Are Predictable Sports More Popular?

Dear Sports Fan,

Are more predictable sports more popular than unpredictable sports?

Thanks,
Tyrone


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 www.spottedratings.com 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.

Why Aren't the Rules the Rules? (Part 2)

Dear Sports Fan,

Reading about the bad call in the Pittsburgh/Atlanta game last night reminded me of something I’ve always wondered. Whether it’s because the ref is looking the other way (literally or figuratively), or because of just plain human error, the rules in sports are often either not enforced, or not enforced correctly. But in many cases, it seems like people just consider that an integral part of the game! Especially given the increasing ability of technology to settle disputes, why not just come up with what the real rules ought to be, and then enforce them as thoroughly as possible?

Thanks,
Erik

— — —

(This is a continuation of an answer to this question. The first half was posted here.)

It will ruin the game:

There is some concern that adding technology to sports will ruin the game by making it too sterile or too slow. Taking the humanity out of the game could be a concern, but as much as people love discussing disputed calls at the water cooler, they also love talking about great (and terrible) performances, and great (and terrible) decisions on the part of the players and coaches. There will always be something to talk about. As for making the game too slow… uh… it could not possibly slow down the game as much as television time-outs, arguing with refs about calls, or in the case of baseball… adjusting your batting gloves, hat, glove, or cup compulsively over and over and over again.

It’s too expensive:

FIFA, the notoriously frustrating international federation of soccer refuses to add video replay to international competition because it would be too expensive for some of its member nations to implement. This is a curious reason since it seems like knowing ahead of time that you will actually know whether the ball crossed the goal line during the game shouldn’t change any element of tactics or strategy.

What do you mean “right?”

This is the heart of the answer to your question. A rule says, “it’s against the rules to trip an opponent” but does that mean “it’s against the rules to trip an opponent” or “it’s against the rules to trip an opponent if you get caught?” It’s clear from these two sports cliches which way the sports world leans: “it’s not a foul if you don’t get caught” and “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

Sports, particularly baseball is all about cheating. The last twenty years have been shaped by steroids and HGH. Before that there were amphetamines called greenies. Before that teams regularly intimidated officials or just plain assaulted them when they didn’t like the calls they were getting. It’s well know that the 1919 World Series was fixed by a few players on the White Sox and there have always been unproven rumors that the 1918 one might have been fixed as well. Cyclists are jam-packed full of drugs. They have been for a long time but “tiny electric motors…?” That’s a new one.

Even if a player is clean when he steps onto the court, he or she is rarely clean by the end of the game. Some of the most memorable plays in sports history have been the beneficiaries of some incorrect or missed calls. In soccer there is the “hand of god” goal, in basketball, Michael Jordan’s famous shot to beat the Utah Jazz is an offensive foul. Watch the video and notice Jordan’s left hand on his defender’s hip… he definitely pushes off.

Jordan is not great in spite of pushing off, he’s great partially because he pushed off and didn’t get caught.

Another way to state the question is — do we really want to have the game called “perfectly?” Here’s an example of this in the non-sports world. We certainly have the technology to identify each car and driver and what road they are on. Why shouldn’t we simply fine people whenever they go over the speed limit? Why waste all the time, money, and talent of our police departments lurking around trying to catch people when we could just automate it? I know we’ve started doing this with running some red lights, but I think that if we tried to automate speeding tickets on a large scale there would be riots and political parties would shape up around the issue… and I’m not sure which would be worse! It’s the same with most sports — a totally policed game is a boring one.

Thanks for the fun question,
Ezra Fischer

Why Aren't the Rules the Rules?

Dear Sports Fan,

Reading about the bad call in the Pittsburgh/Atlanta game last night reminded me of something I’ve always wondered. Whether it’s because the ref is looking the other way (literally or figuratively), or because of just plain human error, the rules in sports are often either not enforced, or not enforced correctly. But in many cases, it seems like people just consider that an integral part of the game! Especially given the increasing ability of technology to settle disputes, why not just come up with what the real rules ought to be, and then enforce them as thoroughly as possible?

