Wild card (sports)

Wild card (sports)

The term wild card refers broadly to a tournament or playoff berth awarded to an individual or team that has not qualified through normal play.


International sports

In international sports, the term is perhaps best known in reference to big international sporting events such as The Olympic Games or Wimbledon. Countries which fail to produce athletes able to meet performance requirements to compete are granted "wild cards", which enable them to send competitors to tournaments even if those competitors' abilities are below the required standards. In some instances, wild cards are given to the host nation in order to boost their chances.[1] However, in Olympic and World Championship competitions in track and field and swimming, nations are automatically allowed to enter two competitors. Thus these are not to be considered wild cards which are always granted by the tournament organizers. In some other sports in Olympics, such as judo, archery and badminton, wild card practice is in use, and they are granted by the respective sport federations. On rare occasions, a competitor who gained entry by wild card succeeds in winning a medal; Kye Sun-Hui won gold in judo at the 1996 Summer Olympics, and Goran Ivanišević won the 2001 Wimbledon Championships.

North America

In North American professional sports leagues, wild card refers to a team that qualifies for the championship playoffs without winning their specific subdivision (usually called a conference or division) outright. The number of wild card teams varies. In most cases, the rules of the league call for the wild card team to survive an extra round and/or to play the majority of their postseason games away from home.

The term should not be confused with playoff formats that call for a set number of teams to qualify per division. The American Football League's 1969 playoffs (qualifying the top two finishers from each division), the National Basketball Association's 1967-1970 playoffs (qualifying the top four finishers from each division) and 1970-1972 playoffs (qualifying the top two finishers in each division), and the National Hockey League's 1968-1974 and 1982-1993 playoffs (qualifying the top four finishers from each division) should not be confused with wild-card playoff formats. When a wild-card playoff format is used, the number of teams that may qualify per division is not fixed; the divisional champion will usually qualify automatically, but non-division finishers qualify based on record either in the league overall or within a conference.

Major League Baseball

See also: Major League Baseball Wild Card, List of AL Wildcard winners, List of NL Wildcard winners, and Major League Baseball division winners (and wild-card winners)

In Major League Baseball, the wild-card playoff spot is given to the team in each league with the best record among the non-division winners. This was implemented after the league expanded to 28 teams and realigned its two leagues to have three divisions. Since a three team playoff would require one team to receive a bye, the wild card was created to field a fourth team. The wild card has been in effect since 1995, although it was first intended to be used in 1994, when the playoffs were canceled due to the players' strike.

The advantages of the wild card format are that it gives non-first place teams a chance to make it to the post season, particularly when the division has a clearly dominant first place team. It can also provide excitement late in the season in such a situation, and keep fans of non-first place teams interested. Also, since the wild card is not confined to one division over another, fans are treated to a league-wide race for the fourth spot. Critics of the wild card, such as broadcaster Bob Costas in his book Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball, have argued that it diminishes the importance of the regular season by permitting a non-first place team to make the playoffs, and that while it can create a league-wide wild card race, that race is for second place and takes away what would otherwise be a pennant race between the first and second place teams, and can lead to teams playing for the wild card rather than playing to win the division. As of November 2010, MLB is considering a 10-team playoff to address this issue, which will require the wild-card teams to survive a one-game playoff or an entire series to reach the divisional round, thus providing an incentive to win their division.[2] [3]

A wild-card team must surrender home-field advantage the first two rounds of the playoffs. For the World Series, however, home-field advantage is determined beforehand, without reference to wild-card status. Prior to 2003, it was decided by alternating each year between the American and National Leagues. Since 2003, it has been granted to the winner of the All-Star Game. In the 2002 World Series, both the Anaheim Angels and the San Francisco Giants were wild-card teams. The World Series champions in 1997, 2003, 2004 and 2011 were also wild-card teams.

