I love watching sports when the outcome is unpredictable — watching sporting events between two players or teams who are evenly matched and who are equally motivated to win the competition. I don’t get as excited when the outcome becomes predictable. Although it is always enjoyable to see top level players perform well and certainly it’s less emotionally draining when our favorite teams/players are ahead, it’s definitely not as exciting or as fun when the outcome becomes certain. As an example, I had the chance to go to the women’s basketball game between the University of Connecticut (#1 in the country) and Duke University (then, #7 in the country) a couple of weeks ago. I was excited because these are two top teams and I expected a very close and exciting contest. It was close for much of the game; but towards the end of the game, when the Huskies pulled ahead by 25 or so points, my interest waned. Not that I didn’t enjoy watching these highly skilled players perform and watching the antics from the coaches, but truthfully the thrill of the competition itself had paled, and I was wishing I hadn’t caught a ride with one of the score keepers.
So, that got me thinking. The thing that makes sports so exciting and fun to watch is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. Athletes are going to give it their all and, hopefully, perform at the best of their ability and we get to see what happens in the end. Do they win or do they lose? It’s the not-knowing that makes it fun to watch!
So, after watching the NFC Championship game, I started thinking some more about competition in sport, what it means, and how it influences a spectator’s enjoyment of the events. I’m sure many of you watched the NFC Championship game between the New Orleans Saints and the Minnesota Vikings – the score was tied at the end of regulation. The rules for overtime in the NFL are that a coin toss determines ball possession to start the overtime period, and whoever scores first wins the game. People have been talking about this overtime system for years (it was implemented in 1974) and most of the discussions that I’ve seen or heard in the media argue against this system. The reason? Well, it’s probably obvious, but the problem with the current system is that the outcome of the game becomes at least partially contingent upon who wins the coin toss. If you look at statistics presented from 1974 until now, you get a sense of what’s happened since 1974 and you find that 52% of the time, the team that wins the coin toss goes on to win the game. But, if you look at more recent history, the percentage is even higher. This has been attributed as being a result of changes in the game of football that have occurred over the last 35 years. In 1974, kickoffs were taken from the 40 yard line, but now kickoffs are taken from the 30 yard line. Also, in 1974, field goal kickers were 20% less accurate than they are now (Pesca, 2009). So, if you look at more recent statistics accumulated over the past 5 years, there is a huge advantage to winning the coin toss. The record for teams receiving the ball first in overtime over the past 5 years has been 11-4-1. Clearly, this is not an “even playing field”. As further evidence, consider that from 2000-2007, 124 overtime games were played and the team that won the coin toss elected to receive the ball first in 123 of those games. Clearly, the teams are aware of the huge advantage gained by having the ball for the first possession. This seems completely crazy to me! The joy of sport is embodied by the fact that the outcome is unpredictable. But, the overtime rules in the NFL make it so that the outcome is predictable and is based upon a coin toss. And just think, the Super Bowl could come down to that too. Both teams could go out there and play their hardest and put everything they have on the field, but in the end if it’s tied, the NFL rules are such that we will decide the winner by tossing a coin.
I get similarly fired up every time I watch the NCAA women’s softball college world series. This tournament is set up is as a double-elimination tournament until you get down to the final two teams. Then, the final two teams play the best 2 out of 3 games. This probably seems fair on the surface. But, I remember in 2007 when it didn’t seem to play out fairly. In that year, Tennessee went through the tournament bracket undefeated and then in the 2 out of 3 championship series faced Arizona which is a team they had already beaten in the tournament. Tennessee won the first game. So, at that point, they had beaten Arizona twice in the tournament and, in my opinion, should have been deemed champions (because at that point, they had won 2 times out of 2). However, the tournament is set up so that the 2 out of 3 only starts once we get down to the final two teams. So, Arizona won the next 2 games and were crowned champions. But, at that point, the cumulative game score for the tournament was 2-2. To me, that means that the two teams were actually tied and another game should have been played to determine the winner. Think about it, if two teams are evenly matched, then you’d expect each team to win ½ of the time. Clearly, when you have identified your two top teams in a sport, you’d expect them to be evenly matched. So, then, since Tennessee had already beaten Arizona once in the tournament, the most likely outcome of the 2 out of 3 series is for Arizona to win twice and Tennessee to win once. In fact, if Tennessee had won the tournament, they would have in fact beaten Arizona three times and Arizona would have either won once or not at all. So, again, I question the system which is in place to determine the champion.
I wonder if there are other examples in sport where it doesn’t seem that the “playing field” is level and that the outcome is unpredictable? If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, then you know that he presents data suggesting that an athlete’s potential in sport is at least partly determined by his or her birthday. The reason is because of the effect that birth date has on a child’s precise age relative to others in his or her cohort. In other words, in sport, most age-group teams include kids with birthdays that cover a 12-month span. At the younger ages, this variability makes a huge difference in a child’s motor, cognitive, and physical development and clearly gives the kids who are older an advantage. This advantage then manifests into opportunities to be selected for more competitive teams, to get access to better coaching, etc. So, again, a case where perhaps the “playing field” is not the same for everyone.
So, after all of this pondering, I guess my point is simply that it makes me crazy that there are systems in sport that do not appear to result in players or teams fully determining the outcome of the event based upon their own talents, physical attributes, and performance. Obviously, things happen in sport all the time that result in an unfair advantage to a player or team, but I’m talking about systems that make outcomes in sport predictable. Who in the world could possibly want the winner of the Super Bowl to be determined by a coin toss? Why would we identify one team as the champion in the NCAA Softball Championship when the two finalists have a 2:2 record against one another in the tournament? And, why would we want children who are born with certain birthdays to be at a disadvantage in sport?
Pesca, M. (February, 2009). Are NFL Overtime Rules Overdue for a Change? From http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100119724
For more articles on the topic of overtime rules in the NFL see http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/2166775/overtime_rules_nfl_overtime_vs_college.html