USA National Championships (Format Problems and Solutions)

There was a lot of hot air expended in the forum section of our website in regards to the format for this year’s National Championship. Aside from the hot air, though, most of the complaints we’re pretty legitimate. This commentary will look at the basic problems with the format, the process that was used and provide a proposed solution

[b]National Championship (Format)[/b]

Rather than traditional pool play, the Federation first informed clubs that this year’s tournament would use a simple knock out format. It didn’t take too long for clubs started to complain. The problems identified included the following:

1) The seeding of the 20 teams was highly suspect. Notably, the Condors with national team player, Gary Hines, were seeded very low.
2) The single elimination tourney format combined with the poor seeding, undoubtedly would have resulted in some quality teams playing for either 17th, 9th or 5th place.
3) Eight teams were subjected to play-in games that not only placed the losers into finishing no better than 17th place, it required them to play an extra game prior to playing a 100% fresh team in the round of 16.
4) Not securing a facility for Sunday morning games, thus not providing enough time to easily adapt the format.

To the Federation’s credit, they listened to the uproar that ensued, recognized the inherent problems with the original format and replaced it with a new format. Instead of 8 teams being immediately subjected to elimination games, each team losing in the first round will now be given a 2nd chance to play their way back into the round of 16. After the round of 16 the knockout format then gives way to pool play. While better, the new format is still not without flaws. Namely the seeding is still highly suspect and the round of 16 games are still paramount. Two strong teams could still meet in that early round and one of them will be sent down.

[b]National Championships (The process for developing the format)[/b]

But, while there were problems with the format, what I find even more troubling is how the Federation came up the format. First off, last Fall the Federation quickly put together a competition rulebook that laid out in detail a semi complicated scheme for qualification to the National Championships. This competition rulebook was rushed and inherently failed to recognize that the club structure needed to pull it off simply didn’t exist yet. It took awhile to recognize this, but eventually most aspects of the rulebook were thrown out for the 2008-2009 season. The 2009 championships became an open tournament and requirements for U.S. Residency and Citizenship were thrown out when challenged.

And when it came time to lay out the format and seeding for the tournament, the Federation did so in a manner so non transparent it makes the IHF look good. I had thought that it was simply done in-house by the staff, but according to some email traffic I’ve seen it appears that a select group was quietly chosen to participate in the development of the format and the seeding of the teams. Hey, I exchange email with the West Point coach from time to time and the Carolina guys seem OK, but surprise, surprise, I noticed that those clubs and Chicago (the Tech Director’s club) fared pretty well in the original seeding matchups. Hypothetical here, but if they had been matched up in the first round vs. the Condors, I’m thinking the first format probably would not have survived its in-house sanity check. Keep in mind that I’m not alleging intentional foul play. I’m just saying you’re less likely to recognize a potential problem effecting some other club. And obviously, no matter how good a job they might have done there is an inherent perception problem in that these folks were never identified. Imagine if word got out that Coach K was secretly sitting in on the selection committee for the NCAA Tournament and Duke got great seeding in Greensborough and UNC was sent out to Boise.

[b]The Solution[/b]

Not much can be done for this year’s tournament beyond the band-aid that’s already been applied. Next year, however, it should be a different story. Here's what should be done:

1) Establish a Competition and Organization Committee: The committee should contain 4-5 respected Federation members from the different regions of the country. The Federation staff can take the lead, but the committee should be an integral part of the planning and decision making process.

2) Take a good hard look at the competition rulebook. There needs to be a balance between what we would like to have in terms of national and regional competition with what’s realistic considering the current state of our club programs. A meaningful and fair qualification format for Nationals is feasible, it just needs some thought. The rulebook should be adjusted accordingly and then a formal review should be conducted. Keep in mind that it also can’t be foisted upon the clubs and be successful. The clubs are going to have buy in to it and this is where those 4-5 respected Federation members can go a long way towards making that happen

3) Stick with the rules outlined in the revised rulebook. As long as you do a good job of developing a realistic qualification system this shouldn’t be a problem. Yes, there should still be some flexibility, for unseen circumstances, but in general, clubs will prefer a clearly defined set of rules that they need to follow.

From a big picture standpoint, it’s starting to get a little old to keep saying, “let’s get it right next year”. Depending on when you want to start counting the new Federation is either a year old or approaching it. Some good things are happening. It looks like some high quality officiating will be at the tournament and the long term impact of the Bundesliga deal could be huge. The Federation needs to recognize, however, that the “we’re the new guys” excuse is no longer valid anymore.