In the Division Series, the wild-card team (which could be considered analogous to the fourth seed in other sports tournaments) plays the team with the best record in the league as long as the two teams are in different divisions. An MLB rule prohibits teams in the same division from facing each other in the Division Series. In the event that a wild-card team is in the same division as the team with the best record, the former will play the second-best team in the league while the latter will face the third-best. This parallels the policy of the NFL after the NFL/AFL merger, when the league opted to include a wild-card team in each conference’s playoffs. (From 1970 to 1989, NFL teams in the same division couldn't meet in the divisional playoffs. This policy ensured that the two best teams in a given league could face off in the league championship, even if both were from the same division.)

Wild-card World Series champions

Other Wild-card World Series participants

Record disparities

Since the MLB wild-card format was introduced in 1994, there have been several instances in which a team failed to make the playoffs despite having a better record than another team within its own league that made the playoffs by winning its division. However, since each division plays a different schedule, records across divisions are not always directly comparable.

Note: These type of disparity scenarios also occurred before the wild-card format as recently as 1993 in the National League when the 97-65 Philadelphia Phillies made the playoffs and the 103-59 San Francisco Giants did not.
American League
National League

National Football League

In the NFL, each of the two conferences sends two wild-card teams along with four division champions to its postseason. The first round of the playoffs is called the "Wild Card Round". In this round, each conference's two best (by regular-season record) division champions are exempted from play and granted automatic berths in the "Divisional Round". The four division champions are seeded from #1 through #4, while the two wild card teams are seeded #5 and #6; within these separations, seeding is by regular-season record. In the "Wild Card Round", the #6 team (a wild card team) plays against the #3 team (a division champion) and the #5 team (a wild card team) plays against the #4 team (a division champion). The division champions have automatic home-field advantage in these games. In the "Divisional Round", the worst seeded remaining team plays the #1 seeded team, while the best seeded remaining team that played in the wildcard round play the #2 seed. Both the #1 seed and #2 seed have home-field advantage in the divisional round. See NFL playoffs.

The NFL was the first league ever to use the wild-card format. When the league realigned into two conferences of three divisions each in 1970, it wanted an even four-team playoff field in each conference. This was established by having the three division champions in each conference joined by the best second-place finisher in the conference. At first, this team was referred as the "Best Second-Place Team" (or sometimes simply as the "Fourth Qualifier"). The media, however, began referring to the qualifying teams as "wild cards." Eventually, the NFL officially adopted the term. During the 1975, 1976, and 1977 seasons, the divisional playoffs featured the #1 seed hosting the wild card team and the #2 seed hosting the #3 seed unless the #1 seed and wild card team were divisional rivals. In that case, the #1 seed hosted the #3 seed and the #2 seed hosted the wild card team. (This policy is currently used by Major League Baseball in its Division Series.) From 1970 through 1974, the NFL used a rotation to determine which teams would host conference semifinal and final games, and which teams would play which other teams (conicidentally baseball also used a rotation when it began to have this number of teams, for both of the aforementioned purposes, from 1995-1997 before switching to the seeding method).

The number of wild-card qualifiers was expanded to two per conference in 1978 — the divisional winners were granted a bye week whilst the wild card teams played (hence the origin of the phrase "Wild-Card Round"). Like wild card teams before, the wild card game winner played the #1 seed, or the #2 seed if they and the #1 seed were divisional rivals. The playoffs were expanded again to three wild cards per conference in 1990 with the lowest ranked divisional winner losing its bye (and divisional rivals could now meet in the divisional playoffs). Following the addition of the Houston Texans in 2002, the league added a fourth division to each conference. The league decided not to change the number of playoff teams, and thus the number of wild card qualifiers was reduced to two per conference.

Wild card Super Bowl champions

Other Wild card Super Bowl participants

The 1980 Raiders, 2005 Steelers, and 1992 Bills tied for first in their division but lost a tiebreaker.

