[This is the first of five commentaries I wrote on women’s football during the 2016 season. For the next installment in the series, read here.]

It’s a big day in women’s football! Major news just broke about the WFA’s new tier system and playoff structure for the 2016 season, and that’s important enough to step out with a new commentary.

I am very, very excited about the tier system the WFA is trying out for the 2016 season. But until today, the details were a bit sketchy. Just as importantly, the format can be somewhat confusing unless it’s explained properly, so I want to lay it all out for you right here.

The 2016 WFA Tier System

As I mentioned in a previous article:

One of the new features of the WFA this year is a divisional postseason alignment where, come playoff time, teams will compete in one of three separate “tiers” (to use the IWFL’s old terminology) based on roster size and years of experience.

Now, note that I call these different levels “tiers”. That’s a term the IWFL used back when it had a similar, two-level setup from 2008-2010. The WFA is currently calling these levels “divisions” – in other words, Division 1, Division 2, and Division 3. I understand why they would use that terminology, and it actually nicely replicates what we see in men’s college football, which has Division I, Division II, and Division III.

I don’t like that wording in the WFA, however, because the league already has geographic divisions. Call me crazy, but I hate using the exact same word to describe two entirely different things. That’s just a recipe for confusion. So from now on, I’m calling the different levels tiers, and I’ll refer to the three tiers as WFA1, WFA2, and WFA3.

While we’re on the subject, I hate the WFA’s divisions, too. The WFA lists their geographic divisions, but every division is a hodge-podge of teams from different tiers. For instance, the Colonial Division has two WFA1 teams, two WFA2 teams, and one WFA3 team. (Realistically, does anyone think the WFA3 team is going to win the division under that layout?) Meanwhile, the Great Lakes Division has one WFA1 team, three WFA2 teams, and one WFA3 team, while the South Atlantic Division has no WFA1 teams, two WFA2 teams, and two WFA3 teams.

That’s a confusing way of creating divisions, having them span multiple tiers. It also makes it virtually impossible for a WFA3 team to compete for a division title, and creating incentives for teams on the lower end of the developmental scale was part of the rationale behind creating the tier system in the first place.

Anyway, it just makes more sense to group teams first by tier and then geographically along with the other teams against whom they’ll compete for playoff slots. Once you lay it out like that (as I’m about to do for you), you’ll see that it all comes together quite nicely.

Introducing WFA1

In a previous article, I shared the 12 teams that were under consideration in the preseason for WFA1 before the San Diego Surge announced their hiatus. Well, as it turns out, there are 13 teams competing in WFA1 this year, and the 11 remaining teams from that list (sans San Diego) will all be included in WFA1. Here they are, ladies and gents…the 13 teams in WFA1:

Eastern Conference
Atlanta Phoenix
Boston Renegades
Chicago Force
Cleveland Fusion
D.C. Divas
Pittsburgh Passion

Western Conference
Midwest Region
Arlington Impact
Dallas Elite
Kansas City Titans
Pacific Region
Central Cal War Angels
Pacific Warriors
Portland Fighting Shockwave
Seattle Majestics

I wrote in the previous article, “It would make sense for the WFA to find a 12th team to fill San Diego’s spot in the Western Conference, preferably a team in the Midwest Region who could pair up with Kansas City and Dallas…The top contenders to possibly fill the 12th spot in WFA1, in my mind, would be the St. Louis Slam or the Arlington Impact.” And yep, the Arlington Impact stepped up and stepped into the top tier of the WFA, filling the third spot in the Midwest Region.

I also wrote in the previous article that the Portland Fighting Shockwave would be a natural fit in WFA1 as well, and in the only real twist as far as the members of WFA1 are concerned, Portland is in here as a 13th team.

The playoffs in WFA1 are a 12-team bracket – six from the East, and six from the West with three teams from each of the two regions. That means that one of the four teams from the Pacific Region will not make the postseason, while the other 12 teams will all make the playoffs. As I said before, that makes sense…after all, any of these teams would easily make the postseason in one of the lower divisions, so it would not be right to punish them for playing up.

Here’s the WFA1 playoff structure spelled out:

East #1
East #4/East #5

East #2
East #3/East #6

Midwest #1
Midwest #2/Midwest #3

Pacific #1
Pacific #2/Pacific #3

How the seedings will be decided is an open-ended question…last year the WFA did straight Massey, but in years prior they have considered head-to-head and other factors as well. The league hasn’t officially said how seedings will be determined, but regular readers here know how big of a Massey fan I am…it has proven to be an incredibly reliable ratings system over the years.

