NBA Play-In Tournament: How does it work?

by | Apr 11, 2023 | Sports

From April 11-14, many NBA fans worldwide will be tuning into the Play-In Tournament. But sports rookies might be wondering, what exactly is this and how does it affect the NBA Playoffs? Keep reading to find out. 


On March 11th, 2020, the NBA paused their regular season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and did not resume until August 17th in the “bubble” at the Walt Disney World Resort. During the time in the bubble, the NBA implemented a preliminary postseason tournament before the playoffs to offer each organization a fair shot at the playoffs. The tournament would decide who competed in the playoffs as each conference’s seventh and eighth seeds. On June 4th, the NBA Board of Governors approved the idea, and the play-in tournament was officially born.

How does it work? 

The tournament features the league’s seventh through tenth place teams in each conference to face off in a single-elimination and double-elimination style tournament at the end of the season. These matchups decide the two final playoff seeds for each conference. The seventh and eighth-place teams face off, and the ninth and 10th teams play in another game. The winner of the seventh versus eighth-place game will represent their conference as the seventh seed in the playoffs, whereas the loser will host the winner of the ninth versus 10th game. The winner of that final game will enter the postseason as the eighth seed.

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While the play-in tournament format may seem unordinary, it has been used across various sporting leagues since the 1950s, when the Australian Rugby League used the same format from 1954-1972 to decide their championship. The format is called the Page playoff system and has been implemented across different sports, such as curling and softball. The system rewards teams that finish higher in the standings with a better opportunity of qualifying for the playoffs by only having to win one game. Whereas teams who finish lower need two wins to advance to the postseason. 

However, in its short history, the ninth-placed teams have been more successful than the eighth-place clubs. Teams who come into the tournament in ninth place have advanced as the eighth seed in the playoffs all but twice. This happened in 2020 when the eighth-placed Portland Trailblazers won against the ninth-placed Memphis Grizzlies 126-122 and in 2021, when eighth-place Washington Wizards beat the ninth-place Indiana Pacers 142-121 to clinch the final playoff spot in the eastern conference. In three out of five matchups of the eighth and ninth teams, the ninth place team has advanced.


While some fans dislike having a play-in tournament, the television viewership numbers have been impressive. The extra games that the tournament provides have boosted the NBA’s television ratings tremendously. The 2021 Play-In Tournament game between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers received pretty good ratings as ESPN pulled in over 5.6 million viewers on a Wednesday night. The viewership for this game was only second to the PGA Championships on CBS for the highest-viewed sporting event that week. According to ESPN, the Warriors-Lakers matchup was the most-watched NBA game since the 2019 Western Conference Finals. 

Despite such a strong start for the tournament, television viewership did drop off slightly in 2022, with the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers game being the highest-viewed matchup that year, drawing in just over 3 million viewers on ESPN. That play-in game beat out two first-round matchups  between Atlanta and Miami as well as Utah against Dallas to be the eleventh most watched sporting event that week.

While the television ratings decreased in the second year, the NBA Play-In tournament has been a hit with fans. It adds a competitive edge to the playoffs as teams compete for the seventh and eighth seeds. The tournament will likely be a success again this year and spark conversations in other major sporting leagues across North America about having their own play-in style tournament.

cover photo via FanNation

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