What is field goal range? How is field goal distance measured?

Dear Sports Fan,

Here’s something I’ve been wondering about. When I watch a football game, I often hear the announcer talk about a team being “in field goal range.” Sometimes they even superimpose a colored line on the field to show how close a team is to being in field goal range. When they talk about the distance of a field goal though, it doesn’t directly correspond to the yard market the team is on, which is very confusing. What is field goal range? How is field goal distance measured?


Dear Ron,

As a sport and a culture, football sits at the intersection between precision and chaos. There’s no sport whose plays are more carefully and complexly designed and there’s few sports whose action can become as chaotic, as quickly. Football culture glorifies precision even while success and failure often come down to luck. Field goal distance and field goal range are both measurements which seem very exact but are actually quite wishy-washy. Field goal distance purports to be a measurement of the distance between where a field goal is kicked and the goal posts the kicker is aiming at. It is expressed as a number of yards. Field goal range is a similar measurement but is hypothetical. It is the distance from goal that a team believes it can score a field goal from with a reasonable chance of success. In this post, we’ll break both of these measurements down and see how inexact they actually are.

For both of these measurements, the number quoted will not match up to the yard marker on the field. The NFL moved the uprights from where they had been, on the goal line (as one might expect from the name!) in 1974 to the back of the end zone. The end zone is ten yards deep. So, a field goal kicked from the 20 yard line is actually called a 30 yard field goal because it must travel that extra distance through the end zone. A team cannot kick a 30 yard field goal from a play that starts on the 20 yard line. In order to have time and space to kick the ball over a horde of defenders intent on blocking it, teams snap the ball backwards about seven yards before setting the ball up to be kicked. Add these seven yards to the 10 yards from the end zone and you get 17 yards, the standard figure which people talking about football add to the yard marker of the start of a play in order to get the field goal distance. So, a 30 yard field goal must be taken from the 13 yard line. A field goal kicked from a play starting on the 20 yard line is actually a 37 yard kick.

Field goal distance seems like it should therefore be an exact measurement. Add seventeen yards to where the play starts and BOOM! you’ve got an exact distance. Two considerations stop this from being true. First, there may be some variation from kicker to kicker and team to team about how far back from the line of scrimmage a kick should be set up. It’s hard for me to believe that all 32 kickers in the NFL and 200+ kickers in college all like to kick from exactly the same spot relative to the line of scrimmage. I’ve never heard an announcer take the preference of a kicker into account when calculating a field goal distance, but perhaps they should. The second is much more meaningful. Football fields are not one-dimensional! Depending on where you are side to side on the field, a field goal may need to be struck at an angle or straight on. A play in football can start from one of three places horizontally, the center, or either of the two hash mark lines that run up and down the field to the right and left of center. Kicks from the center of the field are shorter than those from the sides. This effect is magnified in college football where the hash marks are much farther apart than in the NFL. Field goal distance does not take either of these factors into account. It’s a slightly fuzzy measurement masquerading as an exact one.

Field goal range is even fuzzier. It’s an estimate of the field goal distance a kicker has a reasonable chance of success and scoring from. A kicker with a very strong leg may have a field goal range of around 50 yards. Anything over that and the chance of scoring falls to below 60%. Estimates are great! There’s nothing wrong with estimates. But football, or at least football TV announcers, in an obsession with precision simultaneously treat this estimate as if it’s an exact number and leave out an important factor. The factor they leave out is the 60% in our example. Announcers talk about field goal range as if it’s the distance from which a kicker will be able to score. It’s not! There’s no distance from which you can absolutely guarantee a kicker will score. It’s important to know what percent chance field goal range applies to. Or maybe we should talk about it as several ranges — 50-55 yards is a long-shot, 10-20% chance of scoring, 45-50 gives a 40% chance of scoring, and so on. Meanwhile, television executives treat a range like a number and superimposes a line across the field to show how far a team needs to advance the ball to be “in field goal range.” A better graphic would surely be a gradient to show the increasing chance of scoring as the team moves forward, wouldn’t it?

I guess that turned into a rant on top of a definition! Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How does scoring work in rugby union?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does scoring work in rugby union?


Dear Clara,

There are four ways to score in rugby, a try, a conversion goal, a penalty goal, and a dropped goal. A try is worth five points, a conversion goal, two, and both a penalty goal or dropped goal are worth three points. The three scoring methods with the word, “goal” in their names, all involve kicking the ball, while the try doesn’t. Two of them can happen in the course of normal play, while two are only done during a stoppage in play. Let’s go through each one and describe how it works.

