Do you really always "play to win the game" in sports?

Sports are constructed universes that each have their own set of rules. One of the most attractive aspects about being a frequent visitor to a sports world is that it’s rules are so much clearer and more well defined than the rules of the real world. Each sport has a clear objective and every game that’s played has a winner and a loser. It’s no coincidence that virtually every sports arena has a large screen in it which shows the current score at all times. Unlike the other facets of most people’s lives — workplace dramas, romantic relationships, friendships, etc. — a sports fan always knows how their team is doing. Every game ends with a win or a loss. Every season ends with a championship or no championship. In a blurry, grey world, sports offers black and white contrasts. Fans, athletes, coaches, and general managers are free to pursue a single goal with an unwavering commitment rarely available or wise outside the realm of sports.

“You play to win the game.” If you were to watch ESPN 24 hours a day (not a real recommendation) you would probably hear this phrase at least four or five times a day. The phrase first assaulted the  sports Zeitgeist in 2002 when New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards said it in a post-game press conference.

The appeal of Edward’s rant is, at first glance, obvious. It’s a strident statement of the foundational truth about sports that we described above. Sports is objective. There is a winner and a loser and the goal is to be the winner. The second level of enjoyment for many people is in how dismissive and obnoxious Edwards is being towards the media member who somehow suggested that winning was not the ultimate purpose of sports. Bullying media members is, at this point in the United States, basically its own sport, and Edwards (who now works for ESPN himself,) is a champion at disdain. Forget those first two levels though, it’s the third level that we’re interested in today. The third level of interpretation reveals that this quote is complex. The thing about “playing to win the game,” is that it isn’t really true. Or at least, it’s a more paradoxical truth than it seems at first glance.

Today we’ll look at some of the ways in which teams don’t always choose to win games at all costs in two sports: NBA basketball and European club soccer.

NBA Basketball

Not trying to win or even trying not to win is one of the biggest topics in basketball right now. It’s seen as a crisis by many. There are two main ways in which teams subvert the single-minded goal of winning each game. The first is a strategy commonly known as tanking, where teams try to increase their chances of getting a high draft pick in an upcoming draft by losing as many games as possible in the current season. In an article on mathematical elimination, I described tanking as “a scourge to the sports world roughly equal to the flu in the normal world or sarcoidosis on House.” Tanking is trying not to win. The other focus of attention in the NBA is teams not trying to win an individual game by choosing not to play a player who is theoretically healthy enough to play that game. Unlike tanking, this tactic is used more by teams that believe themselves to be in championship contention.


More than any other team sport, basketball teams are only as good as their best player. If you start in 1980, and list out the NBA Championship winners by their best player, the names are almost all recognizable, even to non-sports fans: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Magic, Julius Irving (Dr. J), Bird, Magic, Bird, Magic, Magic, Isaiah Thomas 2X, Michael Jordan 3x, Hakeem Olajuwan 2x, Jordan 3x, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant 3x, Duncan, the exception to the rule that is the 2004 Detroit Pistons, Duncan, Dwayne Wade, Duncan, Paul Pierce, Kobe 2x, Dirk Nowitzky, LeBron James 2x, Duncan. Only once in the past 35 years has a team without a super-star won the championship!

The clear lesson for teams is that if they don’t have a super-star, their chances of winning a championship are drastically reduced. By far the easiest way of getting a super-star on a team is to draft him, usually with one of the first picks of the NBA draft. There’s some chance involved, but at the end of every season, the team with the worst record has the best chance of getting the first pick, the second worst team, the second best chance and so on. If a team is going to be in the bottom third of the league, there’s a clear incentive to be as bad as possible.

Teams pursue this strategy in a number of ways, most of which don’t involve actually instructing their players not to score. By far the most common form of tanking is for general managers to manipulate the chances of their team winning by trading its best players. The goal is to have a set of players and coaches that all try their hardest to win but simply don’t have enough experience or talent to do it. The current Picasso of tanking is General Manager Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76ers. Hinkie, who was recently profiled brilliantly by ESPN writer Pablo S. Torre, is taking this strategy farther than anyone has ever taken it before. He’s drafted injured players so that they cannot possibly cause the team to win the year after they are drafted. He’s drafted players from Europe and the rest of the world who will not actually come to the United States to play for the 76ers for several years. One of his first moves when he got the job was to trade away the 76ers best player, Jrue Holiday, and just a week ago, he traded two of their best players away again, mostly for future picks.

It remains to be seen whether this strategy will work or whether it will be a complete disaster. It’s also unclear how much longer it will be possible. Tanking is odious enough to people in the sports world that the NBA is likely to make structural changes to how it decided its draft pick order to take away the incentive to tank.

Resting Players

Unlike tanking, where a team is eager to forgo winning games in one season for the potential of winning games in a future season, this tactic involves reducing a team’s chances of winning a game in order to increase the team’s chances of winning the championship that year. Increasingly, basketball coaches and executives are realizing that most players cannot play at peak effectiveness for an 82-game regular season and then a playoff run that could involve as many as 28 additional games.  Smart teams that hope to make it deep into the playoffs have adjusted to this knowledge by managing the number of minutes their players play during the regular season in the hopes of keeping them fresh for the playoffs. Often that means reducing a player’s normal time on the court per game from 35 minutes (out of 48) to 30 minutes over the course of the season. Other times, that might mean sitting a player for the entire second half of a game that is evidently going to be a blow-out win or loss by half-time. Even more blatant is the tactic of choosing not to have a player on the bench and available to play for a particular game.

