Mailbag: Making The Case For A Wild Card Nationals Play-In Tournament

This could be really fun.

The Mailbag is freely available to all readers this week! Normally, it’s for subscribers only. That does a few things: it keeps me committed to writing it every week. It rewards subscribers with a weekly column they can count on. And it will allow us to offer a free one-month Mini subscription for the best email or comment we get and publish in the Mailbag. If you’re already a subscriber, you get a free extra month (or a discount). If you’re not, you can come in and check out the benefits.

You can email me anytime at mailbag@ultiworld.com with questions, comments, ideas — whatever you’ve got.

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Although I have mail to open up, I’m going to save it for next week. I want to use the column space this week to make a longer pitch for something that I’ve mentioned in the Mailbag previously as an aside: the Club Championships should have a wild card qualifying tournament.

With changes on the horizon for the Triple Crown Tour after seven years of similar structure, it’s a good time to reconsider what exactly the shape of the club season should be. Here are a few things that I believe to be true about club ultimate:

  1. Games before late July feel like preseason games.
  2. The regular season has some consequence (at Elite-Select, especially), but many tournaments have little urgency because top teams don’t care about rankings.
  3. The National Championships are far and away the best part of the season, followed by Regionals.

With these things in mind, I see doubling down on the postseason as a way to enhance the overall quality and excitement of the season.

Here’s my idea on how to do that.

The Tuesday or Wednesday before Nationals (which begin on Thursday), host a wild card tournament for eight teams per division. Single elimination bracket, one day of game play, winner gets a spot at Nationals.

To achieve this, you only assign seven strength bids in each division instead of the typical eight, reserving a spot for the wild card winner. Then, each of the teams that loses in the game-to-go in their region gets an automatic invite to the wild card tournament, which will be held at the same field complex as Nationals. If any of those “Top Select” teams decline their bids, their spots are offered up to the next highest ranked team based on regular season rankings that didn’t qualify for Nationals.

Let’s look at some reasons why this crazy idea could actually work.

Enhancing The Postseason

By substantially increasing the reward for reaching the game-to-go, you make Regionals more meaningful for teams that are not locks to make Nationals. Suddenly, the game-to-the-game-to-go in the backdoor bracket becomes a bigger deal. Not only do you get access to better tournaments in the following year, but you know you’ll have two shots to go to Nationals.

Of course, you also create an exciting tournament that gets the buzz going for Nationals for even more communities. 24 more teams are involved in Nationals week. Major League Baseball’s wild card games are extremely fun, and this concept adds even more spice with an eight-team bracket.

In theory, this also improves the average team quality at Nationals. The wild card winner is likely to be a better team than the ‘last team in’ with the eighth and final strength bid under the current system.

Enhancing The Regular Season

Regular season rankings matter more because 1) there are fewer strength bids so there’s less margin for error and 2) a higher ranking could get you an invite to the wild card tournament if any Top Select teams decline their bids.

Simple Logistics

Because you host the tournament at the same field site as Nationals, it’s as simple for USA Ultimate as extending the field rental by a day or two and showing up a day or two earlier. The same is true for Ultiworld and the rest of the media: adding an extra day of reporting and livestreaming isn’t a big ask. Obviously, livestreaming as many of the wild card games as possible would be a priority.

More Spectators at Nationals

21 wild card teams won’t make it into the National Championship tournament. That’s at least 500 people who will have already blocked out those days from work and planned to spend their weekend in San Diego. That’s going to make for some sweet sideline energy and packed bleachers.

And, if you were going to do this, USA Ultimate would have to double down. No team is going to want to fly across the country if they think they’re just going to lose and then have to go home.

No, sell this as a win-win. Charge a per-player fee (say, $75) for the wild card teams. No team fee. That fee covers you for all the standard amenities if you qualify for Nationals. But if you don’t qualify, it turns into a VIP ticket as a spectator. You get drink tickets, access to a VIP area near the showcase field with food and beverages, etc. You want teams to plan to have a blast whether or not they win the wild card spot.

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The risk here seems to be that, even if you design everything right, teams still don’t want to show up. Maybe they think they just don’t have a chance (a top team got upset in the game-to-go, e.g.). Maybe they just don’t want to spend the money to travel unless they know they have a guaranteed spot in the tournament.

Could you get eight teams per division, though? It at least seems plausible. I’d bet at least half of the game-to-go losers would want to give it a shot, and the next highest ranked teams would like their chances too. Let’s take a look at the 2018 game-to-go losers, the teams that would have made up the wild card event if it were held last October:

I don’t know about you, but I would absolutely want to watch those teams battle it out in a bracket. The favorites are probably Condors, Love Tractor (Wild Card?), and Showdown, but they don’t feel like locks. It’s also fun because these teams rarely get a chance to play against one another.

If I were on one of these teams, I would want to go play for a chance to compete at Nationals. And if we didn’t qualify? More beach time with my teammates and a chance to watch the world’s best ultimate tournament. Not bad.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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