Soccer, Baseball, Football

The world cup has started. I’ve only seen ten minutes of it; they happened to be the ten minutes in which the US scored its goal against England (or, rather, the English goalie scored against himself). Good luck on my part, I suppose, tuning in when I did.

Unlike the great majority of the world, I’m not a fan of soccer. Partially, I admit, it’s because I’ve never spent the time needed to understand the sport. I have a basic understanding of the rules – even the off-sides rule isn’t that hard to understand, after all (compare it to the arcane definition of a balk) but the strategy of the game I’ve never spent a great deal of effort trying to understand. I don’t have much desire to, though; the game is too fluid for my tastes.

This is really the main distinction between soccer and baseball. When it comes down to it, I suspect, there are really only three kinds of team sports: soccer, which is the same sport as hockey and basketball; baseball, which is the same as cricket; and American football, which is the same as rugby.

  • In soccer (and hockey and basketball), you have a completely fluid game where two sides are trying to get the ball into the opponent’s goal but possession can shift at any time, and there is no clear division of the action except after goals and out-of-bounds, and thus at each division both teams are back to being equal except for the score.
  • In baseball, you have a completely delineated game, where teams take turns going on offense and defense, which involve completely separate goals, and each at-bat is a separate action. The game has basically no fluidity to it, and there are numerous states (having men on base, getting outs) that a play can begin in that make the teams unequal yet with the score remaining the same.
  • In football, you have a strange mix of the two. There are separate offensive and defensive squads, but both teams intend to get the ball in the opponent’s goal, and possession can shift at any time. There are clear divisions between plays, and teams can gain yardage and lose downs without scoring. Yet the basic symmetry of the game gives it a sense of fluidity not found in baseball or soccer.

Of all the professional sports baseball is my favorite, and I think  it is because it is so delineated – it makes it possible to describe it is a step-by-step progression in a way you can’t describe a soccer game. Football I can enjoy for similar reasons, but I find myself easily bored by soccer (though I find it easily the most interesting of the soccer class of games); it always seems the same except when someone scores, and once there’s a score, there’s nothing to be excited about because it’s already back to normal.

Still, I wonder if I wouldn’t like soccer better if it were higher scoring – not as high as basketball games, but more like a baseball game, with an average score being 5-4 not 1-0. That’s about an average football score too, once you factor out the x7 multiplier – a 5-4 game translates into a 35-28 game, which is quite reasonable, and since field goals are only x3 not x7, it makes sense that they tend to be a bit lower than that.

So, though I prefer baseball mainly for its divisions and ability to be analyzed, I wonder if the reason I actively dislike soccer, or at least find it boring, has more to do with the low scores. If a 5-4 score, i.e. 9 total scores, is ideal for a 3-hour-game including commercials (so, a 2-hour game without them), does that mean the proper ratio for sports is a score every 10-15 minutes? Anything significantly more than that leads to a repetitive monotony (in basketball it’s a score every 30 seconds, which is way too often), while anything significantly less leads to a boring game (soccer is probably about a score every 45-60 minutes, though I couldn’t say exactly).

How much deviation from this 10-15 minutes can there be, I wonder, before the sport becomes boring? I also wonder if having such a ratio for some reason requires delineation, separation into different plays. At first glance that may seem preposterous, but it makes a sort of sense. All achievements in sports, I suspect, will be either really difficult (and so happen extremely rarely) or be really easy (and so happen quite often). Delineation means you can have multiple steps that are easy to achieve while requiring that many be achieved in succession in order to score. Having a pitch go in one’s favor is relatively easy; scoring a run requires that happening several times without three outs occurring first. With a more fluid game, you can’t do this, and so either scoring is easy (basketball) and happens too often, or it’s difficult (soccer) and happens too rarely. It’s hard to achieve a good mean.

As a simple thought experiment: consider transforming baseball into a game where there were no gradual accomplishments – it was either all or nothing, every time. The game would consist, basically, of team A making one pitch to team B, and if it results in a home run, team B scores a run; if not, team A comes up to bat. I don’t think that would be a very good game.

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4 Responses to Soccer, Baseball, Football

  1. hoppenburger says:

    So where does volleyball and other suchlike sports fall in this schema (doubles tennis,, for instance)? Or are these not really the kinds of team games you have in mind?

  2. I considered mentioning volleyball last night, but decided against it for some reason. Anyway, the only real difference between volleyball and soccer that I can see is the net. Apart from the net, it’s a fluid game with frequent scoring.

    The net does add an interesting element, though; separating the two teams both makes there a more clear shift between offense and defense than you have in soccer, which perhaps makes the sport more delineated than soccer is. But not enough to allow for gradual scoring like you get in baseball and football; in fact, I suspect the net in volleyball plays a hand in making it a high-scoring game, since it making the acts of going on offense and attempting to score the same thing. (In soccer you can get the ball and press towards the opponent’s goal without ever getting a chance to take a shot.)

  3. sports says:

    That’s an interesting theory you have. But I agree, basically many sports are the same (like tennis, badminton, volleyball then soccer, basketball, hockey).

    I love soccer the most because that’s what everybody watches here :)

  4. ~autolycus says:

    Excellent! I think there are two other factors.

    1. Time: how much time does it take to score, given the total time of the game and how much time remains? how is time rationed out per play or phase?

    2. Risk: how easily is risk estimated, and how much randomness is involved?

    Some classifications people use are: territoriality, object possession, and specificity of player roles.

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