Are Predictable Sports More Popular?

Dear Sports Fan,

Are more predictable sports more popular than unpredictable sports?


Dear Tyrone,

Great question! I’m not sure what the answer is, or if there even is a clear correlation between popularity and predictability, but it’s something I’ve often thought about it. Let’s explore this together!

The four major sports in the United States are Football, Basketball, Hockey, and Baseball. In two of those sports, Football and Basketball, college competition is close in popularity to the professional leagues, so we will include those in our discussion. The first thing to do is establish the order in which these sports are popular. I have my own favorites, but television ratings should provide a pretty good guide to the true popularity of the sports. There’s a good post on this at which looks at the relative ratings of the championships of the six sports leagues.  In order, they are:

Popularity (Television Ratings)
1. NFL Football
2. NBA Basketball
3. College Basketball
4. College Football
5. Major League Baseball
6. National Hockey League[1]

Now we come to the more interesting piece of this which is to attempt to rank these in order of predictability. There are two main factors that play into this — the format of the playoffs and the elements of the sport itself. The key difference in format is between single elimination[2] and a playoff series.[3] As you might imagine, the playoff series creates much more predictable results because it allows a better team to have an off night and still end up the champion.

Single Elimination
NFL Football
College Basketball
College Football

Playoff Series
NBA Basketball
Major League Baseball
National Hockey League

It’s a bit harder to figure out how the elements of each sport affect their predictability. I’m sure there are thousands of factors that effect this, but let’s just chose one to think about — the average score. High scoring games would seem to be more predictable by the same logic that playoff series are — they make it less likely that a single bad moment, a single mistake, or a single moment of unusual brilliance will change the eventual result.

Scoring (from high to low)
NBA Basketball
College Basketball[4]
College Football
NFL Football
Major League Baseball
NHL Hockey

If we combine these two factors[5] we end up with the sports in this order.

Predictability (format, scoring)
NBA Basketball (+3,+3) 6
Major League Baseball (+3,-2) 1
National Hockey League (+3, -3) 0
College Basketball (-3,+2) -1
College Football (-3, +1) -2
NFL Football (-3, -1) -4

This model, because of its simplicity, doesn’t quite match up with my instincts about the sports. For instance, my gut tells me that College Football is actually significantly more predictable than College Basketball, there’s a reason the College Basketball tournament is called “March Madness,” but I think it’s mostly correct. For evidence of the overall directional correctness, consider that there have been twelve different NFL champions in the last twenty years but only eight in the last twenty years of the NBA. The NFL engenders clichés like “any given Sunday” to express its unpredictable nature, whereas the NBA is known for its dynastic teams, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers[6] and Michael Jordan who won six championships with the Chicago Bulls during eight years in the 1990s.

I’m still not sure if there is any clear connection between predictability and popularity, but it at least seems obvious that unpredictability is not harmful to a sport’s popularity. So when you hear silly stories about how horrible it is that College Football doesn’t have a playoff like College Basketball does, and people like Barack Obama get involved, just make sure they don’t use “getting the best team to be the champion” as a rationale. Not only is a single elimination playoff notoriously unpredictable, but many of the most popular sports have the least predictable results!

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. It’s figuratively physically painful for me to see hockey at the bottom of this list since it has clearly the best playoffs of any sport. It is worth mentioning that some of its finals games are televised on a mildly obscure cable channel with a relatively smaller distribution.
  2. if your team loses a single game, it’s out
  3. like you played rock-paper-scissors as a kid, this is best x out of y where x = y/2 + 1
  4. The college game is eight minutes shorter and has a longer shot clock which allows a team to hold the ball longer before being forced to take a shot.
  5. Let’s do give a sport +3/-3 for format and +3 to -3 for scoring to get a ranking from 1-6 overall
  6. These two teams alone have won 33 of 65 NBA championships.

What is More Scary — a Panther or a Tiger?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is more scary —  a panther or a tiger?



Dear Raule,

Technically there doesn’t seem to be a single animal called a panther. Panthera is a genus[1] of cats which includes lions, leopards, jaguars, and tigers. In North America we also use the word panther to refer to the couger or mountain lion so I am going to assume that’s what you mean by panther. The panther is the second largest cat in North America (after the Jaguar, the South American form of Panthera) but it is more genetically akin to house cats than to lions. This shows in the sounds it makes. It cannot roar, but instead “hisses, growls, and purrs, as well as chirps and whistles.” It does not frequently attack humans although when it does it can be a serious problem. Full grown males can be up to 8 feet long and 220 pounds. By comparison, the largest tigers can be up to 11 feet long and weigh in at 660 pounds! They are the solitary animals and unusual for cats, they are strong swimmers that enjoy the water. According to wikipedia, “Although humans are not regular prey for tigers, they have killed more people than any other cat, particularly in areas where population growth, logging, and farming have put pressure on tiger habitats. Most man-eating tigers are old and missing teeth, acquiring a taste for humans because of their inability to capture preferred prey.” This really makes me feel good about our species…

Now in terms of sport, I can only assume that you are referring to the Carolina Panthers (NFL) and the Detroit Tigers (MLB.) The Detroit Tigers are having a pretty good season, having won 47 and lost 42 games so far. If the season ended today they would be half a game[2] out of a playoff spot. The Carolina Panthers on the other hand are spending the summer locked out by their owner. Last season they were by far the worst team in the league, only able to win 2 games out of 16.

A fun game to play is trying to categorize all of the team names in a sport. Take the NFL. You may think there are a lot of cat names, and there are: Bengals, Jaguars, Panthers, and Lions — but there are more birds: Cardinals, Seahawks, Falcons, Ravens, and Eagles. The largest category that I can come up with is wild west: 49ers, Redskins, Cowboys, Broncos, Chiefs, Colts, and Bills. Another category I enjoy is the mythical creature: Titans, Giants, Saints… How about industry? This category has a few teams: Steelers, Packers, 49ers (again,) Cowboys (again,) Raiders, and Jets (maybe.) Fun for the whole family!

Thanks for the[3] question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Remember “King Phillip Came Over For Great Sex” — Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.
  2. A game behind in wins, but having played one fewer game than the team they are behind.
  3.  Admittedly weird