While not a wild card team, the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs were the first non-division winner to win the Super Bowl. They finished second in the Western Division of the American Football League, and in that season, the last before the merger, the AFL went from having its two division winners meeting for the league title to adding a second round in which the second place team in each division qualified for the post-season. These teams played cross-division in the semifinal round. Thus the Chiefs, who finished second in the West, defeated the East Division champion New York Jets in the AFL semifinals and then defeated the West Division champion Oakland Raiders to advance to Super Bowl IV, where they beat the Minnesota Vikings. Because the term "wild card" was not instituted until the following year, the Chiefs are not included in the above list, but are recognized as the first team to win the Super Bowl without winning a division title.


Although the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League include wild-card teams in their playoff structures, the term "wild card" is seldom used in the NBA or NHL; instead, each playoff team is most commonly denoted by its seeding position within the conference.

In the NHL, division champions within each conference are given the #1 through #3 seeds based on their regular-season records. The five wild-card teams are awarded the #4 through #8 seeds, also based on their regular-season records. The division champions (first, second, and third seeds) and the best wild-card team (fourth seed) are given home ice advantage in the opening playoff series, in which they face the eighth-, seventh-, sixth- and fifth-seeded wild card teams, respectively.

The initial bracketing of the NBA playoffs by seed is identical to that of the NHL. However, the NBA playoffs have one feature unique in North American professional sports—home court advantage is determined strictly by regular-season record, without regard to seeding.

Before the 2006-07 NBA season, the NBA seeded its teams in the same manner as the NHL. Now, the NBA seeds the three division winners and the wild-card team with the best record by regular-season record. This means that the wild-card with the best record can now get a seed as high as #2 (if that team is in the same division as the team with the best record in the conference); however, the next four wild-card teams will still be limited to the #5 through #8 seeds. This change was made to ensure that the two best teams in each conference could not meet until the conference final, and also (allegedly) to try and eliminate incentives for a playoff-bound team to deliberately lose games at the end of the regular season in order to "choose" a higher-seeded team that has won fewer games (and, due to the unique home-court rules of the NBA, possibly gain home-court advantage for that series).

In the NBA, the winner of the #1 vs. #8 series goes on to face the winner of the #5 vs. #4 series, while the winner of the #2 vs. #7 series faces the winner of the #6 vs. #3 series. Notice that the winner of the #1 vs. #8 series will usually play against a wild-card team in the second round of the playoffs; this is arranged deliberately to "reward" the #1 seeded team by giving it the most winnable matchups in the first and second rounds.

In the NHL, however, the play-off format differs slightly from that of the NBA. In the NHL, the highest winning seed of the first round plays the lowest winning seed of the first round in the next round of the play-offs. For example, if the #1, #4, #6, and #7 seeds win their respective first round series then the second round of the play-offs will match the #1 seed (highest) versus the #7 seed (lowest) and the #4 seed (2nd highest) versus the #6 seed (second lowest). Home ice advantage in each NHL playoff series prior to the Stanley Cup Finals is granted by superior seed, even if the "wild card" team had a better regular season record. For the Finals, the team with the better record will receive home ice advantage.

Professional Tennis

In professional tennis tournaments, a wild card refers to a tournament entry awarded to a player at the discretion of the organizers. All ATP and WTA tournaments have a few spots set aside for wild cards in both the main draw, and the qualifying draw, for players who otherwise would not have made either of these draws with their professional ranking. They are usually awarded to players from the home country, promising young players, players that are likely to draw a large crowd, or players who were once ranked higher and are attempting a comeback (e.g. Alicia Molik at the 2006 US Open). In 2001, Goran Ivanišević won the Wimbledon Men's Singles Championships having been handed a wild-card entry by the organising All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. In 2009, Kim Clijsters won the US Open tournament also by entering into tournament thanks to the wild card granted.