Teams that choose to rest a player who isn’t seriously injured often choose one of the many small hurts that player is suffering from and use it as an excuse. A team might say, “Oh, So-and-So is out tonight because of a knee injury. They should be fine for the next game.” Usually the media knows this is nothing more than an excuse, but the gesture is enough to maintain the appearance that the team is optimizing to win every game. Some coaches, led by the example of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, don’t even bother with the excuse. They simply list players as “DND – CD” which stands for “Did Not Dress – Coach’s Decision.” Popovich famously thumbed his nose at the practice of using half-true injury designations to excuse coaches’ decisions to rest players in 2012 when he listed Tim Duncan as “DND – Old” for a game.

Resting players is not as noxious of a strategy as tanking, probably because the teams that do it are more well-respected (because they win) and because the future gain is so much closer and more concrete than the gains that teams tank for. The largest criticism of resting players is itself problematic. People often criticize resting players because the one game Tim Duncan sits out may be the only time a fan sees his team play in person all season or ever. By choosing to sit a player, a team is intentionally lowering the entertainment value of the game for its fans without a commensurate lowering of the cost. That argument make sense but only if sports is primarily entertainment rather than competition — and if it’s entertainment, then that in and of itself threatens the principle of trying to win every game. Uh oh, logical black hole alert! Let’s move on to soccer.

European Club Soccer

The structure of European club soccer creates a few scenarios where not winning is enough of a draw that even the most obsessed coaches are tempted to instruct their teams NOT to play to win the game. This subversion of what seems to be an obvious truth about sports is one of the curious and interesting things about learning how another continent organizes its sports leagues. Here are three common times when soccer clubs in Europe may be intent on something else more than on winning.

Balancing priorities

In American sports, there’s only one primary goal: win a championship. In European soccer, club teams compete for several different championships during a year, often simultaneously. A team may be playing in one or more domestic tournaments against teams within their country, an international club tournament like the Champions League or Europa League, at the same time as playing their normal league schedule against teams in their own country in their own league. This sometimes leads to conflicts of interest. If a player has a slightly injured ankle, will the coach choose to play him in a league game on Saturday knowing that there’s a Champions League game on Wednesday? What if the coach senses that the whole team is weary? Would it be better to lose in a domestic cup early on to clear the calendar for more rest days and practices? Will the benefit of rest and practice mean the difference between fifth and third place in the domestic league? Is that worth it? Which competition does the team have a better chance of winning? Which competitions are more lucrative and prestigious to do well in?

In American sports, coaches and teams don’t need to balance priorities like this, but in European club soccer, it’s a regular part of life. I wonder what a European soccer fan would think of Herm Edwards’ saying “you play to win the game?” Would they think it was funny because it’s true, funny because it’s not true, or just inaccurate and confusing?

The logic of aggregate goals

Many of the competitions that European soccer clubs take part in are tournaments. These tournaments often have a group round-robin stage and a knock-out stage, just like the World Cup. Unlike the World Cup and most other tournaments we’re used to, instead of one game against each opponent, European soccer clubs play two — one at each team’s home stadium. The team that has scored the most goals at the end of the two games (called aggregate goals) wins the matchup. The rules about breaking ties vary from tournament to tournament but they often have something to do with which team scored more goals when they were playing in their opponent’s stadium. The result of this is that teams pretty frequently go into games with goals other than simply winning. An underdog playing on the road in the first half of the two game series (often confusingly called a “tie”) may think that their best bet is to play defensively and try to leave with a 0-0 tie. A team that goes into the second game down a goal or two knows they need to not only win but to win by two or three or four goals. Likewise, a team going into a second game with the lead in aggregate goals knows they can lose the second game and still win the two-game series. They are not playing to win the game, they’re playing to win or tie or lose by a small enough margin to still win the series. Put that in your remix and smoke it!

When a tie is better than a win

Even in the most twisted of aggregate goal logic, it’s still always better to win than tie or lose but there is one situation when a tie is preferable than a win. Some tournaments, England’s FA cup being the most famous example, are set up as single elimination tournaments but, instead of overtime, if the score is tied after 90 minutes, the teams pack their bags, go home, and schedule a second game to decide who advances and who is eliminated. The second game is played in the stadium of the team that didn’t host the first game. Since the FA Cup is an association cup, open to every team in English soccer, from the rich, famous Premier league teams all the way to tiny seventh tier virtually semi-professional teams that no one has heard of, this leads to an interesting point. When a tiny team plays in a giant’s stadium, they get an enormous financial benefit from exposure, television money, and ticket sales. The bigger and more famous their host opponent, the more money they make. So, it’s often financially better for a tiny host team to tie a giant visiting team so that they get an extra game to play against the giant in the giant’s home stadium. Oh, sure, they’d love to beat the giant and move on to the next round of the tournament, but if they did that without ever playing at the giant’s stadium, especially if their potential opponent next round is not as rich or famous, they’ll really be losing out on an enormous payday. Small teams in this type of tournament have an incentive to tie, not win, games they host against storied opponents.

How does European club soccer work?

European soccer has a bewildering array of teams and competitions. It’s often hard to understand how European club soccer works, even for people who love soccer. Many of the things sports fans in the United States take for granted about how professional sports works are simply not true in European soccer. As with many elements of sports, almost no one in the sports media ever stops to explain the intricacies of a system that, once you start to grapple with it, is not that hard to understand. So, without further ado, let’s answer the question: how does European club soccer work?

