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In international sports, the term is perhaps best known in reference to big international sporting events such as the Olympic Games and Wimbledon. Countries which fail to produce athletes who meet qualification standards are granted "wild cards", which allow them to enter competitors whose proven abilities are below the standard otherwise required. In some instances, wild cards are given to the host nation in order to boost its chances.
In Olympic and World Championship competitions in track and field and swimming, however, nations are automatically allowed to enter two competitors, so these instances are technically not wild cards. In some other Olympic sports, such as judo, archery, and badminton, wild cards are in use, and they are granted by the respective sport federations.
On rare occasions, a competitor who had gained entry by wild card succeeds in winning a medal or the championship. For example, Kye Sun-Hui won gold in judo at the 1996 Summer Olympics, Ding Junhui won the 2005 China Open snooker championship, Goran Ivanišević won the 2001 Wimbledon Championships, Kim Clijsters won the 2009 US Open, and Lin Dan won the 2013 BWF World Championships.
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 or to play the majority of their postseason games away from home.
The term "wild card" does not apply to postseason formats where a set number of teams per division qualify. Former examples include: the American Football League's 1969 playoffs (qualifying the top two finishers from each division), the National Basketball Association's 1967-through-1970 playoffs (top four finishers from each division) and 1971–1972 playoffs (top two finishers in each division), and the National Hockey League's 1968–1974 and 1982–1993 playoffs (top four finishers from each division) are not true wild-card formats. When a wild-card playoff format is used, the number of teams in a division that qualify is not fixed; the divisional champion automatically qualifies, but non-division winners qualify, based either on league record or conference record.
In Major League Baseball (MLB), wild-card playoff spots are given to the two teams in each league (four teams overall) with the best records among the non-division winners. The initial wild-card format was implemented after MLB expanded to 28 teams and realigned its two leagues to each have three divisions. Since a three-team playoff would require one team to receive a bye, the wild card was created to allow a fourth team. The wild card has been in effect since 1995, although it was supposed to be used in 1994; the postseason was canceled due to the players' strike. In 2012, a second wild card was added to each league. The two wild card teams in each league face each other in a one-game playoff, with the winner facing the number 1 seed in the Division Series.
The advantages of the wild card format are that it allows a second- (or third-) place team a chance to win the World Series, even if there is a dominant division winner. As the wild cards are not awarded by division, the additional teams are part of league-wide races for the fourth and fifth spots. Critics of the wild card, such as broadcaster Bob Costas in his book Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball, have argued that, of the four major North American sports, baseball, having the most regular-season games (now 162), places the largest importance on the regular season, and the wild cards diminish the importance of the regular season by permitting a "second banana" team to make the playoffs, and that while it creates a league-wide race, it is for second place (and maybe third place) in a division, and takes away what would otherwise be a pennant race between first- and second-place teams, and can lead to teams playing for the wild card rather than to win the division. The second wild card was added in 2012 to address the issue of teams being content to rest players and win the wild card instead of trying to win the division. Also, because of the "sudden-death" round, these teams often use their best starting pitcher, leaving them unavailable for much of the Division Series.
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. From 2003 to 2016, it was granted to the winner of the All-Star Game. Since 2017, it has been granted to the team with the better record. In the 2002 World Series, both the Anaheim Angels and the San Francisco Giants were wild-card teams, as were the Giants and the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 World Series. The World Series champions in 1997, 2003, 2004, and 2011 were also wild-card teams.
In the National Football League (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 plays the #2 seed. Both the #1 seed and #2 seed have home-field advantage in the divisional round.
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 was also the format used in Major League Baseball from 1995 through 2011.
In 1978, the playoffs were expanded to 10 teams, however, the restriction against teams in the same division playing each other in the divisional round continued until the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990. During this time, the #1 seed hosted the winner of the #4 vs #5 wild card game, while the #2 seed played the #3 seed. If the #1 seed and the winner of the #4 vs #5 wild card game were in the same division, then the #1 seed played the #3 seed, while the #2 seed played the #4 vs #5 winner. When Major League Baseball expanded its playoffs to 10 teams in 2012, it also used this format, although teams in the same division could play each other in the 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 (coincidentally, 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 while 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 (or 12 teams total, which remains now) with the lowest ranked divisional winner losing its bye. 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, with the two lowest ranked divisional winners not receiving byes. The term "Wild Card Round" continues to be used for the opening weekend of NFL playoffs, even though that weekend has involved both wild card and non-wild card teams since 1990.
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 (NBA) include wild-card teams in their playoff structures, the term "wild card" is seldom used; instead, each playoff team is most commonly denoted by its seeding position within the conference.