Motorcycle racing

In motorcycle racing the term 'wild card' is used for competitors only involved in individual rounds of a championship, usually their local round. Local riders taking advantage of their local knowledge (often having raced that circuit on that bike before) and affording to take risks without planning for a championship, often upset established runners. Makoto Tamada and Shaky Byrne have both taken double victories in Superbike World Championship rounds in their home countries. The most famous wild card entry perhaps was the late Daijiro Kato with finishing 3rd at his first appearance in 1996 and then winning the Japanese 250cc Grand Prix back to back in 1997 and 1998 on his way to become the most successful 250cc World Champion of all time in 2001.

Grand Prix motorcycle racing[4]

Each Grand Prix host Federation (FMNR) may nominate 3 wild card entries for the 125 cc and 250 cc classes in their own Grand Prix only.

The MSMA (Motorcycle Sport Manufacturers’ Association) may, at each event, nominate 1 wild card entry for the 250 cc and MotoGP classes.

The FIM may, at each event, nominate 2 wild card entries for the 125 cc and 250 cc classes and FIM/DORNA may, at each event, nominate 1 wild card entry for the MotoGP class.

Superbike World Championship[5]

Each Event host Federation (FMNR) may nominate 4 wild card entries for the Superbike class and 2 wild card entries for the Supersport and Superstock classes, in their own event only.

The FIM may nominate 2 wild card entries for the Superbike class.

Motorcycle Speedway

In Motorcycle Speedway, wild cards compete in the Speedway Grand Prix events in which there is 1 wild card per competition (until 2005 there were 2 per Grand Prix.). So far only 3 wild cards have won a Grand Prix, those were Mark Loram in 1999,[6] Martin Dugard in 2000[7] and most recently Hans Andersen in 2006 who later that year replaced a permanent rider, and went on to win another GP.[8]

Auto racing

Wild Card entries are not unknown in auto racing either, although the Concorde Agreement in modern-day Formula One requires all teams to participate in every event. John Love came close to winning the 1967 South African Grand Prix in a wild card type situation, long before the term had been coined. Although the term is rarely used in NASCAR, the concept of a road course ringer is similar. Before the late-1990s, NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series races in the West and Northeast respectively would have several drivers from the Winston West and Busch North series, as the series regulations were very similar, and until the mid-2000s, ARCA drivers would usually attempt Cup races in the Midwest and at restrictor-plate races.

During the period of the mid-1980s until 2004, individual NASCAR races utilized the "Promoter's Option" (also known as Provisionals) to allow a top driver/team that did not qualify for the race, the opportunity for a "wild card" type starting position at the end of the grid. This allowed track owners to advertise and guarantee to fans that the most popular drivers would participate in the race (pleasing fans in attendance, and preventing no-shows) even if the driver had an unfortunate mishap (e.g., blown engine) or crash during time trials. Starting in 2005, only the Former Champion's Provisional remains.

During the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race (a non-points exhibition event) one driver who fails to qualify for the race is awarded a wild card spot via "Fans Choice" vote. In 2008, Kasey Kahne, was selected as a wild card via fan vote, and went on to win the race.

Starting in 2011, NASCAR's top-level Sprint Cup Series will use "wild cards" in a different context, namely that of qualifying for the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup. In previous seasons, the top 12 drivers in championship points after the first 26 races of the season automatically qualified for the Chase, with their points reset to a point unreachable by any other driver. Under the new system, only the top 10 drivers will automatically qualify. The other two Chase qualifiers will be the two drivers ranked from 11th through 20th after 26 races who have the most race wins, with tiebreakers used as necessary to restrict the number of "wild cards" to two.

Use outside North America

Although the term "wild card" is not generally used in this context outside North America, a few competitions effectively employ such a system to determine one or more places in a future phase of a competition.


The Euroleague, a Europe-wide competition for elite basketball clubs, once had one "wild card" advancing from its first phase, officially the Regular Season, to its second, called the Top 16. The rule was in place through the 2007–08 season.

At that time, the competition began each year with 24 clubs, divided into three groups. (Today, the competition starts with a preliminary stage of 16 teams playing down to two survivors, who join 22 other teams in the Regular Season.) Then as now, the groups played a double round-robin for the Regular Season, with eight clubs eliminated and the remaining clubs advancing to the Top 16.