Thanks,
Erik


 

Dear Erik,

Great question! In fact, this is such an interesting question that I’m going to break my answer into a couple blog posts.

The bad call that you’re referring to is this one:

It won’t work:

Sports rules are complicated and the action happens very, very quickly. Assuming that there is no way that we’re going to be able to rework the rules to change something as integral as “if the catcher has the ball in his glove and touches the runner before he touches home plate, he’s out” then one has to wonder how technology will help. Setting aside video replay for a second, let’s look for another solution. Okay, so — let’s put a chip in the ball. Then, let’s put some material in the catcher’s glove such that the ball knows when it’s in the glove. Great — now we’re cooking with gas! Now we have to have either more material covering the runner’s uniform… and hands, arms, head, neck, etc. Or, I guess we could just monitor whether the glove is making contact by putting some sort of pressure meeter into the ball or glove. Except that won’t work because that glove could hit the ground, the ump, or the catcher’s own body. I’m not sure any of this will work, so let’s go back and examine video replay.

Video replay is the most common form of technology in sports. Football, basketball, hockey, even baseball (believe it or not) have some form of video replay in their rules. In baseball use of video replay is restricted to basically deciding whether a ball was a home run or whether it never left the ball-park, did leave but was subject to fan interference, or left but was foul (too far off to the side to count.) Other sports have more extensive video replay rules. You may have noticed NFL coaches comically struggling to get a little red flag out of their sock, pants, shirt, etc. and throw it onto the field — they are “challenging” the ref’s judgement and calling for a video replay. Every goal in hockey is reviewed by a team of video officials in Toronto. The NBA has been able to replay shots at the end of quarters and games and just recently added video replay for unclear out-of-bounds calls.

Tennis has a system called Hawkeye. This is probably as close as it gets to your suggestion. According to Wikipedia, “all Hawk-Eye systems are based on the principles of triangulation using the visual images and timing data provided by at least four high-speed video cameras located at different locations and angles around the area of play.” In tennis the rules are objective and there is technology which insures the calls are too. Or at least can be. The computer has not totally replaced the line-judges or the referee yet… although I could see a time in the not so distant future where they could.

Most other sports are not as tidy as tennis though. Take the call at home plate that started this discussion: here’s how Jonah Keri described it on Grantland.com

If you want to use replay to make a simple yes or no call, you won’t get unanimity. And no, the fact that Lugo acted as if he were out does not constitute iron-clad proof.

Watch the replay for yourself, with the sound off.

Here’s what I did see: Lugo starts his slide well in front of the plate. Home plate umpire Jerry Meals starts to make his safe sign just as Lugo touches home with his right foot. There’s no way Meals has time to process the play and rule that Lugo had already touched home. He’s also not looking at Lugo’s foot, but rather at the swipe tag. (It should be noted that Lugo did in fact touch home with his right foot the first time — the follow-up tap of home with his left foot was unnecessary.)

Either way, replay wouldn’t have resolved the issue. Not to the point where all parties, including a purple Clint Hurdle, would have been satisfied.

And, as Keri also points out, at the time of this call, the ump had been on the field working in a high-pressure environment for six hours and 39 minutes. Furthermore — even Baseball is a nice tidy game compared to Hockey or Football. No matter how many cameras, sensors, and computers you have, there is no chance in hell you’ll be able to figure out what happened at the bottom of a pile with thousands of pounds of angry football player fighting over the ball.

More tomorrow…
Ezra Fischer 

 

Why do Baseball Players Wear Belts?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do baseball players wear belts?

Just sayin’,
Ashley


 

Dear Ashley,

Baseball, to a degree not seen in other sports, is grounded in traditions that have been around for over a hundred years. To us, and even to the players, some of the traditions make no sense – but because baseball is perceived, or wants to be perceived, as “America’s game,” something that’s unchanging and consistent throughout history, the traditions remain.

Which is a roundabout way of saying there’s no good explanation for why baseball players do a lot of things and you can just add this one to the list. When you think about baseball players’ attire, they’re actually more appropriately dressed up to go out to the club than they are to play a professional sport. Their shirt is actually a button-down, unlike every other major professional sport, where they wear jerseys of some sort. The players are given a sartorial choice when it comes to their socks: some pull their pants all the way down to their cleats, some have their socks meet their pants at the knee like an 18th century landowner. So there’s an element of (attempted) style to the baseball uniform that speaks to how the sport sees, or saw, itself.