In the NBA, division champions within each conference were given the #1-3 seeds based on their regular-season records. The two fourth-placed wild-card teams are awarded the #7 and #8 seeds, respectively, also based on their regular-season records. In the NBA playoffs, 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. Until 2015, 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 got 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). Since the 2015-16 NBA season, the seeded teams are ranked by percentage unless the team wins a division in a tiebreaker.
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 Conference Semifinals; 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 National Hockey League (NHL), the first, second, and third place teams in each division qualify for the playoffs automatically, with the two divisional champions assigned the #1 and #2 seeds. Two additional teams, regardless of divisional alignment, also qualify by having the best records among the remaining teams in the conference. These teams are referred to as the Wild Cards. The division champions play the Wild Cards, while the second and third placed teams in each division play each other; therefore the bracket is fixed, like the NBA.
Before the 2013–14 NHL season, division champions within each conference were given the #1-3 seeds based on their regular-season records. The two fourth-placed wild-card teams are awarded the #7 and #8 seeds, respectively, also based on their regular-season records. The division champions (first-third seeds) and the best second place team (fourth seed) were given home ice advantage in the opening playoff series, in which they face the eighth-seeded through fifth-seeded teams, respectively. However, the play-off format differed slightly from that of the NBA. In the NHL, the highest winning seed of the first round played 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 matched 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 was 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.
Major League Soccer (MLS), the top level of soccer (football) in both countries, used a wild card format starting in its 2011 playoffs. The top three teams from each of its two conferences automatically qualified for the conference semifinals, while the four remaining teams with the highest point totals in league play, without regard to conference, earned "wild cards" into the playoffs. The wild card matches were single games, with the #7 seed hosting the #10 seed and the #8 seed hosting the #9 seed. The lowest surviving seed then played the Supporters' Shield winner (i.e., the team with the highest point total), while the other surviving wild card played the top seed in the other conference.
The "wild card" format was revamped for the 2012 season. Since 2015, the top six teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs, with the #1 & #2 seeds in each conference automatically qualifying for the conference semifinals, and seeds #3-6 in each conference being wild cards. The lowest-seeded winner (played between the #4 & #5, and #3 & #6 seeds) in each conference plays the #1 seed, and the next-lowest playing the #2 seed in the conference semifinals.
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 and/or sponsoring country (sometimes after a tournament where the winner is awarded the wild card), promising young players, players that are likely to draw a large crowd, have won the tournament earlier or players who were once ranked higher and are attempting a comeback (for instance, following a long-term injury). High ranked players can also ask for a wild card if they want to enter a non-mandatory tournament after the normal entry deadline, for example because they lost early in another tournament. This means a wild card player sometimes becomes the top seed. Some Grand Slam tournaments swap wild cards, like Australian Open, French Open, and US Open.
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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.
Each Grand Prix host Federation (FMNR) may nominate 3 wild card entries for the Moto3 and Moto2 classes in their own Grand Prix only.
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). As of 2014[update] six wild cards have won a Grand Prix: Mark Loram in 1999, Martin Dugard in 2000, Hans Andersen in 2006 (later that year he replaced a permanent rider and went on to win another GP), Michael Jepsen Jensen in 2012, Adrian Miedziński in 2013 and Bartosz Zmarzlik in 2014.
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.
From 2011 to 2013, NASCAR's top-level Sprint Cup Series used "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 2011–2013 system, only the top 10 drivers automatically qualified. The other two Chase qualifiers were the two drivers ranked from 11th through 20th after 26 races with the most race wins, with tiebreakers used as necessary to restrict the number of "wild cards" to two. Major changes to the Chase format that took effect in 2014, most notably determining the newly expanded Chase field of 16 mainly by race wins, eliminated this type of "wild card".
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.
In the Olympics, several sport governing bodies award wild cards to nations in order to further promote their sport. Sports governing bodies will either make selections or hold a tournament to determine the wild cards. One such notable wild card selection was Equatorial Guinea swimmer Eric Moussambani, who finished last in the 100m meter event in the 2000 Summer Olympics.
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.
The world championship for basketball, the FIBA Basketball World Cup, invites four wild cards to complete its 24-team field. Teams have to participate in qualifying for the World Cup, have to apply to be one, and FIBA is not allowed more than three teams from the same continent in order to be selected. This setup began in 2006, where Italy, Puerto Rico, Serbia and Montenegro, and Turkey were selected by FIBA; Turkey made the best performance, reaching the quarterfinals. In 2010, FIBA selected Germany, Lithuania, Lebanon, and Russia as the wild cards, with Lithuania finishing third, and Russia making it to the quarterfinals. For the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, FIBA selected Brazil, Finland, Greece, and Turkey; 2014 will be the last time FIBA will select wild cards, as the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup would no longer have wild cards when it expands to 32 teams.
