Saturday, October 06, 2007

NAIA announces new playoff format

By Special Contributor
Bob Broughton,

Last week, the NAIA Council of Presidents unanimously approved a new qualification scheme for baseball and ten other sports. The change will take effect for the 2009 season.

The term the NAIA uses for this is “direct qualification”. It means that the qualifiers for the NAIA national championship tournament in Lewiston, ID are the winners of nine opening-round tournaments, plus the host school, Lewis-Clark State. More specifically,

  • Each opening-round tournament consists of five teams. 45 teams will be involved in direct qualification.
  • 22 of these teams are determined by conference tournaments. The champion of a conference with at least six baseball-playing members becomes an automatic qualifier.
  • 22 more teams are at-large selections.
  • One spot is reserved for “true independents”.
  • Competition in the opening-round tournament is double-elimination.
There are some important details missing from this announcement, which will be discussed further down. However, this new arrangement is already an improvement over the status quo, which is 14 regional tournaments, followed by seven super-regional tournaments. The problem is that most of the good NAIA teams are in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and the sun belt. The result has been that some very good teams have stayed home while some not-very-good teams have qualified for the national tournament.

The missing details are, who hosts the opening-round tournaments, and how the tournaments are seeded. It doesn't look like the top nine teams are going to be the hosts. It's possible that the top nine could include a couple of schools within a few miles of each other, and it's also possible that the top nine could include schools that don't have adequate facilities for hosting a tournament of this nature. (Wireless access for live bloggers, for example.) The NAIA would like to play these tournaments in locations where there's a chance of drawing good crowds, in order to make some money to contribute to travel expenses.

Once the sites are determined, who goes to which tournaments? The fairest way to do it would be the way the NCAA sets up the basketball regional tournaments, but the NAIA simply can't afford this amount of travel. The “Final Recommendations” document implies that 15 teams would be flying to the opening-round tournaments, but there's no information about what this is based on. It certainly suggests that most teams would be playing within a bus ride from home. Is there going to be a rule that qualifying teams from the same conference would be sent to different opening-round locations?

The main criticism I have of the new arrangement is, 45 teams is overkill. In the NAIA's final poll last season, only 37 teams received votes. It would make more sense to limit it to 36 teams, an even four teams per location.

The automatic bid for Lewis-Clark State is also a contentious issue, but not for the reason you might think. I haven't bothered to check when the last time was that the Warriors were not ranked among the top ten teams; let's just say that it was quite a while ago. What puts Lewis-Clark State in a privileged class is the fact that their entire regular season, in effect, consists of exhibition games. In 2006, 40 of the 49 games that they played were at home (one road game was rained out), and two of the road games were at nearby Washington State and Gonzaga. They only played three double-headers (one scheduled double-header was rained out.) Can you say, “recruiting advantage”?

It isn't difficult to understand why the NAIA has passed on another opportunity to correct this inequity. The national championship tournament is an important source of revenue for the NAIA. The tournament would still turn a profit without Lewis-Clark State's participation, but it would be a smaller profit. The national championship tournament will continue as the “Lewis-Clark State Invitational” because of financial reality.

NAIA press release: NAIA Presidents Approve Direct Qualification

Task Force Final Recommendations (MS Word document)

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