Under the rules in place through 2007–08, the top five clubs in each group automatically advanced. The final "wild card" spot in the Top 16 went to the sixth-place club with the best overall record, with three potential tiebreaking steps. A coin toss is not indicated as a possible step.

Starting in 2008–09, the "wild card" was abolished when the Regular Season was reorganized into four groups with 6 teams apiece. Now, the top four teams in each group advance to the Top 16. No change to the tiebreakers was made.

Heineken Cup and European Challenge Cup

The Heineken Cup, rugby union's analogue to the Euroleague, also has "wild card" teams advancing to its knockout stages. Starting in 2009–10, the competition organiser, European Rugby Cup (ERC), instituted a system that allows other "wild card" teams to parachute into ERC's second-tier competition, the European Challenge Cup.

Like the Euroleague Regular Season, the Heineken Cup starts each season with 24 clubs and divides them into pools, with each team playing a double round-robin within its pool. However, Heineken Cup pools consist of four clubs instead of the Euroleague's six, resulting in six pools. Eight clubs advance to the knockout stages. The top club in each pool advances; the two "wild card" places are filled by the two second-place clubs with the best overall records. Since 2009–10, the three second-place teams with the next-best records have parachuted into the Challenge Cup. The tiebreaking procedure, used to determine overall seeding, is almost as elaborate as that of the NFL, with a total of seven steps (a coin flip is the last).

Prior to 2009–10, the Challenge Cup also had "wild card" teams entering its knockout stages. That competition begins with 20 teams, divided into four-team pools as in the Heineken Cup, resulting in five pools. The top club in each pool advanced to the knockout stage, along with the three second-place teams with the best records, using the same tiebreaking procedure as the Heineken Cup. Starting in 2009–10, only the winner of each pool enters the knockout stage, to be joined by the teams parachuting in from the Heineken Cup.

Super Rugby

The Super Rugby competition, involving regional franchises from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, adopted a new playoff system with "wild cards" when it expanded to 15 teams in 2011.

In its previous incarnations as Super 12 and Super 14 (each number reflecting the number of teams in the competition), it used a Shaughnessy playoff system in which the top four teams advanced to a knockout stage. The expansion to 15 teams led to major changes in the competition format.

The competition is now divided into three conferences of five teams each, with every conference consisting solely of teams from one of the participating countries. At the end of the regular season, the winners of each conference receive playoff berths. These teams are joined by three "wild cards", specifically the three non-winners with the most competition points without regard to conference. (Tiebreakers will be employed as necessary.)

Philippine Basketball Association

In the Philippine Basketball Association, the playoffs are done after an elimination (in 2005-06, a classification) round where the top two teams with the best records are given semi-final byes, the next 3 are given quarterfinal byes, the next 4 are given entry to the wildcard phase, and the tenth team is eliminated.

The winner of the wild card playoffs, varying in format from a round-robin, a single-elimination or sudden death, usually meets the strongest quarterfinalist (the 3rd seed). The wild card winner's next opponent for the quarterfinals rested while the wild card phase was ongoing so the chance of advancing to the semi-finals (in which a team rested longer) is slim.

The only wild card champion are the 7th-seeded Barangay Ginebra Kings in the 2004 PBA Fiesta Conference after 7 years of championship drought they made an epic run all the way to the throne, in which the top 2 teams were given semifinal byes while the bottom eight went through a knock-out wild card tournament. Since the addition of the quarterfinal bye, no wild card has entered the Finals, although the Air21 Express won the third-place trophy at the 2005-06 PBA Fiesta Conference.

ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final

For both the junior and senior Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final (which starting in the 2008-2009 figure skating season will be merged into a single two-division event), the hosting federation may issue a wild card invitation to one of their own skaters should no skater from the host country qualify for the event through the Grand Prix circuit. Use of the wild card has not been common; however, it was used at the 2007-2008 Junior Grand Prix Final by the Polish federation.


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