Rugby union's analogue to the Euroleague is the European Rugby Champions Cup, which replaced the previous top-level club competition, the Heineken Cup, starting with the 2014–15 season. The Champions Cup maintains a system originally created for the Heineken Cup in which some "wild card" teams advance to the competition's knockout stages. Also starting in 2014–15, the organiser of the Champions Cup, European Professional Club Rugby, introduced this type of "wild card" to the second-level European Rugby Challenge Cup.
During the last five seasons of the Heineken Cup (2009–10 to 2013–14), another "wild card" system allowed teams to parachute into the original European Challenge Cup, which has now been replaced by the current Challenge Cup. This was scrapped with the creation of the current Challenge Cup.
Both the Champions Cup and current Challenge Cup involve 20 clubs (compared to 24 in the Heineken Cup and 20 in the original Challenge Cup), divided into pools of four clubs with each club playing a double round-robin within its pool. In both competitions, eight clubs advance to the knockout stages. The top club in each pool advances; the three "wild card" places are filled by the second-place clubs with the best overall records. For the Champions Cup, the number of wild cards increased by one from the Heineken Cup era; both versions of the Challenge Cup had three wild cards, but the original version filled them in an entirely different manner.
In the final years of the Heineken Cup, starting in 2009–10 and ending with the 2014 reorganisation of European club rugby, the three second-place teams with the next-best records after those that advanced to the Heineken Cup knockout stage parachuted into the Challenge Cup.
The tiebreaking procedure used to determine overall seeding, which was devised in the Heineken Cup era and carried over intact into the current era, 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 original Challenge Cup also had "wild card" teams entering its knockout stages. 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 entered the knockout stage, to be joined by the teams parachuting in from the Heineken Cup. As noted above, with the creation of the new Challenge Cup, that competition abandoned this system in favour of the system used in the Champions Cup.
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.
Through the 2015 season, the competition was 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 received playoff berths. These teams were joined by three "wild cards", specifically the three non-winners with the most competition points without regard to conference. (Tiebreakers were employed as necessary.)
The competition is now divided into the Australasian Group, including all Australian and New Zealand teams, and the African Group, consisting of the South African teams plus the Argentine and Japanese franchises. In turn, the Australasian Group is divided into Australia and New Zealand Conferences, and the African Group is split into Africa 1 and Africa 2 Conferences. As in the 2011–15 system, the conference winners will receive playoff berths. The number of wild cards will increase to four, with the three top non-winners from the Australasian Group and the top non-winner from the African Group, again based on competition points, earning those spots.
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.
The wild card set up was no longer used when the league reverted to the 3-conference format starting from the 2010–11 PBA season.
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.
The same rationale exists in international association football, specifically FIFA World Cup qualifying stages. Typically in FIFA World Cup qualifying stages in Europe, for example, 2nd placed teams are all ranked by number of points. The team with the most points is guaranteed automatic qualification to the FIFA World Cup. The team with the least points is eliminated (points from victories against the last-placed team in each country's respective group being deducted), while teams in between generally play a 2-game playoff to determine qualification.
In the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, the premier competition in Gaelic football, each of the thirty-two counties in Ireland as well as London and New York play in their respective Provincial Championships through a knock-out cup competition format without seeds. The winners of each of the four Provincial Championships earn one of eight places in the All-Ireland Quarter Finals.
The thirty teams that fail to win their respective Provincial Championships receive a second opportunity to reach the All-Ireland Series via the All Ireland Qualifiers (also known as the 'back door', similar to a Wild Card).
In road cycling (teams), a wild card refers to an invitation to a race which a particular team would not normally be able to enter. Usually used for top division (currently UCI World Tour) races where the organization want more teams, lower league teams will be invited. It is very common to offer a wild card for teams from the same country to help local sport and to boost national pride. For example, for the 100th "Tour de France" in 2013, the organisers (the Amaury Sport Organisation) awarded three wild cards to French teams: Cofidis, Sojasun and Team Europcar, all of which were UCI Professional Continental teams at the time and therefore not automatically invited, unlike the UCI ProTeams which made up the vast majority of the entry list. Teams can apply for a wild card.
In January 2015, Team MTN-Qhubeka from South Africa accepted an invitation to participate in the 2015 edition of "Tour de France". MTN-Qhubeka was the first African team to receive a wild card entry into the event that was held from 4 to 26 July 2015.