Domestic Leagues

The first stop on our journey through European soccer is the domestic leagues. A domestic league is an organization of soccer teams within a single country that play a schedule of games against other teams in their league each year. In U.S. professional sports, only the NFL is truly a domestic league. The other major sports leagues, the NBA, NHL, MLB, and MLS are all quasi domestic leagues because they have at least one team in Canada. What the heck, let’s annex Canada for the purpose of this post and call these domestic leagues. The similarity between these leagues and Domestic soccer leagues in Europe are create much of the confusion for North American sports fans in understanding European soccer, because the truth is, they’re not very similar at all. Understanding how they are different is key to understanding how European soccer works.

  • There are no playoffs in most domestic European Leagues. Teams generally play every other team in the league twice during the season. At the end of the season, the team with the best record wins. If there is a tie, a single tie-breaking playoff game might be played, but that’s it. This is really different from North American sports leagues, where the regular season is primarily a race for playoff seeding.
  • Domestic leagues in Europe are not solitary organizations. They exist within a hierarchy of leagues in their country. This exists to some extent in North America, most successfully in Major League Baseball, which has a series of minor leagues. The difference is that in baseball, only players move from league to league. In European soccer, teams do! It’s called relegation. At the end of every domestic league season, a few (the numbers vary by country) of the worst teams in each league move down to a lower league while a few of the top teams in each league move up. Teams that are promoted up a league stand to gain an incredible financial boost, from the league, television contracts, endorsements, and fan support. Being demoted or relegated down a league is a sporting and financial disaster.
  • Club teams don’t just play games within their domestic league. They simultaneously participate in other competitions against club teams within their country and internationally. We’ll cover those competitions below.

Here are some of the most famous and competitive domestic leagues in Europe. I’ve organized them into tiers based on how many qualification spots they get into the most prestigious international club soccer competition, the Champions League. More on that soon.

Top Tier Domestic LeaguesLa Liga – SpainPremier League – EnglandBundesliga – Germany

Close but not quite the bestSerie A – ItalyPrimeira Liga – PortugalLigue 1 – France

The best of the restPremiere League – UkrainePremier League – RussiaEredivisie – NetherlandsSüper Lig – TurkeyJupiler Pro League – BelgiumSuperleague – GreeceRaiffeisen Super League – SwitzerlandFirst Division – CyprusSuperliga – Denmark

That’s a lot of leagues, but there are at least 39 others in Europe, from Wales to Macedonia and back again.

While these 54 or so domestic league seasons are taking shape, many of the teams in those leagues will play in other tournaments. These tournaments, generally called Cups or Leagues themselves, have a format that will be familiar to most soccer fans. They begin win one or more group stages, where teams, usually four, in a group play each other in a round-robin to decide which team moves on to the knock-out stage. The only wrinkle to many of them is that instead of a single game against another team, most of these tournaments have teams play each other twice, once at each team’s home stadium. After the two games, the team that has scored more goals in the two games combined, advances.

Domestic Cups

During a soccer club’s domestic league season, they will usually also take part in at least one Domestic Cup. A Domestic Cup is a tournament of club teams within one, a set, or all the domestic leagues within a country. These tournaments can be divided generally between League Cups and Association Cups. League Cups are those that restrict their entries to teams in one or two or a handful of domestic leagues. Association Cups are open to every team in an entire country’s domestic league system. There’s something very attractive and truly crazy about the open-endedness of an Association Cup. If sport is supposed to be the ultimate meritocracy, then why not let a team of semi-professional players with a budget of only a few thousand euros or pounds go up against one of the biggest and richest teams in the world? Miraculous upsets really only happen once every twenty or thirty years but when the do, they’re worth savoring, and they lend the entire tournament an air of romance.

A few of the most famous domestic cups and most widely televised ones in the United States are:

The Copa del Rey in Spain, which is a League Cup with only teams from the top two divisions, plus a select group from the third and fourth divisions, invited. The FA Cup in England. This is England’s famous association cup. The Football League Cup in England. Now called the Capital One cup, this is England’s most famous league cup, open only to teams from the top two leagues.

International Club Competitions

As you might suspect from the interrelated nature of Europe’s politics, some of its best club soccer comes in games between teams from different countries who play in different leagues. The Champions League is the premier international tournament of club soccer in the world. It’s such a big deal, that for most teams, winning a Champions League title is a bigger deal than winning a domestic cup or their league championship itself. This is a little hard to understand for most American sports fans. Once we identify the parallel between the NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL and a domestic soccer league in Europe, it’s hard for us to imagine that anything could be more important than winning a league championship, but it is.

The Champions League is itself a complicated beast. I wrote a post just about how it works, which I suggest if you want a more detailed description. The short story is that the top one, two, three, or four teams from each domestic league are invited to play in the Champions League. The exact number is based on the overall strength of the league in recent years. In the tiered set of leagues above, the top tier gets four spots, the second tier, three, the third tier, two, and the other 39 leagues only get one spot for their domestic league champion to enter the Champions League. The Champions League happens throughout the soccer season, during and in between domestic league games. So, one year’s Champions League is made up of teams who qualified based on their performance in domestic leagues the year before. The current domestic league season determines qualification for next year’s Champions League. It’s all a little like the famous pre-taped call-in show.

The Europa League is to the Champions League what the NIT is to the NCAA Tournament in American college basketball. It’s a second-tier international club competition. It’s recently become more interesting because the overall winner of the Europa League will get a (close-to) automatic spot in next year’s Champions League. That alone is worth enough to a soccer team and its fans to make this once-mostly-ignored competition more interesting.

