What Is A Single-Elimination Tournament In Sports?
Some of the most popular sports events are tournaments, where teams or individuals compete in a series of games or matches until a champion is decided. However, tournaments can have many different formats or even multiple stages with different formats, such as round-robin, Swiss, double-elimination, or single-elimination. A single-elimination tournament is a bracket-style competition in which the loser of each matchup is immediately eliminated.
How Do Single-Elimination Tournaments Work?
Single-elimination tournaments use a typical tournament bracket and a traditional seeding system: the highest seed versus the lowest seed, second highest versus second lowest, etc. Seeding is determined prior to the tournament, usually by season record or some strength-rating system.
As the name suggests, the side that wins each matchup will advance, and the loser will be eliminated and can no longer compete. Rounds of a single-elimination tournament can consist of a single game or multiple games, such as the best-of series in the MLB, NBA, and NHL playoffs. The tournament continues until one team remains and is crowned champion.
The National Football League's (NFL) playoffs utilize a single-elimination format, featuring a total of 14 teams, or seven in each conference. In NFL football, the seeding is determined by the best record in each division (four divisions in each conference), followed by the next three teams that own the second-best records in each conference.
In the NFL, the one seed within each conference starts in the second round of the playoffs, giving them a big advantage and incentive to compete for the one seed. On each side of the bracket (representing the two conferences), the first-round matchups include four versus five seed, six versus three seed, and two versus seven seed.
In the second round, the winner of the four-five matchup faces the one seed, while the winner of the three-six matchup faces the winner of the two-seven matchup. The two winners from the second round compete in the conference finals, and the two conference finals winners face each other in the NFL championship game, or Super Bowl.
College Sport Playoffs
Single-elimination tournaments are common in collegiate sports, such as the NCAA Basketball “March Madness” Tournament and NCAA Ice Hockey. A single-elimination format is popular for college leagues because it is time-efficient and unpredictable, creating the potential for upsets, as the underdog only has to “steal” one game.
2023’s March Madness tournament (68 teams) alone featured 12 upsets, including the 15th-seeded Princeton Tigers upset over second-seeded Arizona Wildcats and the 16th-seed FDU upset over first-seed Purdue. For these reasons, single-elimination is also popular among amateur leagues, such as local or youth teams.
Professional Sports Tournaments
Some examples of single-elimination tournaments in professional sports include the NFL Playoffs, the Coupe de France, and all four Tennis Grand Slam tournaments: Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the Australian Open, and the French Open.
Tournaments can consist of multiple stages, including a single-elimination stage. Most notably, the FIFA World Cup consists of qualifying matches, a group stage, and a single-elimination stage. Qualifying matches decide which teams compete in the group stage, while a round-robin style group stage determines the seeding for the final single-elimination stage. During the 2022 Qatar FIFA World Cup, Argentina finished first in their group and knocked out Australia, Netherlands, Croatia, and France in single elimination to win the event.