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Quantity vs Quality

Richard Bookstaber has an interesting but I think short-sighted analysis of scoring in the Saturday WSJ at The Scoring Problem.

He argues that the number of points scored in a game should be such that the error due to random fluctuations in skill is small enough to not change the result most of the time, but not so small that people get bored waiting for the game to end. He concludes that baseball and American football are somewhere near the sweet spot, and that tennis has too many point, soccer too few.

His numerical analysis ignores many of the elements of human drama that make sport worth watching.

I dislike the episodic nature of baseball and American football, so filled with commercial breaks that they are indeed the ultimate capitalist games. American football with its specialized massed armies switching from offense to defense and its weird bulked-up uniforms is closest to ritualized war conducted by bureaucrats from the sidelines.

I like fluidity. I also like the triumphs, disappointments and catharsis of life encapsulated in a shorter time frame.

Tennis is just about perfect; if one player is much better than another, it ends quickly; if two people are more or less equally matched there are phenomenal reversals of fortune in which character and tenacity play the major role, as they do in life. Also what’s nice about tennis is that you can’t break the rules tactically to score an advantage. That’s what I dislike about basketball.

Even cricket, with the possibility of test match draws that should in principle be dull, is exciting as one person tries to save an entire team from failure by simply staying at his post. And again, breaking the rules doesn’t help you.

Bookstaber dislikes soccer’s penalty shootouts. He thinks it makes the outcome of a low-scoring sport in which a random fluctuation in scores can give you victory even more random, and the triumph of randomness offends him. But it’s not simply the triumph of randomness; a penalty shootout is a test of fortitude and concentration under stress with some element of randomness. There are times in life when that matters most.

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