Well, I hope this has helped. I’ve found that watching European soccer can be quite rewarding. Its strange elements make me think about how sports leagues are set up and open my mind to thinking about the benefits of different forms of competition. A lot of the soccer is also very high quality — some say it’s actually better than the World Cup. It’s more accessible now than it’s ever been before. Games are televised live, mostly on NBC Sports Network, Fox Sports 1 and 2, and beIN Sports, but also on NBC and Fox. Game times are often mid-afternoon during the week and on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Give it a try sometime and let me know what you think!

Why do soccer fans whistle?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why is it that when you watch a soccer game on TV, especially an international one, you always hear the crowd whistling? Why do soccer fans whistle? What does it mean?


Dear Whitney,

When international soccer fans whistle, they are expressing displeasure with what they see on the soccer field. It’s very similar to how fans in the United States boo in sports stadiums, with only minor differences. I don’t really know why we use booing while most of the world whistles to express themselves in this way. As far as I can tell, there internet doesn’t know either.

You’ll hear wide-spread whistling from soccer fans for three main reasons:

  • The crowd disagrees with a foul the ref has called or not called
  • The crowd is holding a grudge against a particular player for some reason and he or she has the ball
  • The crowd feels a team is playing cynically through “simulating fouls” by diving or time wasting or playing too passively by passing the ball backwards excessively

It’s the last scenario that is a little different from how American fans using booing as a weapon. I would say booing is a little more aggressive and whistling a little more derisive. The only direct parallel to a crowd that whistles at their own team for playing too passively is a crowd that boos an American football team for running when they think they should throw or for conceding the end of a half when they think the team should try to score.

The roots of whistling to express these feelings are, as I mentioned before, pretty obscure. The Wikipedia page about whistling gives plenty of speculative meat to chew on even if it doesn’t make any of its own conclusions. In its section on superstition, Wikipedia states that whistling “is thought to attract bad luck, bad things, or evil spirits” in many cultures. Examples given are in the UK, where whistling is thought to “foretell death or a great calamity” and in Russia and its surroundings where whistling indoors is “believed to bring poverty”. I imagine that the flip side of repressing your whistling instincts to avoid bad things happening to you would be wanting to whistle aggressively in situations (like sporting events) where you fervently (if somewhat light-heartedly, I hope) wish bad things would happen to others.

As for why international soccer fans whistle to express negativity while American fans boo, I do have a wild guess. In American arenas, even during the most exciting games, the prevailing noise is applause, rhythmic but non-melodic chants, or scattered, disorganized shouting. In international soccer arenas, the prevailing soundtrack of the games is the organized singing of fans supporting their teams. If you’re trying to cut through the normal background noise to express your displeasure, a long, drawn out “boooooooooo” on one tone might work against the noise of an American sporting event but it definitely won’t against the singing of an international soccer game. A high-pitched whistle on the other hand is shrill and loud enough to break through even the most fervent supporters song.

Hope this answers your question,
Ezra Fischer

Wednesday, October 15

  1. Royals yet to lose: Remember way back when the baseball playoffs started and the very first game was a freakishly exciting one between the Kansas City Royals and the Oakland Athletics? The Royals haven’t lost a game since winning that one. They beat their next opponents 3-0 in a best three-out-of-five and after last night’s game, they’re up 3-0 in their best-four-out-of-seven series with the Baltimore Orioles.
    Line: The Royals might never lose again!
    What’s Next: Game four, today, 4 p.m. ET on TBS
  2. Giants sneak by Cardinals: The other series remaining in the baseball playoffs has been a lot closer. The Giants lead two games to one after just barely beating the Cardinals yesterday thanks to a wild throw by a player trying to field a bunt in the tenth inning.
    Line: The other series might not be close but this one is. That’s two games in a row that ended 5-4.
    What’s Next: Game four, today, 8 p.m. ET on FS1
  3. Honduras even with the United States: The U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team played an exhibition game last night against Honduras. After an early goal by Jozy Altidore in his first return to the world stage since he pulled up lame in the first game of the World Cup, the U.S. tried to hold on to the lead. They weren’t successful thanks to a goal in the 86th minute by Maynor Figueroa. That’s two games in a row that the team let up a goal in the last five minutes — not a good trend, even in exhibition games.
    Line: I know they’re just friendly games but you never like to see the team concede late goals.

How does the Ryder Cup work?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does the Ryder Cup work? I know it’s an international golf tournament but I’m not sure how it’s different from other golf tournaments.


— — —Ryder Cup

Dear Alf,

The Ryder Cup is a men’s golf competition that happens every two years between a team made up of golfers from the United States and a team of European golfers. It’s quite a bit different from most golf tournaments but I think that it’s actually more exciting and accessible for people (like me,) who aren’t golf fans ordinarily. Although it’s funny to joke about how complicated the event is — Bleacher Report’s intro to the Ryder Cup by Tyler Conway made me laugh out loud at its introductory statement, ” The 2014 Ryder Cup begins in less than a week, which means it’s time for one of the best biennial traditions in golf: explaining how this strange event works.” — but I don’t think it’s all that hard to understand. Let’s run through how it works and you can tell me what you think.