Anyway, here’s why this tier structure is so brilliant. I’ve heard a lot of talk from women’s football fans about the need for a “super-league”…about how we essentially need an elite, say, 12-team women’s football league where every single team is a powerhouse. Well, that’s WFA1 in a nutshell (and yes, I realize that there are 13 teams this year, but you get the point.)

Now, someone will probably say, “No, no, no…in a real super-league, all WFA1 teams would only play other WFA1 teams.” Well, that’s certainly an admirable goal someday, and it’s a goal whose progress we can track over the next few years. Right now it’s not financially feasible…compiling an eight-game or even six-game regular season schedule exclusively between WFA1 teams would result in travel costs due to the distances involved that I’m not sure individual franchises can bear at the moment. In the meantime, the workaround is to have WFA1 teams fill out their schedules with competitive local WFA2 and WFA3 teams.

But segregating the top teams in this way crystallizes where every team is, developmentally, at this moment. It tells you that the Boston Renegades/Cleveland Fusion game this weekend is a huge game, in a way that the Pittsburgh Passion/Columbus Comets game is not. No disrespect intended toward Pittsburgh and Columbus, but because Columbus is a WFA2 team, we know that the Pittsburgh-Columbus matchup is not a potential playoff preview the way the Boston-Cleveland game is.

And again, hopefully, the idea behind the tier system is that the top teams in WFA2 and bottom teams in WFA1 can switch places, maybe even annually. Playing in WFA1 should be regarded as a badge of honor and something every team should aspire to. And if we treat WFA1 like the super-league they are, there’s no telling what this could mean for how women’s football is viewed by folks on the outside.

Introducing WFA2

The great part about this structure is that there are still many quality teams remaining that can compete in WFA2. WFA2 has 18 teams, and they are:

Eastern Conference
Northeast Region
Columbus Comets
Detroit Dark Angels
Indy Crash
Philadelphia Phantomz
Toledo Reign
West Michigan Mayhem
Southeast Region
Alabama Fire
Derby City Dynamite
Huntsville Tigers
Jacksonville Dixie Blues
Tampa Bay Inferno

Western Conference
Midwest Region
Houston Power
St. Louis Slam
Pacific Region
Everett Reign
Mile High Blaze
Sin City Trojans
Tacoma Trauma
West Coast Lightning

This seems to be as good a time as any to note that there was one last-minute fold from the list of 44 WFA teams I referred to in my previous article – the Minnesota Machine have gone under. It’s a shame, because they almost certainly would have been the third team in the Midwest Region. The Machine folding is therefore notable because it reduces the WFA2 playoff bracket from 12 teams down to 11.

Here’s the WFA2 playoff structure spelled out:

Northeast #1
Northeast #2/Northeast #3

Southeast #1
Southeast #2/Southeast #3

Midwest #1
Midwest #2

Pacific #1
Pacific #2/Pacific #3

Again, no definitive word yet from the league on how seedings will be determined, although, again, I suspect Massey will be heavily in play.

But how exciting is this? I mean, who’s going to win the WFA2 playoffs? I honestly have no idea…there are a number of good candidates. It should be an exciting, competitive postseason. Finally, top WFA2 teams are more than just cannon fodder come playoff time for the elite WFA1 teams…they have their own bracket to compete in, and the games should be competitive and just plain fun to follow.

Introducing WFA3

That leaves the developmental tier of WFA3, reserved for expansion teams and teams with smaller rosters. Here are the 12 teams in WFA3:

Eastern Conference
Northeast Region
Flint City Riveters
Keystone Assault
Richmond Black Widows
Southeast Region
Daytona Waverunners
Fayetteville Fierce
Orlando Anarchy
Tri-Cities Thunder

Western Conference
Midwest Region
Acadiana Zydeco
Austin Outlaws
Pacific Region
Southern Oregon Lady Renegades
Utah Blitz
Ventura County Wolfpack

The plan for the WFA3 playoffs is for the top two teams in each region to form an eight-team bracket, but that’s subject to change based on travel availability of member teams.

As I said previously, I wish they could have had all of this sorted out before the season began. But since they did not, I credit them for figuring it out within a week after the first game, which is the next best thing. I am actually very enthusiastic about this layout…I think this tier system is going to be a great, great thing for all the teams involved. Here’s to a terrific year!

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