Archive for November, 2010

Hi gang:

I know it’s been a while since my last blog entry. But things have been a bit busy for the past few weeks, and some of you may have noticed that I recently updated some of my previous entries – such as the one about October 27, my birthday.

But I think the time has come for a “fresh” entry. And this time, I wanted to address a subject that has bothered me for a long time. I’m ready to write, so if you’re ready to read, then let’s get started.

Is it just me, or is the tie game disappearing in sports? Or at least in the major North America professional ones? This is certainly true in baseball and basketball. In both sports, if you have a tie at the end of regulation time, such as 9 innings in baseball or 48 minutes in the NBA just to cite a couple of examples, you just keep playing until someone wins. Doesn’t matter if it’s a 25 inning baseball game, or 10 overtime periods in basketball. You just keep going and going and going and going and going and going….until you have a winner. Now one could argue here that the tie game hasn’t disappeared from these 2 sports because it was never there to start with. Or at least that’s my understanding. Getting a winner every time in these two sports is just the nature of the game, and I’ll wager that’s been the case ever since James Naismith invented basketball and those responsible for baseball did the same. Oh – and while we’re at it, I don’t subscribe to the Abner Doubleday theory about how baseball got started, but let’s save that discussion for another time.

In more recent years, however, this practice of no longer having tie games has spread to other sports – most notably to Canadian and American football, as well as to hockey. And it has led to the creation of the thing I hate most in pro sports – the hockey shoot-out and its football equivalent, the “mini-game”.

Before we get too far into all this, I would like to ask my readers why we need to get rid of tie games in the first place? Or at least tie games during the regular season. When you are talking about the playoffs the answer is obvious in that you can’t have tie games. After all, when you are playing a best-of-seven format (as most North American pro sports follow during their playoffs), you can’t have a result such as 3 wins for Team A, 3 wins for Team B and 1 tie. Doesn’t make sense and doesn’t produce a winning team that moves on to the next round. Or wins the league championship. As a corollary to that, I also applaud the NHL for not using the shoot-out in the playoffs. Instead, as it should be, you just keep playing until someone wins. If the game starts at 7:00 p.m., but in addition to regulation time you play 6 overtime periods and the winning goal is scored at 2:35 a.m. – well, that’s what happens. Keep going until someone wins it and never use the shoot-out format in the playoffs. May it always be so!

So much for the playoffs. I think everyone would agree that there is no place for a tie game in any playoff series in any sport. Especially as you get closer to the championship round and of course in that final series. But that’s the playoffs and we really don’t need to go further with that discussion. In the regular season, however, let me ask the question again. Is it really necessary to get rid of tie games? Do we absolutely have to have a winner declared in every single regular season game? Seems that those in charge of pro sports that used to have tie games during the regular season (such as Garry Bettman in the NHL, Roger Goodell in the NFL or Marc Cohen in the CFL) think so. To hear them tell it, a tie game is like contracting some killer disease and has to be avoided at all costs. Why is this?

Let’s focus on hockey to help find an answer to my question. Prior to the 2004 NHL lockout and the resumption of play in the fall of 2005, tie games were rather common. And the point system associated with it was very simple and easy to follow. 2 points for a win and none for a loss. If you end up with a tie game, each team gets 1 point. If a team plays an 80 game season and ends with a record of 40 wins, 30 losses and 10 ties, you can easily determine that they earned 90 points. Nothing wrong there. A simple and efficient system, not only to determine which teams make the playoffs, but a useful measure of a team’s success. And it was a system that worked well and still would today.

Now with the advent of tie-breaking mechanisms such as the 5 minute overtime and the shoot-out that follows if there are no goals in the overtime, you almost need several university degrees to understand the NHL’s points system. The first part is the same as before, so it’s fairly simple. You still get 2 points if you win in regulation time, and none if you lose at the end of 60 minutes. Here’s where it gets interesting – and weird! If you have a tie game at the end of 60 minutes, each team is guaranteed a point. Again, just like before. But now you have the chance to go for a “bonus” point because according to the NHL, every game must now have a winner. And every winner, whether in regulation or in overtime, gets 2 points in the standings. Time for a 5 minute overtime with 5 skaters on each team instead of 6 (including the goaltenders). No goals? Now you have a shoot-out and you keep going until someone wins.