How does a try work?

A try is scored when an attacking player with the ball places the ball on the ground in her opponent’s “in-goal.” The in-goal is rugby’s term for the area that in American football is called the end-zone. As opposed to in American football, where a player just needs to have control of the ball in the end-zone to score, in rugby, a player must get the ball into the end zone and place it on the ground. Two other small matters distinguish how a try works from how a touchdown works in American football. In rugby, a player’s body can be out-of-bounds and still score as long as the ball remains in play. Likewise, a player can be lying on the ground and reach his arm out to score a try. A try is worth five points and triggers the second form of scoring, the conversion goal.

How does a conversion goal work?

A conversion goal attempt is earned by scoring a try. After a team scores a try, they are given 90 seconds to attempt a conversion goal. A conversion goal is a mostly undefended kick that must go over the cross-bar and between the two goal posts of the rugby goal. I say, “mostly undefended” because the defending team is allowed to run, from the goal-line, toward the player kicking the ball, as soon as that player starts their kicking motion. The kick may be taken as a drop-kick (kind of like a punt in football, but the ball must be kicked as it hits the ground instead of while it’s on its way down) or from the ground, where the ball may be supported by a tee or a teammate to keep it upright and in position. The player who scored the try doesn’t have to be the one to take the conversion kick. Any player on the team is eligible to kick it.

The location of the dropkick is decided by where the try was scored. The conversion goal must be attempted from a spot “perpendicular” to where the try was scored. That means, if the try was scored in the exact center of the field, the conversion goal must be kicked from the center. If the try was scored all the way on the left edge of the field, the conversion must also be taken from the far left. The closer to center a conversion goal attempt is, the easier it is to score. That’s why you’ll sometimes see players try to run to the center before placing the ball on the ground for a try. As for the distance from the goal, there’s no requirement at all. In practice, the kicker chooses a distance that is far enough from the goal so that she feels comfortable she’ll be able to get the kick off free from interference by the other team. The farther the kick is from the center of the field, the more difficult it is to make. In order to get a reasonable angle from that wide, the kicker will generally move back a bit.

A conversion goal is worth two points and may only be taken directly after a try. There are two other forms of scoring. Both are similar to a conversion goal but do not follow a try.

How do a penalty goal and a dropped goal work?

A penalty goal is procedurally similar to a conversion goal, with the only real difference being that a player may not use a drop-kick to score a penalty goal. A penalty goal attempt is awarded to a team when the opposing team commits a foul. It is similar to a free kick set piece in soccer. The ref blows her whistle to call a foul, the opposing team must move ten yards away from the spot of the foul, and then the team benefiting from the penalty call can choose what to do. If the spot of the foul is close enough to reasonably score a goal and the game situation calls for it, they may choose to attempt a kick through the uprights. A successful penalty goal is worth three points.

A dropped goal is the active cousin of a penalty goal. Instead of happening when play is stopped, a dropped goal happens during active play. Whenever a player has possession of the ball, they always have the option of drop-kicking the ball through the goal. If they are able to do this successfully, their team scores three points. You’d think this might happen more frequently than it does, but going for a dropped goal means giving up the opportunity to score seven points (a five point try and a two point conversion goal), and giving possession of the ball to the other team. When a dropped goal is successful, the other team automatically gets the ball. When a dropped goal is unsuccessful (the ball misses the goal wide or isn’t high enough), play continues and whoever can get to the ball first (usually the defensive team) takes possession of it.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer


How does candlepin bowling work?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does candlepin bowling work? How is it different from regular bowling? How does the scoring work?


Dear Scott,

Candlepin bowling is a fun game simultaneously more accessible to beginners than standard bowling and more difficult for experts to master. It was invented in 1880 in Worcester, Massachusetts by a man named Justin White. It remains the primary form of bowling in much of New England and parts of Canada. The basic architecture of candlepin bowling is the same as the standard form of bowling found in most of the United States, called ten-pin bowling. Players stand on one end of a long, narrow, lane and compete to see who can knock the most stuff over at the other end by rolling down it. The difference is largely in the details of how the game works, its terminology, and how it is scored.

What’s the difference between candlepin bowling and standard bowling?