The Teams

Each team is made up of 12 golfers. Each team has a captain who, as part of his responsibilities, gets to choose three of the 12 players. Somewhat interestingly, although both captains are picked by continental golf league leaders (the PGA executive committee in the U.S. and the European Tour Committee in Europe,) only the European players get a chance to vote to ratify the selection. If a U.S. player doesn’t like his captain, too bad. The other nine players are selected automatically by selecting off the top of ranked lists of top golfers intended to reflect performance.

Tournament Format

The tournament is held over the course of three days. During those days, 28 separate competitions, called matches, are played. Each match is worth one point: a win gives a team one point, a loss, zero, and a tie, one half point. Whichever team has the most points after the 28 matches are complete wins the Ryder Cup. It is possible for the two teams to end the tournament with 14 points each. If that happens, the side that won the tournament two years ago keeps the title! This seems like a shockingly unsatisfying way to resolve a tie but, really, so many ways of resolving ties in sports, like shootouts in soccer, are unsatisfying. There’s something traditional in sports about the idea of having a tie favor the reigning champion. In boxing, this unwritten rule goes at least as far back as 1973. It states that, “you can’t dethrone a champion unless you beat him badly.”

There are three different formats for matches during the Ryder Cup: singles, fourballs, and foursomes. Of the 28 matches, eight are foursomes, eight are fourballs, and 12 are singles. Each of the 12 players on both sides must play one of the 12 singles matches but the captains have free-reign to select whoever they want to play in the foursome and fourballs matches with the only restriction being that no single player is allowed to play more than five total matches.


Players are paired against a single opponent. They play eighteen holes of golf together in direct competition. For each hole, whoever completes it successfully in fewer strokes gets one point. If they take the same number of hits to compete a hole, they each get half a point. Whoever has the most points at the end of the round wins the match for their side.


Fourballs is just like singles, except instead of two players, there are four in two teams of two. Each of the four players plays each hole but for each hole, only the best score from each team counts. For example, if USA 1 gets a six and USA 2 gets a four while Europe 1 gets a 3 and Europe 2 gets an 8, the scores from USA 1 and Europe 2 would be discarded and only the two best scores from each team would be compared. USA 2’s four would get lined up against Europe 1’s three and Team Europe would get the point for that hole. This format is also called “best ball.” It’s theoretically possible that a player could go through an entire round of fourballs and never have their score count if their partner does better on every single hole.


Foursomes is an even more intertwined teamwork based format. Like fourballs, each match is played with teams of two, but instead of both teammates playing each hole, they use a single ball and alternate strokes. If USA 1 drives the ball off the tee, USA 2 has to hit the second shot on the hole. They continue alternating until they get the ball in the hole or one of them sues for divorce. Just kidding, there’s no divorce allowed, but I can’t imagine a sports format more clearly designed to create friction between partners.

How Score is Kept

Unlike regular golf tournaments, the total, cumulative number of strokes a golfer takes doesn’t matter. Teams and players concentrate only on beating their opponent, so the score is kept relativistically between the two golfers or teams. CBS Sports’ guide to the Ryder Cup format does a great job with the scoring vocabulary for this tournament and match play in general:

2 up thru 11: A player/twosome who is 2 up thru 11 has won two more holes than their opponent(s) through 11 holes.

All Square thru 15: The match is tied through 15 holes.

Just like within a playoff series or soccer shootout, once a team is mathematically eliminated, the match is over. If a team is up by more strokes than there are holes left, the players pack up their bags and walk off the course. The exception to this is if a team is up by more matches than there are matches left — no matter what, teams play all 28 matches.

So When is it On?

The 2014 Ryder Cup is from Friday, September 26 to Sunday, September 28. It’s being televised on the Golf Channel (there’s a golf channel? yes, a golf channel) and NBC. The thing is… it’s in Scotland, still a part of the United Kingdom and still between five to eight hours from the continental United States. Play starts at 2:35 a.m. ET on Friday, 3 a.m. ET Saturday, and a civilized 6:15 a.m. ET on Sunday. If you do decide to watch some of it, I would recommend the foursomes matches on Friday or Saturday which have the highest potential for excitement and comedy and begin at 8:15 a.m. ET.

Good luck waking up and watching, let me know what you think,
Ezra Fischer

What is a national sport?

This question was transcribed from Stack Exchange’s sports site, Stack Exchange is one of the premier question and answer sites. I’ve re-written the question a little and anonymized the name of the person who asked the question. The original question is here.

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a national sport? What criteria must a sport meet to be said to be the national sport of a country? For example, I think soccer is the national sport of Italy but I’m not sure. Is there a list of official national sports?

Sandy from Stack Exchange

— — —



Dear Sandy,

Your question is an interesting one. What makes something a national sport? There are two answers, one straightforward and one complex and hypothetical at best. Which answer you care about depends on how much you care about obscure laws.

“Laws?” you say. That’s right, laws! There are a small number of countries in the world and states within the United States that actually have official sports. Just like the national flower of Sri Lanka is the blue water lily, the national sport is volleyball. Canada has two national sports, lacrosse for the summer and ice hockey for the winter. As for states, the state bird of New Hampshire, the Purple Finch, is joined by its state sport of skiing. North Carolina made the sport of stock car racing officially its state sport in 2011. Perhaps North Carolina has a thing for droning, buzzing sounds because its state insect is the honeybee! These are just a few examples of sports that have become officially, in law, representative of a nation or state.