I just don’t get it. As I noted before, I understand the idea that you can’t have tie games in the playoffs. Fair enough, and I would think that everyone can agree on that one. But does it really matter during the regular season? If the Montreal Canadiens play the Boston Bruins and the game ends in a 4-4 tie after 60 minutes – that’s fine. Leave it there. Especially if both teams played well and provided value for the fans. Some highlight-reel goals. End to end action. Outstanding saves by the goaltenders. Each team gets a point and it’s time to move on to the next game. There’s no need to go any further. Everyone’s happy, right? Well, maybe not. Certainly not the people who say you can’t have a tie game. So in the above case, it doesn’t end with the 4-4 tie. The Habs and Bruins will now play overtime, and then a shoot-out if necessary. The final score will really be 5-4. For who? That’s why you need to continue playing. You’re not allowed to have a tie game.

I would love to meet those people I just mentioned who say that you can’t have a tie game. The folks who invented the hockey shoot-out, the “mini-game” that the CFL and American college football uses or similar tie-breaking mechanisms. My first question for them would be the one that dominates this entry: “Why are we doing this?” Promptly followed up with “What’s wrong with a tie game?” It would be interesting to hear their answers.

There are many reasons why I have never liked these mechanisms. Aside from the fact that ending a regular season game in a tie is fine, my number one reason is that to me the hockey shoot-out or the football mini-game ruin the sport’s integrity and destroy the essence and purity of the game. Fortunately, as we have seen above, they just keep going until someone wins in both basketball and baseball. But let’s say you did have tie games in both sports at the end of regulation time. This would be like saying that in the NBA or other basketball game, you start off with 3 overtime periods. If you’re still tied, you have a free-throw contest, or perhaps a 3 point shots contest to get your winner. A slam-dunk contest perhaps – just like those other “skills” contests you see at their respective sports All Star festivities? In baseball, if you’re tied after 9 innings, you play a few extra innings and if it is still tied, you have a home-run derby like the one held every July on the day before the All Star game.

I heard a great quote recently from Bobby Clarke, the captain and undisputed leader of the Philadelphia Flyers “Broad Street Bullies” teams in the 1970’s, and who after his retirement has enjoyed a long career as an executive with several NHL teams, including the Flyers, that sums much of what I am saying. I don’t remember his exact quote, but what he said was something like this: “Using a shoot-out to settle a tie hockey game is like asking quarterbacks to throw balls through tires to settle a football game”. While I must confess that having grown up in Montreal, and a great fan of the fast-skating, “firewagon” hockey played by my beloved Canadiens (and emulated by other highly skilled teams such as the Wayne Gretzky led Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s), I have never been a Flyers fan, and especially dislike that “Broad Street Bullies” style of rock ‘em, sock ‘em hockey that the Flyers have played through the years. But this is one time when Mr. Clarke is absolutely right and I agree with his comments 100%. He doesn’t see the need for a shoot-out, and I don’t either.

Let’s now suppose for a minute that we all agree that tie games must be eliminated from regular season pro-sports. To me, the next question is how do you accomplish that? How do you resolve the tie game and declare a winner? Some of you reading this may tell me that this is what the hockey overtimes and shoot-outs or the football mini-games are for. Maybe so. But I think that if you really need to settle tie games, come up with a mechanism that is as close to the real thing as possible, and preserves the essence and integrity of the game. To me, a hockey shoot-out is just a glorified skills competition. In fact, it most closely relates to the breakaway competition that we have all seen many times before, such as at the annual skills competitions held by NHL teams, or at the one held at the All Star Game weekend. The football mini-game leaves me cold for similar reasons. It’s too gimmicky and flashy to be taken seriously.

To me, the only pro sports league that has a proper tie-breaking mechanism is the National Football League. If an NFL game is tied after the full 60 minutes, you now play another 15 minutes – and do so exactly like the real game. You start with a coin toss at mid-field, followed by the opening kickoff, and then it becomes a sudden-death affair. First team to score wins. If nothing happens in that 15 minutes, you declare it a tie game and that’s that. I like it because it allows you to resolve a tie game using conditions exactly like the previous 60 minutes.

Many critics of this concept complain that the NFL format doesn’t allow the other team to respond if they are scored upon. And they seem to base their argument on the claim that the team who wins that coin toss always wins – assuming that they want the ball first. Or to put this another way, they say that whoever gets the football first wins. And because it’s a “gimme” that the team getting the ball first always scores, you’ve just shut out the other team’s chance to respond.

But let’s hang on for a minute. I have a problem with this line of thinking. If your team starts that overtime period on defence (so we’ll assume that either you lost the coin toss or you decide for some strange reason to let the other team have the ball first!), that doesn’t automatically mean that you lose the game. Especially when you consider that when you send that opening kickoff to your opponent, there’s a very good chance they will start deep in their own territory. Let’s say the 15 or 20 – assuming that your special teams do the job and their kickoff return is rather short. But all that does is put more pressure on your defence on that first drive. If you have confidence in your defensive team, then you believe they will do the job. If they do, then you get the ball soon and it’s your turn to try and win the game. Back and forth you go until someone wins.

