How do Sports Brackets Work?

how do sports brackets work

A common question that comes up this time of year is how do sports brackets work? While it depends on the type of sporting event and specific match(es) being played, we’ll review what a bracket is, the different types used for tournament formats, and some of the more popular bracket types used in American and International sports. The goal of each bracket type is to determine a winner of the contest.

What is a Bracket?

For sports, the term bracket is the Americanized term for the British “draw.” Similar to the “[“ or “]” symbol on your keyboard, a bracket pits a minimum of two teams against each other. One team is on top and the other on the bottom. The winner of the game or contest moves on to the next round. The team will win the tournament if there are no more rounds or steps to the bracket. You can also think of it as a tree diagram. Each sports bracket format in sporting events has its own rules to determine a winner. 

What are the types of Sports Brackets?

There are several types of brackets used for sports. These include single-elimination, double-elimination, round-robin, group stage, and the March Madness bracket (which is just a big single-elimination bracket with a play-in set of games). The single elimination bracket is best-known for its use in American basketball and football. The double-elimination is used frequently in baseball (college and younger). The group stage brackets are used during World Cup play. 

How Does a Single-Elimination Bracket Work?

The single-elimination tournament is also known as a knockout tournament. In slang, you might hear it referred to as “win or go home.” In this format, it does not matter how well your team has played before the tournament. If you lose a game or match, you are eliminated from the tournament. The winner of each game or match moves on to the next round of play. This continues until one team is left (who is declared the champion).

Most single elimination tournaments will be set up by a factor or power of two. For larger tournaments, once the teams have been reduced to 16, it is referred to as the “Round of 16” or even “Sweet 16.” The next round is the “Quarterfinals.” When we get to four teams left, it is the semifinal round of play. The final round of play sees the number of teams reduced to two with the winner being declared the champion. 

What is a Double Elimination Bracket?

A double-elimination bracket is set up to allow a team to compete until they lose two games (or matches). Once your team loses a game, they move to the “losers” bracket. The loser’s bracket is synchronized to the respective round in the winner’s bracket. Once the winners and losers’ bracket have one team remaining each, they play each other in the championship game.

In some formats, the loser’s bracket team will have to win two in a row over the winner’s bracket team. In other formats, once the teams are determined there is only one game. It just depends on what specific rules are in place for the games. This bracket is more complex than the single elimination one. The double elimination bracket is considered to be fairer to all of the teams that are participating in the tournament.

How Do Round-Robin and Group Stage Brackets Work?

Round-Robin and Group Stage brackets are closely related to each other. In a round-robin tournament, teams (or individuals) will play against all of the other teams (or players). There is a point system associated with each win or tie (if there are ties allowed). The overall winner of the tournament is the team or individual with the most points.

For Group Stage brackets, the round-robin play is between a subset of the total number of teams in the tournament. For example, there will be four teams in a group stage in the World Cup. The top two teams will move on to the knockout (or single elimination) round of play after they have played each other.

How is the March Madness Bracket Setup?

March Madness Bracket

The March Madness bracket is the term used to refer to the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournament brackets that are assigned and published every year in the spring. The tournament features 68 Division I college basketball teams and is one of the most followed sporting events in the U.S.

The NCAA Selection Committee determines the overall seeding for the tournament. There are eight teams who play in the “First Four” which serves as a “Play In” round for the field of 64. The tournament is a single-elimination format that is played at various sites across the United States. The semifinals of the tournament are referred to as the “Final Four” and are played at the same location as the championship game.

What is the Difference between College Basketball and the NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB?

The primary difference between college basketball (and soon to be football) and the U.S. professional leagues is primarily in the number of games played per round. In March Madness, there is one game. That’s it. You lose, you’re out. The NFL is similar; however, the teams are reseeded each round where the highest remaining seed plays the lowest until all the teams have opponents. 

The NBA, NHL, and MLB do not reseed. Instead, based on what round of play the teams are in, they will play a “best of” series against each other. If it is a best of three games; for example, the first team to win two games wins the round and moves onto the next round of play. As a result, the playoffs for these leagues take a lot longer to get to the championship round (and final game) than we see in single elimination tournaments. 

How are Bracket Seeds Determined?

When setting up a tournament, it is common to have a scheme to seed or rank the teams. The method to do this varies. For March Madness, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee uses the full body of work of the teams, their strength of schedule, NET, and other metrics to seed the teams from #1 to #68.

For professional sports, the regular season standings are used with a system of tiebreakers and rewards for winning one’s division in play. When you start looking at travel and youth sports, there is typically a pool play set of games or matches. These are used to seed the teams by overall record, runs or goals allowed, scored, and differential to seed teams in the bracket.

Will Lewis

Have been covering sports of all types for more than 18 years. Will is a lifelong Kentucky Wildcats fan and rooted for the Bengals way back when Joe Montana dashed our hopes and dreams. Now a Padres fan as well. He covers all sports here at Sports Brackets.

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