There are two obvious categories of differences between standard bowling and candlepin bowling: the equipment used and how the game works. Candlepin gets its name from the wooden pins used, so let’s start there. Candlepins are much thinner than regular bowling pins and are virtually straight up-and-down cylinders. They do taper out a tiny bit at the middle (don’t we all), but at their thickest, they are less than three inches in diameter. The pins are the same at top and bottom and weigh only two pounds, eight ounces. The ball is similarly much smaller than a regular bowling ball. It is only four and a half inches in diameter and weighs slightly less than a single pin. As you might expect for a ball that easily fits in most people’s palms, there are no finger holes. In terms of gameplay, the two biggest differences are that each bowler gets three chances to throw the ball down the lane instead of two and that any pins that are knocked down during the first or second throw are left on the lane and are therefore live to use as obstacles or helpful projectiles/things to bounce off of during subsequent throws.

What are some candlepin bowling terms to know?

For games that are so similar, candlepin and standard bowling use surprisingly different terms:

  • Game : String — In candlepin bowling, a single game (sorry to use the term in its definition, but…) is called a string.
  • Frame : Box — An opportunity to amass points by using three (two in standard bowling) rolls of the ball to knock down a single set of ten pins.
  • Strike : Strike — When a bowler knocks all ten pins down on their first throw.
  • Spare : Spare — When a bowler knocks all ten pins down on their second throw.
  • N/A : Ten-box — When a candlepin bowler knocks all ten pins down on their third throw.
  • N/A : Wood — Fallen pins that remain on the lane after being knocked down.
  • N/A : Half Worcester — Candlepin bowling has lots of colorful terms (see the Wikipedia entry for more) for specific combinations of pins remaining after one or two throws. This one refers to the pins remaining after a ball hits the pin to the right or left of the head pin (the front-most one) and knocks only that one and the one behind it over.

How do you score candlepin bowling?

I once wrote a long post about how scoring in regular bowling works. Luckily for all of us, the scoring in candlepin bowling is much simpler! Oh, it may seem complicated, but actually it’s very easy.

The string is divided into ten boxes during which each bowler has to knock down the ten pins. Each pin a bowler knocks down is worth one point. However many pins a bowler knocks down in three chances, that’s how many points she gets. Easy, right? All the complexity comes into the game when a bowler knocks all ten pins down before she has used all three balls. Don’t panic though, here’s the important thing to remember — no matter what happens, each box gets the score of three throws. So, if a bowler knocks down all ten pins in two throws, she gets ten plus however many pins she knocks down on her next roll. If a bowler knocks down all the pins in one throw, he gets ten plus the number of pins he knocks down on his next two rolls. Instead of taking the time for those extra rolls on their own, we simply use the roll or rolls from the bowler’s next turn and those count for the previous and current box. The only exception to this is the tenth and last box. Since there is no next turn, the bowler takes their one or two extra rolls right after knocking down all the pins during their normal turn.

Which game is better?

Haha, good try — I’m not going to start a regional battle on this site. Both games are fun and I’d be happy spending an evening playing either of them. Candlepin bowling is more physically accessible for beginners because of the ball size and weight. The sheer weight of a standard bowling ball can turn a fun evening into a week of soreness for beginners (on the flip side, you get some exercise!) The fact that a stronger person who can comfortably throw a heavier ball faster has an advantage also creates an immediate imbalance in standard bowling that candlepin bowling does not have. On the other hand, candlepin bowling is much harder, even for experts. The thinner pins don’t help each other fall down in candlepin with nearly the predictability or consistency of standard bowling. As a result, beginners are going to have more trouble ramping up to intermediate status. After a few games of standard bowling, you can start attempting to be intentional about what you’re trying to do when you roll the ball. After a few games of candlepin bowling, you’re still basically just trying to roll it straight and hit something. Strikes and spares are easier to come by in standard bowling. In candlepin, even the experts don’t often get strikes.

Time to get out there and try it yourself! Let me know how it goes,
Ezra Fischer

How does scoring work in golf?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does scoring work in golf?


Dear Ian,

Scoring in golf is dead simple but that fact is obscured by the unnecessarily complicated language that golf uses to talk about scoring. It’s not all bad though, golf’s language is actually pretty enjoyable and easy to learn. Plus, the way that golf thinks about scoring expresses something about the essence of the sport which is useful to understand. We’ll run through how the scoring works and then explain how to talk about golf scores.

In any golf competition, the player who gets the ball into the hole in fewer hits, wins. It’s that simple! Whether you’re talking about a single hole, an 18-hole round, or a tournament which is usually four rounds of 18 holes each, the player who can complete play using the fewest number of strokes is the winner. Things can get more complicated with various team formats, many of which I explained in my post about the Ryder Cup, but the concept is always the same — use the fewest swings possible.

