By Brian Lowe, Date: 5/3/19
An NRL proposal to introduce a ‘Wildcard’ weekend as part of the annual finals series has certainly got tongues wagging, particularly on social media, with most of the opinions expressed being less than favourable.
Many of the comments suggest that adding two more teams to the mix would tend to water down the playoff system given that teams that finish in the top eight at the end of the 26 weeks of the regular season already qualify for the finals as it is.
Other dissenting remarks suggest the proposal would reward the ninth and tenth placed teams which shouldn’t be in the finals anyway as they finished outside of the eight.
And still other critics say that to have 10 teams making the finals in a competition with 16 teams in total is too many.
Under the NRL’s suggestion, teams that finish seventh through tenth would play in a wildcard round that the top six teams would get off.
The two winners would then move on to the finals series, which would be conducted under the current format with the top four teams playing qualifying games and the fifth and sixth placed teams squaring off against the wildcard winners.
If the proposal gets the thumbs up, the wildcard weekend is expected to be introduced in the 2020 season.
Despite the knockers, the NRL is at least trying to be innovative. Adding a wildcard round is showing initiative.
It would add extra interest to the postseason from fans’ perspective, particularly for supporters of clubs that otherwise wouldn’t have qualified for the finals.
Other professional sports around the world do it, so why not the NRL?
The NFL’s wildcard weekend is probably the best-known version and it certainly hasn’t hurt the league’s popularity. Quite the contrary in fact. The AFC and NFC each have four divisions with the winners of each going straight into the playoffs, while two other teams with the next best records from each conference get in as wildcards.
Major League Baseball has a wildcard format that it uses to set the final teams to qualify for the first round of its playoffs, the Divisional series. Both the American and National Leagues have a one-game wildcard playoff to determine which teams move on to the Divisional series. Those teams have the next best records to teams ahead of them which have already qualified.
The NHL also has a wildcard system. Eight teams from each of its two conferences automatically qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, plus two extra teams from each conference qualify by having the highest points totals of the rest of the teams in the conference.
The point is the wildcard system works in all these other sports, so there’s really no reason why it couldn’t also be successful in the NRL.
The fact is that even if a team drops out of contention for automatic qualification, it still has a chance to make the playoffs, or in the NRL’s case the finals series, and that’s not a bad thing because it keeps the interest factor alive right until the end.
The thing that shouldn’t be forgotten is that rugby league, like any other major sport these days, is a sports entertainment business with ‘business’ being the operative word.
It’s not just about playing a game anymore, and hasn’t been for a while, it’s about making money. A wildcard weekend would do that. It would add to the NRL’s coffers and given that it is a business, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.