It’s a funny concept though, a national sport. One of the lovely things about sports is how they so frequently are able to cross boundaries of culture, ethnicity, race, and nation. The Olympics, the World Cup, even the Little League World Series, which might seem like the most American thing around, has been international since the 1950s. How can a country claim a sport that’s loved world-wide? Indeed, that seems to have been on some countries’ minds when they selected a national sport. Take Brazil, which, if you watched the World Cup this past summer, you know is one of the most soccer crazed countries in the world. Why is Brazil’s national sport capoeira not soccer? Or the Philippines, a country who loves basketball more than anyone, but whose national sport is Arnis, a weapons based martial art? I honestly don’t know, but my guess is that soccer and basketball seemed too international and therefore not suitable to become the national sport.

That leads us back to your initial question. What criteria must a sport meet to be said to be the national sport of a country? Reasoning from the sports chosen as official national sports, I would say these criteria are important:

  • The sport should have been invented in the country. Example: lacrosse in Canada.
  • The sport should be extremely popular. Example: kabaddi in Bangladesh. 
  • If it’s not popular, the sport should be “important” in some cultural way and therefore worthy of conservation, reenactment, and reverence. Example: Charreada in Mexico.
  • When possible, the sport should convey something meaningful about the country, ideally in a kick-ass way. Example: Varzesh-e Bastani in Iran.

These same factors are important when talking about unofficial national sports too, but here I think that popularity takes precedence. There’s no need for unofficial national sports to be unique to each country. One could easily say that soccer is the unofficial national sport of Brazil and Italy and the Netherlands and many other countries. Cricket would be another popular choice as an unofficial national sport in former British colonies in Asia or the Caribbean. Then there are some countries which, for reasons of nature or nurture, seem to produce an inordinate number of skilled athletes in particular sports. These too could be said to be unofficial national sports, like marathoning in Kenya, sprinting in Jamaica, or Cross Country Skiing in Norway.

National sports may shift over time, especially if they are left unofficial, as most are. Forty years ago, baseball would have been the most likely unofficial national sport for the United States. Some sports fans still reflexively call it the “national pastime.” Today, that sport is football. Things change. As we covered a few weeks ago, the unofficial national sport of Poland has been soccer but American football is rapidly gaining steam there. Who know, in time any sport could gain in popularity pretty much anywhere, or maybe even a brand new sport could take over!

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

How Does the Basketball World Cup Work?

USA vs Turkey BasketballThe FIBA Basketball World Cup begins on Saturday, August 30. As many of us found out or remembered earlier this summer in the Men’s Soccer World Cup, international sports are a great mixture of top level talent, patriotic fervor, and cultural sharing. Unlike soccer, where the World Cup dwarfs the Olympics, the World Cup of Basketball is a second tier tournament. Going up against the start of college and professional football, it’s unlikely to draw the full attention of all but the most die-hard basketball fans. Despite that or perhaps because of that, I’m oddly looking forward to it. Here’s some information about how the tournament works and who might win.

Tournament Structure

The tournament is structured very similarly to the soccer World Cup. It starts with a group stage. The twenty four teams in the tournament are separated into four groups of six teams each. There is a round robin whereby each team plays the other five teams in their group. The top four teams based on record and then a (you guessed it) somewhat Byzantine set of tie-breakers. Also oddly, two points are given for a win and one for a loss. Only a team that forfeits a game can walk away with no points. Once the group stage is done, there is a single elimination knockout round starting with the 16 qualifying teams. Teams from groups A & B won’t play teams from groups C & D until the finals or the third place game. The top two ranked teams coming into the tournament, the United States and host country Spain, we’re placed in opposite sides of the tournament so that they can meet in the finals if all goes as expected.

Differences in NBA vs. FIBA Rules

If you are at all familiar with watching NBA basketball, you’re likely to notice some major differences in the rules. Games are shorter – forty minutes divided into four ten minute quarters. The three-point line is fourteen percent closer to the basket which has a major tactical impact on how the game is played. Players foul out of the game after five fouls instead of six. Once the ball bounces off the rim of the basket and doesn’t go in, anyone can tip it (in or out) freely as opposed to in the NBA where players have to wait for the ball to clear the airspace above the basket before legally touching it.

The U.S. is going to win, right?

Yeah, probably. The two favorites in the tournament are the United States and Spain. A recent Vegas sports book has the United States as 4-7 favorites (you have to bet seven dollars to make a profit of only four if the U.S. wins) and Spain as the second most likely winner at 3-2 (if you bet two dollars and Spain wins, you stand to make a profit of three dollars. There are a handful of other teams in a clump as the next most likely winners: France, Brazil, Argentina, and Lithuania. All four of these teams are 30-1 (win thirty for each dollar you bet) from which you can tell that Vegas doesn’t think it’s very likely for them to win.

So why is this worth watching?

Mostly because it’s fun. The United States’ first game is against Finland and maybe it’s just me but I think watching a bunch of hockey-player-name-having Finns like Mikko Koivisto and Hanno Möttölä try to hold down the fort against the United States will be fun, at least for the first five or ten minutes. Among the other countries, there are a few teams that I think will be really fun to watch. Brazil is full of skilled big guys, Serbia and Croatia are both staffed by clever, quick, sharp-shooting players, and Greece could sneak up on people. Australia has a player named Matthew Dellavedova. I don’t know much about him but just hoping that he meets, falls in love with, marries, and has children with WNBA star Elena Delle Donne will keep me happy.

CBS Sports has a full preview of all twenty-four of the teams here.

I’m convinced. How do I watch?

