The WNBA is doing away with single-elimination games in the playoffs.
Starting with the 2022 season, the first round will consist of four best-of-three series to determine the semifinalists. The semis and the WNBA Finals will both remain best-of-five series.
"It's exciting news for our league," Connecticut Sun coach and general manager Curt Miller said Thursday. "The coaches and GMs believed strongly that our professional league deserves to play each round in a series format."
In the new format, the eight teams with the highest winning percentages over a 36-game schedule -- regardless of conference -- qualify for the postseason and are seeded by record.
In first-round play, the No. 1 seed faces the No. 8 seed, and No. 4 meets No. 5, with the winners then meeting in the semifinals. In the other bracket, No. 2 meets No. 7 and No. 3 faces No. 6, with those winners going to the semifinals. These first-round series will be in a 2-1 format, with the higher seed hosting Games 1 and 2 and the lower seed hosting Game 3, if there is one.
The semifinals and WNBA Finals will still follow the 2-2-1 format wherein the higher seed hosts Games 1, 2 and 5 and the lower-seeded team will host Games 3 and 4.
"The new format was something players, coaches, business operations and even fans were hoping for as a series provides more opportunities for developing and showcasing rivalries," Minnesota Lynx coach and GM Cheryl Reeve said. "It will also allow for greater development of storytelling of all eight teams in the playoffs, highlighting the depth of the league's talent, on the league's biggest stage."
Los Angeles Sparks coach and GM D erek Fisher agreed, saying, "I'm excited and grateful for the shared communication and vision between teams and the league office to finalize an expanded WNBA playoffs. Legends are made in the playoffs and we wanted this more robust format for our players."
This is the latest change in the evolution of the WNBA playoffs since the league launched in 1997. The format since 2016 had byes for the top two seeds into the semifinals and single-elimination games for the first and second rounds. This format first introduced best-of-five semifinals.
Before that, from 2000 to 2015, the eight playoff teams were divided by division: four from the Eastern Conference and four from the Western Conference. The conference semifinals and finals were best-of-three. The WNBA Finals were best-of-three until 2005, when they went to best-of-five.
The WNBA's first three seasons all had different playoff formats as the league grew. In the league's inaugural year, 1997, the WNBA had four teams in the playoffs with three single-elimination games to decide the champion.
In 1998, the league again took the four teams with the best records, but this time they played best-of-three series in the semifinals and Finals.
In 1999, the league went to a six-team postseason, taking the top three teams from each conference. The No. 1 seed in each conference got a bye into the best-of-three conference finals that year, with seeds 2-3 playing a single-elimination game to face No. 1 there. The winners then played in the WNBA Finals.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert had said throughout the 2021 season that the league was considering changing the playoff format for 2022, so Thursday's announcement was not unexpected.
"We have been evaluating different playoff formats over the past 12 months, and the new playoff format being announced today will enable fans to engage with all of the league's best teams and top stars right from the start of the postseason with all eight championship contenders immediately involved in exciting, first-round action," Engelbert said in a statement.
"Following significant discussions with our Competition Committee and a playoff subcommittee we formed last year, it was clear that while the prior format's single-elimination games created a win-and-advance level of excitement to the start of the postseason, the new best-of-three series format will provide added opportunities to create and showcase rivalries with all playoff-eligible teams participating."