This is a good opportunity to discuss the uniforms from the major (American) (male[1]) sports. Not how nice they are, but on whether the components of the uniform – jersey/pants/footwear/hatwear – would look most appropriate on a teenager, someone from the 80’s, a yuppie, or one of Dr. Evil’s evil henchmen – ignoring all of the logos, etc. To whit:

Basketball: Teenager. Easiest of the bunch. Tank top with long baggy shorts and sneakers. I just described half of the teenagers in America. Headwear: Some players wear headbands by personal choice – the only one of the major sports where headwear is optional, come to think of it.

Football: 80’s . When you come right down to it, football players are wearing cut-off tee shirts and (long) cut-off shorts – two regrettable legacies of the 80’s. Among many.

Hockey: Yuppies. Hockey players wear sweaters. ‘Nuff said.

Baseball: Yuppie. As discussed above, it’s a button-down tucked into long pants, complemented with a nice belt. Equally at home on the baseball diamond or at happy hour.

Golf: European yuppies. The collared shirts, the tight fitted pants, the visors – throw some sweaters around these guys’ shoulders and they could be on a yacht docked somewhere off the Riviera.

NASCAR: Dr. Evil’s evil henchmen. The jumpsuit is worn by everyone on the team. The driver gets a dark, tinted helmet. If Dr. Evil was sponsored by Home Depot, this is how his minions would dress.

Thanks,
Dean Russell Bell

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I’m barely qualified to speak on men’s fashion, so if you think I’m going to set my toe in the waters of commenting on women’s fashion, you’re out of your mind.

How Does the NBA Draft Work and Why Should I Care?

Dear Sports Fan,

The NBA Draft – How does it work? Why do I care? Are players (like Carmelo Anthony and What’s-His-Name James) that go right from high school involved in draft?

Thanks,
49 Round Pick


 

Dear 49 Round Pick,

Drafts in all sports are an opportunity to level the playing field – the worst teams generally get the higher picks and first dibs on the best young players. In the case of the NBA, the 14 worst teams are in the “lottery,” meaning they get the top 14 picks in the draft – only the order those 14 teams pick in is decided based on an old-school, ping-pong ball lottery.  So while the worst team has the best odds of getting the first pick(they get more ping-pong balls in the bingo cage-thing), it isn’t guaranteed.

Not a big deal, you think – after all, what’s the difference between picking number one or number two or three?  Well, if you’re a team from a smaller market who has a hard time attracting the best players, the draft is a very rare opportunity to get a franchise-altering talent at a price you can afford.  In particularly mediocre draft years, the difference between the best player and the second best player in the draft is barely noticeable – other times, the difference is between a game changer like Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (think Chris Rock) and a wildly overrated underperformer like the forgettable Keith Van Horn (think Dane Cook).

Talking about comedians, if you decide to try to pull the Sports Fan in your life away from watching the NBA draft tonight, you could do worse than start with this clip of Dave Chappelle’s Racial Draft sketch.

Chappelles Show
The Racial Draft
www.comedycentral.com
Buy Chappelle’s Show DVDs Black Comedy True Hollywood Story

How great is the Tiger Woods bit in hind-sight? Back to the NBA draft… High school players used to be allowed in the draft – now, in a nod to the fact that you learn everything you need to know in college your freshman year, you have to be 19 years old, at least one year out of high school and own one suit with at least 4 buttons to be eligible.

There’s also an unofficial rule that there has to be at least one successful white college player in each draft who gets picked in the first round even though pretty much everyone agrees he will not be successful in the NBA due to his lack of “athleticism.”

Back to the draft itself: it’s divided up into rounds, and generally each team has a pick in each round, unless they don’t have picks – for example, if they’ve traded their draft pick (essentially the right to a future player) to another team in return for a tangible, current player. Teams have a limited amount of time to make each pick, which is why team staff do ridiculous amounts of research and know more about the players than they do about their own children. There is real drama in some drafts – last second trades, surprise picks,[1] great rags to riches stories – but for the most part, you have to be a pretty die-hard fan to watch. So don’t feel bad if you can’t get into it.

