playoff was a tough one. Speaking of that, it’s as if the Roller Derby Gods want there to be Fuck-You-Get-Past-Me roller derby, as Windy City and Minnesota again see each other in this simulated bracket, this time in a champs golden ticket semifinal game.

This distribution of teams highlights a big problem with this seeding format: Oly/Sacred City and Tampa Bay/Tallahassee are about as far apart as you can get in the United States. Unless this theoretical tournament is held in the middle of the country—in fact, unless all four are held in the middle of the country—there are going to be a good majority of teams that will need to hoof it a thousand miles or more, at least, just to get to their divisional tournament. That’s bad news for some of the smaller leagues that might have a harder time affording such a journey.

The good news here is that were this bracket to unfold on the track, there’s little doubt that Oly, Windy City, and Minnesota would emerge as the three winners. And damn it all, doesn’t that sound absolutely perfect?

Bracket C

Sample Bracket C
  1. Denver (3)
  2. Rat City (6)
  3. Texas (11)
  4. London (14)
  5. Kansas City (19)
  6. Carolina (22)
  7. Angel City (27)
  8. Cincinnati (30)
  9. Omaha (35)
  10. Chicago Outfit (38)

Ah, now what we have here is your classic “Group of Death.” There are four teams that have what it takes to be at Championships, but only three of them will get there no matter what. The prospects of Denver, London, Texas, and Rat City playing in what would effectively be four do-or-die games—considering how stacked Champs would be under this format, the bye for winning will suddenly become more important, never mind the third-place game.

The prospect of a wild set of divisional semifinals and finals is music to my ears. But the travel problems in Bracket B turns into a nightmare in Bracket C. If you hold this tourney in the east to accommodate London, you’re making Denver, Rat City, and Angel City travel a cumulative 15,000 miles round-trip, with possibly two of them with nothing to show for it. If put it in the west to center it around the top seeds/majority, you’re asking London to push 11,000 miles and go through up to eight time zones to enter in a tournament. That’s a lot of bake sale money, money that might be better used for other means.

This means depending on where this tournament is being held, London could be put at a severe disadvantage. (A 6 p.m. game in Pacific time would be closer to 2 a.m. London time. Yikes!)  Also, considering Kansas City’s lackluster showing at South Central regionals this year, I’d be hard-pressed to see them getting by two of the above-mentioned four teams, something they would have to do if they wanted to advance. Factoring that in, I’d have to give the medals here to Denver, Rat City, and Texas.

Bracket D

Sample Bracket D
  1. Rose City (4)
  2. Bay Area (5)
  3. Charm City (12)
  4. Montreal (13)
  5. Boston (20)
  6. Atlanta (21)
  7. Brewcity (28)
  8. No Coast (29)
  9. Arizona (36)
  10. D.C. (37)

There are some interesting matchups in this fantasy bracket. Atlanta’s scorching run through the South Central and run at Texas at the regional final is one thing. But how would they match up against the likes of Bay Area or Montreal? Or before we get too far ahead, Charm City? The thing about hot teams is that, for the most part, they’ve only gotten hot against teams from their own region. (See: Ohio.)

Another thing I’m liking about this playoff format is that it pretty much guarantees that good teams have rarely or never played each other will do so a hell of a lot more often during the playoffs. This happens a lot in the March Madness basketball tournament,  and as a side effect it requires teams to cover a lot more ground as far as defending against and attacking many different styles of play, not just different flavors of the same style as you might normally find in a single region. Basically, being good is just part of the equation for success; you must also be quick to adapt day-by-day.

Bay Area has been one the better teams at doing that this past season, so you’d have to see them getting through this bracket with at least a bronze, but probably the gold. If it’s any consolation to the Wheels of Justice, Rose City would have easily returned to Championships if this were the format they bouted under this year, but not this year. Flat Track Stats ratings have Charm City and Atlanta in a virtual deadlock, one of those teams are going to make it to the third place game. But you know what? This is a fantasy bracket—Montreal, you’re going to Champs!

The 2012 WFTDA Championships, 2013 Edition

Let’s compare notes, shall we?

Actual 2012 Championship Teams (Current Regional Format):

Windy City, Minnesota, Naptown, Oly, Denver, Bay Area, Gotham, Philly, Charm CityTexas, Atlanta, Kansas City

Potential 2012 Championship Teams (2013 Divisional Format):

Windy City, Minnesota, Oly, Denver, Bay Area, Rocky Mountain, Rat City, Rose City, Gotham, Philly, Montreal Texas

Teams are arranged by region for ease of comparison. Bold teams have a Champs bye. Red teams made it this year but may have not made it in the 2013 format. Green teams may have made it in the 2013 format but didn’t this year.

Shock of shocks: The power six in the west all made it to fake-Champs, and three of them have byes. (I swear to God I didn’t have a west coast bias when throwing this experiment together.) Tough breaks for the former South Central region, as only Texas managed to make it to the faux-finals. And wouldn’t you know it, the 12 teams at Bizzaro-Championships are in the top 13 of DNN’s pre-playoffs power rankings.

You can slot in the teams of your choice if you feel some of the closer key games would have gone diferently. But the fact is, the new format appears primed and ready to get the best teams to the WFTDA Championships—and there isn’t a holy shit big enough to think about what a tournament with that much skating talent in it would be like to experience. From my perspective, this new format is already looking like a winner on the track.

Hell, I’d pay good money to watch it online without even batting an eyelash.

However, there are still questions to whether or not the inevitable travel costs increase burden will be enough to bare on the still somewhat closed-loop derby economy. If leagues with little resources are forced to do a lot of jet-setting without any financial assistance—which one would assume would come should revenues increase thanks to the more competitive brackets—that’s going to be rough on many.

But for now, at least, I’ll be glad to roll with this and give the WFTDA my support. After all, it was the skaters that voted on this, and a majority of them, at that. So maybe they feel this is the right next step to take. Hopefully, for everyone’s sake, it’s a step in the right direction.