All the games will be televised or streamed live. ESPN, ESPN2, and NBA TV are the main television carriers. All the U.S. games will be on ESPN or ESPN2 during the group stage with NBA TV televising other select games. If you’re interested in a game that’s not carried on one of these channels, (I have my eye on Spain vs. France at 4 pm ET on Sept. 3,) take a look at the full schedule. You can stream every game live on ESPN3.

When American sports go abroad

Gilas Blatche
From Brooklyn to the Philippines — Andray Blatche

In the spirit of one last Summer vacation before the season is over, I’m excited to bring you two wonderful stories about American sports going abroad. One story explores the recent and rapid adoption of American Football in Poland while the other profiles the National Basketball Team of the Philippines and their newest countryman, Andray Blatche, who was born in New York and has played his whole life in the United States.

“What happened in the championship of the Polish American Football League” sounds like the first line of a pre-political correctness ethnic joke but actually it’s a legitimate question for the tens of thousands of people who follow American Football in Poland. Rick Lyman of the New York Times brings us a gripping story about how Poland has embraced American football. It’s a wonderful window into how another culture views the game of football, free from some of the cultural implications and the pressure of billions of dollars that weigh down the conversation in the United States. Some of my favorite parts were the description of how family oriented the live experience of the games are:

At the game against the Goats, besides a bouncy castle, there was an inflatable sliding board, a giant dinosaur, a Starbucks tent, a bubble tea concession, a very popular burger van, a kielbasa grill, a small beer garden beyond the end zone and a “Zibi & Steczki” (steak and potatoes) stand run by the Harley guys.

“We also encourage picnicking,” Mr. Steszewski said. “Of course, we are not up to the standards of American tailgating.”

and a brief look into the one all-women’s team in the league, the aptly named Warsaw Sirens:

“Our colors are pink and black,” said Kamila Glowacz, 29, the team’s president. “You know, because we’re girls.”

The team got started when some of the women visited America and happened to see a game. “Many men told us we should go to the kitchen, not to the field,” she said. “But women, you know, we do what we want to do.”

It’s a wonderful article and is well worth reading to the final, hysterical line. I’ve definitely taken note of Lyman as a writer to follow and I’d love to watch some Polish football if it were ever on TV.

The second story about what happens when American sports go abroad is about the successful recruitment of American Andray Blatche by the Filipino National Basketball team and the process of introducing him to the team. Written by Rafe Bartholomew for, this article is a fun look into a wacky basketball player in a completely curious situation.

International basketball allows for one naturalized citizen to play for each country’s national team. This often means that American college players who either couldn’t make an NBA team or who have tried and failed in the NBA get recruited to play for another country. Recruitment in sports isn’t unusual, it happens at every level, but it is notable when signing up means not just signing a contract but becoming a citizen of a foreign country. In this case, Andray Blatche had to be the subject of a law that passed through the Philippines congress and signed by their president before he could begin playing with the Filipino team.

Once Bartholomew ably tells the tale of how Blatche was courted and signed, he moves on to the important question of how a talented but unreliable 6’11” NBA American center will fit into a team of undersized relatively lesser skilled Filipinos. The answer seems to be, “Pretty well.” The Filipino coach, team, and fans are refreshingly (for our stats obsessed sports landscape) focused on playing with heart and passion. For whatever else you can say about Blatche, he’s got both of those in droves. I loved the parts of the piece when Bartholomew focused on Blatche’s growing relationship with his Filipino teammates and staff. Here’s one choice bit:

Blatche even seemed to develop a genuine closeness with Gilas ball boy Bong Tulabot — and not just because Bong spent the 15 minutes before every practice massaging weapons-grade menthol liniment into Blatche’s calf muscles. “Where’s my guy?” were often the first words out of Blatche’s mouth when he’d enter the gym, and he’d jockey with Alapag for Bong’s attention. The unlikely bond between Blatche, the 28-year-old, 6-foot-11 NBA center, and Bong, the 48-year-old, 5-foot-6 Filipino team handyman who used to sell rice porridge in the street, was consummated when a morning practice ended with a visiting SBP official placing $200 at half court and inviting everyone in the gym to shoot for it. Blatche launched his half-court attempt, and when the ball rattled through the rim Bong leaped in celebration.

“DAT’S MY MAN! DAT’S MY MAN!” Bong shouted in a peculiar falsetto as he ran in circles around the gym. Blatche melted to the floor in laughter, then got up to meet Bong for a running, jumping chest bump, although their height disparity made the maneuver look more like Bong delivering a flying head butt to Blatche’s waist. Nevertheless, the moment was enough to make “DAT’S MY MAN!” the team catchphrase for the rest of its time in Miami.

So far, so good in Blatche’s time with the Filipino national team. The true test comes over the next week when the Philippines will try to upset the world and qualify for the knock out round of the FIBA Basketball World Cup. We’ll be running an article on how that tournament works later today, so keep your eyes to the grindstone.

What the Reaction to Paul George's Leg Injury Means

During a televised intra-squad scrimmage of the U.S. Men’s National Basketball team in their preparation for the upcoming World Cup of Basketball, Paul George, a star basketball player, broke his leg. The word used most frequently to describe the injury seems to be “horrific.” It was an open fracture of the tibia and fibula. Almost as soon as George had been carted off the court and the rest of the scrimmage canceled, the predominant story among the media became variations on the question, “What will Paul George’s leg injury mean for the future participation of NBA players in international competitions?” The thought running through my mind has been, “What does the reaction to Paul George’s leg injury mean? Why is this the media’s reaction? What can we learn from it?

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Charlotte Bobcats
Is the story of Paul George’s injury about his career or the Indiana Pacers?