One side note: immediately following the draft you’ll see the infuriating “Draft report cards” issued by sportswriters, most of whom feel compelled to note how ridiculous it is to judge a team’s draft class before they’ve even played a single game in the league – right before they judge every team’s draft class before they’ve played a single game in the league.

Thanks for the question,
Dean Russell Bell

The NBA Draft – How does it work? Why do I care? Are players (like Carmelo Anthony and Whats-His-Name James) that go right from high school involved in draft?
Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. These usually fall into two categories: GMs who are stupid and pick a mediocre player way too high, or enormously talented players who teams refuse to draft for one reason or another. The latter usually involves marijuana. It’s unclear what drug some of the GMs are on.

Why are sports fans obsessed with injuries?

Dear Sports Fan,

The sports fan in my life disregards my injuries and illnesses as mere complaints until I am either completely incapacitated or bleeding prodigiously. Yet the mere mention of a potential injury to any appendage of one of his teams’ players sends him into Colonel Kurtz mode – The horror, the horror – before he spends an hour on WebMd trying to identify a miracle cure. Any chance any of that sympathy can be directed my way?

Hurt in Houston

— — —

Dear Hurt in Houston,

Let me put it bluntly: no. When you get sick or injured, (knock wood) you get better and your life goes on. Your fan’s favorite athlete, or a key player on his team? Well…

Injuries are one of the most frustrating things in sports. Think about sitting at your computer doing work – not one of those mind-numbing, I’m half-working and half-googling to see if I can buy the dress Kate Middleton wore to her engagement announcement, but really jamming on a project, getting excited about it, rocking back and forth in your chair and laughing to yourself from time to time cause your brilliance surprises even you. Now, imagine the power goes out.  Your first thought is pure horror: all is lost.

There’s uncertainty – when’s the last time I saved? Does it even matter? Will it even remember that? There’s the period of irrational hope as you reboot when the power comes back on – I’m sure Bill Gates saw this power outage coming, there’s NO WAY Word wouldn’t save automatically. Then you login and pull up Word and, really, all you can do is hope.

That’s the best comparison I can come up with to an injury: no matter how well everything is going for your fan’s team, they are always one injury away from catastrophe, and there is NOTHING anyone can do about it. Absolutely nothing. That injury can happen in any number of ways – horrifically (Joe Theisman, a Redskins quarterback having his leg broken in two), hysterically (Bill Gramatica, an NFL placekicker, tearing an ACL celebrating a field goal) , frequently (Vince Carter[1]) and downright bizarrely (Shaq, the 7 foot, 300 pound beastly freak of an athlete who, for a chunk of his career, was felled by an injury to his big toe) –  but there’s no recourse for the team or your fan. All you can do is watch the athlete get carried off the field and try to convince yourself that it’s not nearly as bad as it looks and that yes, elbow joints are definitely meant to rotate 360 degrees.

One other note: an injury to your fan’s favorite athlete is a particularly crushing blow. One thing all sports fans are acutely aware of is that we have a limited amount of time with our athletes, and even less time to watch them while they’re in their prime (whereas, theoretically, they have their entire life to spend with you. But I digress). Age will slow them down even if injuries don’t. So when we see an injury to our favorite player we think two things. 1. I just lost some of my quality time with this guy; and, 2. Thanks to this injury, this guy may never be as incredible an athlete again. Think about that: in what other job can a single, freak occurrence ensure that someone will never perform at a high level again?

Hope this helps,
Dean Russell Bell

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Note on Vince Carter: Vince Carter was an enormously talented basketball player who never fulfilled his potential because of his complete lack of heart and desire. He’s like the guy in your office who takes so many sick days for so many absurd reasons that you can start to predict when it’ll happen – you even have an office pool to bet on which ailment he’ll claim on a given day. It’s 80 and sunny – I’ve got $20 says Bob’s calling out with a stomach flu! That was Vince Carter – the man made tens of millions of dollars, but the mere suggestion of physical contact was enough to send him sprawling with a look on his face making clear that what just happened was some kind of historical injustice.