By now you might be wondering why, if the scoring concepts are so simple, the words used to talk about the score is so complicated. When you watch golf on TV or get into a conversation with golfers, you hear a lot of strange words like “par,” “birdie,” “eagle,” and “bogie.” Huh? Here’s the deal. Three concepts will make all of those vocabulary words make sense.

  1. Every golf hole and course are unique and of varying difficulty.
  2. Golf is designed to work equally well as a competitive sport played against other golfers and a puzzle played individually.
  3. No more than four players can play on a single hole simultaneously, so in any large competition, play is staggered across several hours. Despite this, both for the golfers and for fans, a way of expressing the standings at any moment is needed.

Golf’s solution is to express score in a relative way. Every hole on every course is given a number of strokes that the designers of the course think that an excellent golfer should be able to complete the hole in. That number is called par and is generally from three to five strokes. Instead of saying that a golfer used four hits to successfully complete a hole, her score is expressed relative to par. Here’s where the vocab words come in:

  • Par – Derived from the latin word meaning “equal,” par means that a golfer finished a hole in the number of strokes the course designers expected him to.
  • Birdie – A birdie is finishing a hole in one fewer stroke than expected.
  • Eagle – Once birdie was established as the term for one better than par, golf took off on the bird metaphors in that direction. An eagle is two shots better than par.
  • Albatross – An albatross, as you might have guessed, is three shots better than par. It’s very, very unusual.
  • Bogey – A bogey is the opposite of a birdie. A player who has shot a bogey has taken one more stroke than par to complete a hole. There are no separate words as players use more and more strokes to finish a hole, the way to express it is by adding a modifier before the word bogey. Two strokes worse than par is a double-bogey, three a triple-bogey, four a quadruple-bogey, and five a dear sports fan special. Just joking, I guess you’d call that a quintuple bogey…

The purpose of this is not to confuse beginners! Think back to our three principles of golf. Expressing scores relative to an ideal, almost platonic score that’s set for each hole and course is a remarkably effective way of making golf an exciting challenge even if played alone. Without needing to compare your score to a competitor’s, you can judge how well you’re doing. Shoot a birdie? Celebrate! Hit a double-bogey, cry a single tear and move on. If scores were simply expressed in an absolute way — five shots for a particular hole — there would be no way for a solitary golfer to know if she did well or poorly. As a bonus, by setting a par particular to each course, a golfer can move from course to course and still compare his play to previous rounds on other golf courses. Sure, the course he played today may have been more difficult than the one he played on a week ago, but if its par was set correctly, it was higher. Shooting par should be equally difficult on every course in the world.

The other element of genius to the relative approach to scoring is that it doesn’t matter where a golfer is on a course, you can always create a leaderboard by using their scores relative to par. Golfer A who has finished all 18 holes of a round and completed them in two shots more than par has a score of +2 or two over par. Golfer B who is halfway through the course and has used one fewer shot than expected so far has shot one under par or -1. Golfer C who just played the first hole and completed it in the expected number of strokes is currently at par or 0. You can line these golfers up easily to see who is winning at the moment.

  1. Golfer B — -1
  2. Golfer C — 0
  3. Golfer A — +2

Golfers B and C are still playing and can improve their score or mess up and make it worse while Golfer A is done and can do nothing but wait and watch but by using relative scoring, we can rank them at any moment of the day to see who is winning.

Hopefully this all makes sense out of the madness,
Ezra Fischer

How does scoring work across sports?

Understanding how scoring works is one on the fundamental elements of beginning to understand a sport. I’ve written in the past about how scoring works in football and bowling and I will certainly get to other sports in the near future.

For today, I’ve created a simple chart that you can use as a reference as you watch different sports and wonder what types of scores are or aren’t possible.

Dear Sports Fan Scoring Chart 2


A few things that may jump out at you as you read the chart.

  • Football has by far the most varied and complex set of scoring options. It’s also the only sport where a team cannot score a single point. The one point extra point is only possible in conjunction with a six point touchdown.
  • Hockey and soccer, the two lowest scoring sports, are also the only two where scoring more than a single goal at one time is impossible.
  • While the mechanism for scoring a point in baseball is solitary (a player runs around the bases and touches home plate without being caught out by the defensive team, it is possible to score one, two, three, or four runs at one time.
  • Football and basketball both use the term “field goal” but in football it refers to kicking the ball through the uprights while in basketball it’s simply the official phrase for tossing the ball through the basket. It’s possible for both field goals to be worth three points to the team making them but in basketball a two point field goal is also ordinary.
  • In basketball, a field goal plus a free throw is popularly called an “and one.”

