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Club Champs Format Changes Devalue Pool Play — And The Actual Results

A Great Lakes player feels the sting of a Regionals loss.
Photo by Nick Lindeke — UltiPhotos.com

This opinion piece was submitted anonymously because the author is affiliated with USA Ultimate.

As a fan of ultimate not participating in the inaugural Triple Crown Tour, I haven’t been following the updates to its format as closely as a participant might. Now that the Club Championship are right around the corner I wanted to see how things were shaping up, so after checking out Regionals results I spent some time today reading through the Nationals format updates. They were announced this week by USA Ultimate after half the Regional qualifying events had concluded, a puzzling choice but not an unprecedented one: sweeping changes to this year’s championship format were announced just two days prior to Sectionals, whereas the Triple Crown Tour itself was made public only three days before Nationals in 2012.

The timing of last year’s announcement was viewed as problematic by some teams, who learned only after Regionals that those results determined what tournaments they would be allowed (or required) to attend the following year. This year, players have questioned not only the overhaul of a long-established championship format, but also the timing of its announcement—mere hours before the finalized roster deadline—because of how the new format may value roster depth differently.

Regardless, as October nears, the final rosters are set, the format is set, and all we’re waiting for is Regionals results from this upcoming weekend. We can already start to predict what Nationals has in store for us this year. Let’s assume the top seeds make it out of Regionals this weekend as predicted. We’ll use the Ultiworld power rankings to seed them into the new Nationals format, adjusting Furious to a 16th seed based on their “regular season” results (which has the added benefit that we’re left with only one within-Region pool play game on Thursday):

Pool A: Doublewide, PoNY, Truck Stop, Florida United
Pool B: Revolver, Ironside, Chain Lightning, Condors
Pool C: GOAT, Sockeye, Sub Zero, Madcow
Pool D: Johnny Bravo, Machine, Ring of Fire, Furious George

Let’s say Thursday sees no upsets, none of the sandbagging that some people predict the mid-tier teams might try in order to be more rested for Friday’s elimination game. If everybody plays it straight and the rankings hold, we get this round of 16 bracket:

Doublewide vs Furious George
Ironside vs Sub Zero
Johnny Bravo vs Florida United
Sockeye vs Chain Lightning

Revolver vs Madcow
PoNY vs Ring of Fire
GOAT vs Condors
Machine vs Truck Stop

If the higher-seeded teams move on, immediately we’re stuck with an uncomfortable result: Sub Zero, coming in as the 10th seed, could play exactly as well as a 10th seed but get relegated to the 13-16th bracket based on their regular season results—which don’t take Sectionals or Regionals into account. Sub Zero not only crushed their Section and Region, they also won the Chesapeake Invite with strong wins over other Pro Flight Teams.

In other words, the more seedings deviate from regular season results, the greater the chance that a top team could draw a tough pre-quarter and miss the Pro Flight, or lose a close quarterfinal and have to fight through two backdoor games for that final Pro Flight spot. Even if the new format doesn’t induce teams to coast on Thursday, it does fundamentally change the value of early season results—games at Terminus, for example, where Truck Stop kept an open rotation to test new line combinations. It reminds me of how the results from Colorado Cup, a tournament where key games were cut short by lightning, significantly changed the bid allocations to Nationals. Emphasizing the regular season has its benefits, but it’s worth thinking about potential drawbacks as well.

Stepping back from the example for a moment, there’s a theoretical problem with using the regular season rankings instead of tournament results in determining placement brackets. Imagine that the 12th and 13th ranked teams get seeded 12th and 13th. Say the 13th seed wins Pool A while the 12th seed goes 0-3. If both teams lose their prequarter, and the higher ranked teams move on, it’s possible that the underseeded Pool A winner could go 3-1 and then play for no higher than 13th. Huge upset on Thursday, no chance to finish higher than their seed and zero chance to make the Pro Flight. The 12th seed meanwhile is 0-4 at Nationals, but can still make it through the backdoor bracket for a Pro Flight berth. It depends on the regular season rankings of other prequarter losers, but either way it doesn’t make much sense as a way to determine final placement at Nationals.

It does make sense to assign tier placement by a team’s finish in the Series, but not according to results from before the Series even started. Other sports have tiers and relegation, and it’s an accepted system in European ultimate communities, but it’s always set by a team’s performance at the relegation tournament—where teams are seeded by their regular season results, not bound by them.

It’s especially problematic to retroactively overvalue regular season results. Teams may have made different choices about what tournaments to attend or how to approach those games if they had known it could affect their opportunities at Nationals, or their chances to make the Pro Flight. Especially in a Worlds year, with the United States first in line for any declined bids, teams want the chance to earn fifth place and a potential Club Worlds bid based on the strength of their performance at Nationals. Now they could be shackled by regular season results they didn’t know would affect placement games until after the regular season was over.

As a fan, there’s certainly more drama now to the quarter and semifinals games. I just wouldn’t want to be a low-seed team at this tournament. They only get one day of maybe-meaningful pool play, followed by a probable prequarter walloping and two consolation games, done by Friday night. Especially if some team tries to get risky and finish off Revolver in the prequarter after bagging all their Thursday games, those other prequarter losers with low regular season results might get to play Revolver in the 13-16th bracket when Revolver already locked up a Pro Flight berth. Talk about meaningful games. Either way the preliminary seedings will matter more than ever this year, and may not have much to do with early season results. To fix final placement games based on a team’s regular season ranking is to devalue performance at Nationals, period.

There might even be incentive for Chain Lightning to sandbag at Regionals. As long as they qualify, their high regular season results will buffer the risk of taking a lower seed for the Show. They could take a risk in pool play, try to knock off a top dog early, and still make the Pro Flight if it doesn’t work out. Any Nationals contender playing Regionals has that advantage over all of last weekend’s qualifiers, just by knowing ahead of time what’s really at stake—and that a higher seed can’t salvage a mediocre ranking.

Maybe no team will go for gamesmanship at the Club Championships, maybe no team will risk saving their starters on Thursday, maybe no team will upset enough teams for their ranking to drag them back down and erase what could have been their chance at a Pro Flight berth. Maybe the rankings really do tell the story of where each team deserves to place. But it seems to me that the regular season is overvalued, Thursday pool play undervalued, and USAU’s timing inconsiderate.

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