Are Basketball Fouls Really Arbitrary?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can you explain basketball fouls? They seem totally arbitrary to me.

Thanks,
Otto


Dear Otto,

If we were more cynical on this website, we would say that NBA foul calls aren’t arbitrary, they only seem arbitrary because we don’t know which team the refs have gambled on!

In all sincerity and seriousness though, you are not alone. Basketball fouls are extremely difficult to read. They happen very quickly and there is often very little difference between a foul on one player or the other. Here are probably the three most common fouls to look for.

What is a Reach-in Foul?

A reach-in foul is somewhat self-explanatory. When a player tries to steal the ball from another player, he’s got to be pretty careful. If he touches almost anything other than the ball — an arm, a chest, a face, etc. — it’s a reach-in foul. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be your hand that’s reaching in — it could be any part of your arm (or all of it like in the photo to the left.

The one exception to this rule is that when someone has the ball and their hand is actually on it. When this is the case, like when dribbling or shooting the ball, the player’s hand is considered part of the ball and can be struck or slapped without penalty.

What are Charging and Blocking Fouls?

Charging and blocking are two fouls that can be called in situations that look almost identical. When you see two players collide and a whistle blows, it’s usually either of these two fouls. A charging call is always against the offensive player and a blocking foul always against the defensive player.

Charging and blocking are like the cheese plate at a party or an intersection with a four-way stop sign — it’s all about who gets there first. When two players collide the player who has the foul called on him and the one that gets the call in his favor depends basically on who got there first. If the defender got to the place where the collision was and established himself there (this part is a bit hazy; usually it means that the defenders feet aren’t moving anymore but it could also be that his torso is static even if his feet are still moving a little) before the attacking player arrived then it is a charge and the foul goes against the offensive player. If the defensive player is still moving when the collision happens then it is a block, and the foul goes against the defender.

Trying to guess where an attacking player is going and establishing yourself there so that they run into you is a pretty common defensive strategy. A player doing this is said to be “trying to take a charge.” Sometimes this strategy backfires if the defender guesses wrong or is not quick enough. Sometimes you will see what looks like a defender sliding sideways into a collision. This is a sure sign that the foul will be called a block and go against the defender… except, of course, if the ref has some money riding on the defensive team… Just kidding!

Sincerely,
Ezra Fischer

My friend's favorite team is out, why is he still watching so much sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

My friend’s favorite team was eliminated from the playoffs a few weeks ago but he seems to be watching as much sports as he was when they were still in it. What’s up with that?

Thought it was over for the year!

Jane

 


Dear Jane,

There’s a few reasons why your friend might still be watching as much of the playoffs now as he was before his favorite team was eliminated. Some people are fans of a team and some people are sports fans; some people are both. Your friend sounds like he is both. So, while he’s likely to be upset by no longer having his team to root for, rooting for “your team” is just one way of rooting.

Once your favorite team is gone you are free to root for other things. People root for close games, for exciting players, for games to get to overtime, for a seven game playoff series to make it to the most exciting seventh game. Everyone who watches sports wants to be able to say they were watching when something great happened.

Fans also tend to create miniature morality plays out of games and playoff series’. For example — the Chicago Bulls vs. Miami Heat series has been cast as a battle between a group of selfish mercenary stars (the Heat) and a young team built around an unselfish star (Derrick Rose) who are respectful of basketball history and play ‘the right way.’ In the last round of the NHL playoffs, the San Jose Sharks barely beat the Detroit Red Wings in what was an incredibly compelling series in part because it took on the plot of a great Western film; the old, veteran gunslingers (the Red Wings) are outgunned by the younger challenger (the Sharks) but through sheer force of will, guts, and the treachery of old-age try to stave off the inevitable advance of time.

It’s not always clear how much truth there is in these little plots but you can find out a lot about the character of a sports fan by noticing what side he or she takes when watching a game that doesn’t involve a favorite team.

Hope this helps answer your question.

Sincerely,
Ezra Fischer