The implication of the Paul George story that’s been percolating is this: now that a star player has been injured in a national team activity, NBA players should stop taking part in international competition. Who does this make sense for? There’s three main actors in this power play. There’s the NBA owners who employ the players. There’s the players. And then there’s the fans. Not to get all political science on you here, but they nicely represent Capital, Labor, and Consumer. Let’s go through this one at a time:

The Fans

Fans of the Indiana Pacers, the team that Paul George plays for in the NBA, are upset today. They just watched the best player on a team, someone who they’ve grown fond of after watching him play since he was twenty years old, snap his leg on national television. George will probably be okay, the surgery is said to have been successful but it’s not clear how okay the Pacers will be. They’ve been the second best team for two years running in the Eastern Conference, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll even be that good when George comes back in a year. Their second best player, David West, is in the final third of his career and may not be as good then. They lost their third best player, Lance Stephenson, in free agency, and their fourth best player, Roy Hibbert, is a riddle wrapped up in a seven foot enigma.

All that said, it’s hard to argue that the fans as a whole lose from international play. Basketball fans love basketball and international basketball is wonderful to follow and to watch. Furthermore, if you’re a fan of one of the other fourteen teams in the Eastern Conference… well, you’re not crowing about it but your team’s path to the finals just got a little easier. As a consumer of basketball, international play is a net win for you, a fact even the most depressed Indiana Pacers fan would admit if you stuck her with truth serum.

The Players

Paul George certainly lost out in this particular case. His leg is broken and he won’t be able to play basketball for another year. The players as a group, however, only gain by playing internationally — with a few exceptions. The first thing to understand about this is that contracts in the NBA, unlike those in the NFL, are guaranteed. George’s contract, which begins this year, runs for five years and $91.5 million dollars. His injury does nothing to affect that. Of the other players playing in that scrimmage, only one of them is slated to become a free agent in the next twelve months. Basketball players, even during the offseason, play basketball. It’s just what they do. They may take some vacation but most of the time during the offseason, they’re in gyms, playing high intensity basketball against the best players in the world. This injury could have happened in any practice at any time and the consequences physically and financially would have been the same. Playing in international competitions doesn’t increase the risk of injury for most players and it has great potential value in the form of professional development and exposure for sponsorship or endorsement deals.

The one major exception to this are players who, for whatever reason, feel or are compelled to play in these competitions, even if they are injured. Yao Ming, the Chinese great, forced his 7’6″ body up and down the court every summer for China and it almost definitely shortened his career and lowered his earnings in the long run. The solution to this isn’t to get pros out of these competitions, it’s for countries not to force their players to play.

One last point about the players. The likely alternative to having professionals play in these competitions would be to have amateurs, mostly college kids to play. The cost-benefit for them is significantly worse than for the professionals. College athletes don’t have guaranteed contracts. In fact, they’re not “paid” at all. If a college athlete broke his leg like George did, he might never get drafted, never make a fortune, never have a dream career. Let’s not have the grownups vacate something not-so-risky so that kids can take it up even though it’s more risky for them.

The NBA Owners

NBA owners don’t make any money directly from international competitions. It’s probably worth writing that again. NBA owner don’t make any money directly from international competitions. The downside of their players playing is exactly what happened on Friday. The Pacers owner is likely to make tens of million dollars fewer this year without Paul George than he would have with him playing. The upside? It’s hard to measure. Professionals playing in international competition definitely attracts new fans to basketball who then become fans of the NBA. Players who come through uninjured often benefit from the experience and become more valuable employees.

That’s why the story of this injury quickly became “Will this mean that NBA players no longer are going to play in international competition?” It’s because team owners, who employ the players, don’t want their players to play in international competition. At least they don’t want the players to play (to be allowed to play if we tell the truth about it,) without the owners getting paid.


As fans, I don’t think we should take the owners side on this one. I love watching international sports with the best players in the world competing against each other and it’s really not a bad deal for the players, not even for Paul George, truth be told. So resist the urge to take up the owners side on this issue!

Cue Cards 9-11-13: Soccer

clapperboardCue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Sport: Soccer
Teams: United States & Mexico
When: Tuesday, September 10
Context: A World Cup qualifying game
Result: The United States defeated Mexico 2-0
Sports Fans will be Talking About:

  • The United States has qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil! This may seem old-hat to most people today because the U.S. has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. This string of seven straight qualifications is seventh best in the history of the World Cup and before 1990 the United States had not qualified for forty years.
  • There will probably be some people who question why other people like soccer. I just wrote another post answering that question.
  • A lot will be made of the location of the game. This is now the fourth straight time that the United States has beaten Mexico in a qualifying match played in Columbus Ohio. Each game has ended 2-0 in favor of the U.S. Read Grant Wahl’s excellent post-game piece in Sports Illustrated for more exploration of this topic.
  • Mexico isn’t out of the World Cup for the first time since 1994 yet… but it doesn’t look good. They fired their coach a few days before this game and might do it again after losing to the U.S.. World Cup qualifying is a little complicated (it somehow involves hexagons) but Mexico probably needs to win their two remaining games by as many goals as possible to have a realistic chance. Not making a World Cup in a soccer obsessed country (which basically all of them but the U.S. are) is a hard pill to swallow, so if you are hanging out with a friend who is a Mexican soccer fan today, be nice to her!

What’s Next: The next qualifying matches are on November 10 when the U.S. plays Jamaica and Mexico plays Panama.