Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Most "Exciting" Sport

What makes sports exciting? A recent BBC article tells us that a group of scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory have come up with a one word answer: upsets.

The researchers concluded that the “upset frequency” of the major sports is highest in soccer (or football, if you’re the BBC) and, therefore, that soccer is the most exciting sport. Any definition of what makes sport “exciting” is bound to be largely arbitrary. Nevertheless, it strikes me that there are good reasons to reject “upset frequency” as a synonym for “excitement.”
From all indications (I haven't seen the actual published study), the study treats an upset as any outcome in which an inferior team triumphs over a numerically superior one, no matter how close in record the two teams. So, for example, a baseball team with a 79-80 won-loss record that defeats another baseball team with an 80-79 record will record an “upset.” This, as almost any sports fan worth his or her giant foam finger will quickly recognize, hardly corresponds with the colloquial usage of “upset.”

Furthermore, there’s little chance that such a hypothetical game - with those records it was almost certainly a meaningless late-season game between two mediocre teams - proved "exciting" to the spectators in attendance. If the game was exciting it was probably because the final score was 12-11, or because something unusual or noteworthy happened, not because the "underdog" won.

Equating “excitement” with “upset”, without considering spectator expectations about the result (the average spectator recognizes that, in the example above, the outcome is more or less a coin toss. Whereas, if the two teams sport 104-55 and 55-104 records, respectively, there is a much more substantial expectation as to the result), has the functional equivalent of rewarding parity (or mediocrity?) by labeling it “exciting.”

And, perhaps, it actually is the case that sports with a high degree of parity are more "exciting." Casual observation suggests that, in many respects, this is the direction in which several of the major sports in this country have moved in the past decade. But if parity corresponds to excitement, there is undoubtedly more to the equation than mere won-loss records. The closeness of the result, the general improvement of play which increasing parity generally represents, are both much more likely candidates to contribute to a sport's "excitement" level.

So, what's the conclusion? The Los Alamos study has a neat little premise – “what makes a sport exciting?” – but is executed in a meaninglessly simplistic fashion. Better luck next season...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder what would be the best criteria for gauging the "excitement factor" (EF, henceforth) of a particular sport. I would love to see the idea of upset extended to include things like the possibility of a late comeback (the Hail Mary scenario) within a game. Soccer, it seems, doesn't lend itself as naturally to this sort of last-minute excitement as, say, college basketball--though this is just a suspicion.

The EF could also take into account the likelihood of a close score near the end of a game. I have noticed that college basketball scores, especially between two fairly evenly-matched teams, seem to be close enough, often into the final minute, to declare either team the victor. Whereas soccer often reaches the final score within the first 2/3 of the game, the final half hour not admitting scores on either side. And in a good many soccer games, one team maintains the lead, once established, throughout the entire match. Not to say this precludes excitement (especially if the differential is only one goal), but it should be considered.

Lastly, the EF may consider the scoring of a particular game. Soccer goals increment a score by 1, meaning that a single goal can only change the outcome by switching a winning scenario to a draw, or vice-versa. Every other major sport can actually reverse the outcome with a single scoring move. I wonder how this plays into the EF.

Much to think about. Tis true that the article's criterion was far too facile to gauge a human emotion, excitement. But they only erred, in my opinion, in their ambitious scope: the research itself is still interesting.

Fri Jan 06, 10:02:00 AM EST  

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