5 Tournament Formats To Know If You Run a Sports League

If you’re running a sports league, you know how hard it can be to get everyone on the same page. This is especially true if you’re trying to determine a champion of the league, but not all champions are crowned in the same way. There are several different formats to use to determine your overall winner, each with its pros and cons.

Let’s take a look at the most popular tournament formats that are used in professional and college leagues around the world. Then, you can decide which one is best for you and run it by your members to see if you can implement these formats into your next league season.

1. Single-Elimination Bracket

If you want the simplest format for tournaments in any sport, it’s the single elimination bracket. There are very few moving pieces involved in this type of tournament unless you re-seed people or teams after every round. The single-elimination bracket is typically used by professional sports leagues, however, the NBA is the only professional league in the United States that has a set single-elimination bracket without reseeding.

Think of the NCAA basketball tournament as a good way to set up a single elimination bracket. The best teams are the ones given high seeds, and they take on the lowest competition in the first round. The teams that are right in the middle also meet in the first round and whoever advances then takes on the top.

2. Double-Elimination Bracket

Sometimes fluky things can happen in sports and a team or person that has the talent to win the tournament can get bounced out early due to bad luck. With that in mind, a double-elimination bracket may be a good way to truly determine the best of the best. This is seen in many sports organizations, most notably in college baseball and softball.

Once a team loses a game, they are placed into the “losers” bracket of the overall tournament. The winner of that bracket will then take on the champion of the “winners” bracket to see who wins it all. You can reset losses to make it a best-of-three in the finals like the NCAA does, or you can make it so that the losers bracket representative has to defeat their opponent twice in a row.

3. Round-Robin

The round-robin tournament is a simple format that doesn’t require a bracket and tends to avoid any team or athlete fluking their way to a championship. In this format, every single person or team takes on every other one as they rotate through the schedule. It can be as simple as a four-team round-robin and can go as far as you’d like.

This is a more popular style of tournament for running the regular season of a league that doesn’t have playoffs. Think of the English Premier League and how their season is handled. The entire season is a straight-up round-robin and whoever has the most points once all of the games are completed becomes the champion with no postseason tournament.

4. Multi-Stage Bracket

There’s an excellent combination of round-robin and single-elimination called the multi-stage bracket, and that’s how the World Cup champion is determined every four years. The first stage (group stage) is a round robin that takes the top one or two teams and places them into the next stage.

Once the teams are decided from the group stage, you can then place them into a single or double-elimination bracket to determine the winner. It makes for some very compelling storylines in your league when this is the format.

5. Guaranteed Games Bracket

When running a sports league, you want to make sure the participants are getting their money’s worth and not wasting their time. Nobody wants to travel a long way only to get knocked out in the first round and then have to turn around and leave right away. That’s why there are guaranteed games tournaments, which are quite common in youth sports, especially travel sports where multiple games can be played in one day.

Essentially what happens is that you extend the double-elimination bracket until you run out of space for “losers” brackets. Typically you can guarantee three games even with a small pool of teams (at least eight) and can guarantee even more as that number jumps to 16, 32, and beyond. 

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