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Prototyping the playoffs?

December 29, 2014

Last week, I was a guest on “Upon Further Review,” a show on WSUM 91.7 FM radio, which is the University of Wisconsin’s student radio station.

Paras Bansal co-hosts the show, which examines current events in sports, particularly those related to collegiate and professional Wisconsin-based teams. Paras is producing a four-week series on the topic of “The Design of Playoffs” to span the holiday break between semesters until the regular show is back on the air. I was flattered to be asked and also intrigued by the topic so there wasn’t any arm-twisting.

What made the topic of the playoffs so interesting to me is that Paras wanted to approach the subject from a design perspective. With the NCAA College Football Playoffs (CFP) replacing the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and a colorful year in the NFL with a sub-.500 team destined to represent the NFC South division in postseason play, there was plenty to discuss. We speculated about the paths to the current playoff systems and all of the considerations that the planning committees must have weighed when developing such championship structures.

I pulled in a few other examples of playoff systems I’ve seen, particularly that of the Australian Football League (, which places a premium on highly competitive and meaningful games in the first round of postseason but also has a league structure void of divisions or conferences. As we wove our way through the CFP, design thinking, the NFL playoffs, my experiences at Design Concepts, and a sprinkling of Aussie Rules, we likely touched on some of the reasons the playoffs (particularly the CFP) feel like a Frankenstein structure of bolt-on fixes and ill-conceived solutions. 

Maybe these planning committees are just prototyping a playoff system and fully intend to evolve it almost yearly. Maybe this mayhem is by design!

In the end, there are so many interests to serve (media, bowl tournament tradition, high-dollar sponsors, governing sports bodies, universities, athletes, advertisers, etc.) that it’s no wonder it feels like the fans weren’t really taken into account. And for fans, the switching costs are so incredibly high (sometimes multiple generations of family have been die-hard fans of XX team – tattoos, wardrobes, committing every weekend to tailgating and watching) that it’s no wonder we’re more or less stuck with whatever the postseason planning committees decide to do with the playoffs. So where is the motivation for them to truly take the time to get it right when they know I won’t stop watching the Packers and Badgers regardless of how bad the process is?

To be fair, I had to reconsider being so harsh because maybe these planning committees are just prototyping a playoff system and fully intend to evolve it almost yearly. Prototyping is something we fully embrace at Design Concepts. So why not in the NCAA and NFL playoffs as well? Maybe this mayhem is by design! All I can say is that I’m lucky that my prototypes and messy innovating isn’t broadcast to hundreds of millions of people and scrutinized by sports media for months and months in the lead-up.

When the college and pro football playoffs are viewed from a design perspective, you have to wonder how many more future changes we are in for. The more we discussed the topic over the airwaves, the further we felt the current playoffs are far from an ideal solution. But changes might be exactly what the postseason committees had in mind. Otherwise, what would we have had to talk about? ;-)

Before the show started, Paras was kind enough to give me a tour of the WSUM studios. Now, I have done my fair share of radio appearances, mostly related to national team activities with Australian Rules Football, and in some cases with the best-in-market morning shows with enormous listenership, and I have to say the WSUM studios are top notch. The facilities are gorgeous and the student vibe had definitely left its mark in every corner. So after assuring my host that I have had plenty of experience on the radio and wasn’t nervous, the impressive nature of the studios were enough to send a few small butterflies airborne. They mercifully disappeared after I noticed the chalkboard walls in the restrooms — it was just like a touch of whiteboard “home” in a Design Concepts project bay or restroom!

Finally, I’d like to put a plug in for Paras Bansal’s show. The three remaining episodes will occur Tuesday afternoons, December 30 and January 6 and 13, from 5 – 6 p.m. You can listen live on 91.7 FM in the Madison area or stream it online via WSUM’s website and the “Listen Now” button on their homepage.

— Written by Dan Sarbacker