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Tournament play: it's a knockout

Conference tournaments are underway in college basketball, and the big dance is on the horizon next week. It is the most exciting time of the year in basketball, and it all stems from the knockout nature of the sport: one and done, the season on the line. I've loved the tournament format ever since playing sports as a kid.

We don’t have enough knockout competitions in American sport -- too much emphasis is placed on league play, where equal weight across a long season penalizes young teams and teams with untimely injuries. Knockout competitions provide teams with additional opportunities to win a prize where it counts - on the field of play. College basketball comes closest among major sports to providing these opportunities. In addition to March Madness, we also have the almost relevant holiday "classics," and the "pre-season" NIT to create interest. These are good for both players and consumers. The value consumers place on knockout competition is reflected in part by the NCAA tournament's media contract, worth $6 billion over 11 years.

Even so, there is one wrinkle missing. Playoffs and tournaments in the U.S. are all seeded from the start. Although this format increases the likelihood of compelling match-ups late in the tournament, supposedly "when it counts," it departs from the principle that all teams have an equal chance, ex ante. It stacks the competition excessively in favor of the better teams, or at least those perceived to be better.

Random draws generate a different form of excitement. Last week's draw in England's FA Cup - the granddaddy of knockout competitions - offers an example. One semi-final pairs England's top two clubs over the last decade, Arsenal and Manchester United. The other semi will be an all-lower division affair, pairing Sunderland with the winner of the Milwall-Tranmere replay. A lower division team is thus guaranteed a spot on the big stage in the Cup Final. Had the draw been seeded as in US competitions, Arsenal and Man Utd would be slated to meet in the final. That they meet in the semis takes little away from the magnitude of the match, and sets up the final for some David v. Goliath intrigue. The last giant-killing in an FA Cup Final took place in 1988, when lower division Wimbledon upset League champions Liverpool.

A giant-killing is a memorable occasion. The NCAA delivers these from time to time in the middle rounds of the tournament. But seeding makes the first round a formality for the giants, and takes its toll on the Davids at each subsequent stage. A random draw would create the occasional death match between giants in the early rounds. It would also increase the likelihood of a dramatic upset finale, like Villanova's "perfect storm" victory over Georgetown in 1985. As it stands, seeding sets up yet another final between basketball giants. A random draw in the NCAA tourney might add just the spice to enhance a special and underutilized form of play, the knockout competition.

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