Let me know if this is useful and what other sports you’d like to see added to the chart!

How Does Scoring Work in Bowling?

One might ask why, on a day full of incredibly exciting sporting events like the U.S. Open men’s semifinals and the second full Saturday of college football, I am sitting on the couch writing about bowling. Let me explain.

There is a great bowling alley about 20 blocks from my apartment. Unlike most of the bowling alleys in New York city, this alley has remained true to the bowling alleys of my youth. It is slightly tawdry, mostly empty, and absolutely comfortable. My birthday was a few weeks ago and I decided to invite a few friends to join me for an afternoon of bowling and general tomfoolery. It was great fun but I was frustrated by my lack of bowling skills. I told myself that I would return some day when I had nothing else to do and bowl by myself to see if I could improve my score. I did this the other day and bowled by far the best game I’ve ever bowled! I scored a 163! This made me realize that I didn’t really understand how scoring works in bowling. While watching tennis and football today, I did some research…

I’m not the only one who spends most of his time trying to find the perfect ball?

It feels like the hardest part of bowling is understanding the score but it doesn’t need to be so complicated! Scoring in bowling[1] is simpler than it seems. The point of the game is to roll the bowling ball down the lane and knock as many of the pins down as efficiently as possible. A game consists of ten standard frames. In each frame the bowler is given two chances (like downs in football) to knock the pins down. If the bowler knocks all the pins down his or her first attempt, the second attempt or ball in that frame is discarded. At the end of each frame, no matter what has happened, the pins are reset to start the next frame. In a standard game, if the bowler never is able to knock all of the pins down in a frame, the score of the game will be exactly the number of pins knocked down.

So far, so good; two pins knocked down equals two points scored. Here’s where things get a tiny bit tricky[2] Knocking down all of the pins in a frame earns the bowler more chances to bowl. If the bowler knocks all of the pins down in their first roll (a strike) they get two bonus chances. If the bowler knocks all ten pins down but it takes two attempts to do it (a spare) they get one bonus roll. Bonus rolls are taken right after they are earned. Here’s how it works for a strike:

Frame 1 || Ball 1 — 10 pins knocked down (strike!) || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2

And here’s how it works for a spare:

Frame 1 || Ball 1 — any number of pins knocked down less than 10 || Ball 2 — all the remaining pins knocked down for a total of 10 || Only Bonus Ball

The score for the frame in both scenarios is simply the total number of pins knocked down in the standard frame and the bonus balls. Another way to think about this is that knocking all the pins down in a frame means the score for that frame will be made up of three rolls instead of two. Note how this is true for strikes (one standard plus two bonus) and spares (two standard plus one bonus.) This concept is important because it means there’s really only one rule to learn, not two!

This seems to suggest that a perfect game (a score of 300) would be achieved by throwing 30 straight strikes. That’s not true. Actually it only requires 12 straight strikes. That magical shrinking effect is created by transposing one frame on the next within the standard ten frames. Instead of this pattern:

Frame 1 || Strike || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2
Frame 2 || Strike || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2
Frame 3 || Strike || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2

Bowling follows this pattern:

Frame 1 || Strike || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2
Frame 2               || Strike            ||
Frame 3                                         || Strike 

The next roll after a strike counts as both the first bonus roll AND the first roll of the next frame. The second bonus roll after a strike will either be the second roll of the next frame OR the first roll of the one after that if the second frame is cut short by a strike. The single bonus roll after a spare is always the first roll of the next frame, regardless of the outcome of that roll.

If a bowler throws a strike in the last frame they are owed two bonus rolls but there is no standard next frame to overlap with. Instead the game reverts to how we originally explained it and the extra rolls are counted in the tenth frame regardless of their outcome. If there is a strike in the first bonus roll, the pins are reset before the second bonus roll.

Phew! There it is. There’s no multiplication, division, or subtraction[3] in bowling, just addition and one particularly tricky transposition.

Thanks for reading and if you’re ever in Queens, let’s bowl!

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. My Boston-proud girlfriend would want me to specify that this is Ten-Pin bowling and not any of the other regional variants of the game like Candle-Pin. For most of us, Ten-Pin is the only kind of bowling we know.
  2. If you know how bowling works, bear with me — I’m about to describe it in what I think is a very clever way… but which is going to seem wrong-ish initially to experienced bowlers.
  3. I hope!!