To those of you reading this who don’t like the NFL format and much prefer the “mini-game” format the CFL and the NCAA uses – I think it would be interesting to look at a statistical analysis of NFL games settled in overtime, and find out how many times the team that wins the coin toss immediately drives down the field and scores. I would bet it’s not as high as you folks might think, maybe even less than 50%. If any of you reading this know of such an analysis, and where it might be found on the Net, I’d love to hear from you. And I would be happy to provide the location for that Web site(s) for others to read at any time.

The other method that football uses to end tie games is what I just referred to in the above paragraph. I don’t know what it’s really called, but for the sake of argument I will call the “mini game” format. It started out in the American college football game (the NCAA). And just like the two-point conversion option after a touchdown – the practice eventually came north to Canada and in my opinion has now infected the CFL. I suppose the best way to explain it is that it’s the hockey shoot-out done outdoors on either artificial turf or grass. The premise behind the “mini-game” is that you start on the 35 yard line. Not sure how they determine who goes first – probably a coin-toss. And there’s no kick-off, you simply have 35 yards to the end zone. From there you play it like a real game. When you give up possession (either on downs or you score points), the other team gets to do the same. If you score and the other team doesn’t, you win. If not, you run a second “mini-game”. Under the CFL system, the roles are reversed. The team who had the ball second in that first game now goes first. And so on, and so on… Sounds pretty simple doesn’t it?

But I cringe when I see this football “mini-game” – as many of us did recently when it was used in the CFL’s Western semi-final game in Regina between the BC Lions and the hometown Saskatchewan Roughriders. That’s because just like its hockey equivalent I think it ruins the integrity of the game. For openers, placing the ball on the 35 yard line means you have a very short field to work with. The chances of your team scoring right away is very high and almost a 100% probability. Doesn’t matter if it’s a touchdown, a field goal or the single point (the “rouge”) that is a unique feature of Canadian football that I love. Many field goal kickers can hit the goalposts from 45 yards consistently and even the worst ones should be able do it from at least 30 yards. If not, guess you’d better sharpen up your resume because you don’t have much of a future as a field goal kicker. At least not with your current team. Time to start looking for work, pal!

But regardless of the yardage we’re talking about, or whether you’re going to score points with a single point, field goal or touchdown, my basic point is that if you start your “mini-game” from the 35 yard line, your offence doesn’t really have to do very much to get in scoring position. You’re practically there right now. So in that sense, the pressure on the defence is exactly the same, and maybe higher, than the NFL overtime format because the odds of scoring points is much better in this system than in the NFL. I wonder if that’s why the other team always gets a chance to score. Those who invented this “mini-game” format (probably someone in the NCAA because that’s where the CFL imported it from) no doubt realized that placing the ball on the 35 and thus within fairly short range of the end zone makes scoring rather easy, so they put in the provision that the other team must have a chance at least to tie the game or score a touchdown to win (assuming that the first team got a field goal).

While I don’t like the “mini-game” that the CFL uses to solve tie games, the realist in me says that it’s probably here to stay. So if you are going to keep this “mini-game” thing, let’s make some changes. I would start by scrimmaging from further back. Make it more difficult to score points and at least put some semblance of the real game in there. Instead of the 35, how about placing the ball at mid-field. Or how about starting from your own 45 yard line, so that you have a longer field (such as 65 yards in the Canadian game or 55 in the American one) to negotiate. By starting further back, you will make the team “earn it” instead of practically having a “gimme” situation which is what you have when starting at the 35.

I could go on, but as always I have written another long entry and should start closing this off. So let me end by once again asking the question I used in my title, and at a couple of other places in this entry. What’s wrong with tie games? Must we always have a winner in every regular season game? If the answer to the previous question is “Yes”, then why do we need to have a shoot-out or a mini-game that cheapens the game’s value and integrity to get our winner? There must be a better way, and one of them is how the National Football League does it.

I suppose people like Garry Bettman or some of his football counterparts on both sides of the Canada-USA border would say that it’s not about the game. It’s not about preserving its essence, how many points a team gets each season, or the fact that making the playoffs just might depend more on how many overtime or shoot-out wins you get (and the corresponding extra point for each win), rather than the traditional 2 points wins you get in regulation time. That’s because instead of the 1 point you get from a tie game, if you win either in overtime or via the shoot-out, you get an extra bonus point. So instead of 1 point for the tie, you just got 2 points for the win. Those bonus points could make a big difference if it happens a few times during the season. Instead, it’s all about the business of sports – and in particular a form of entertainment that excites the fans who attend, keeps them coming back and makes them happy. Bettman and his colleagues would probably say these hockey shoot-outs and football mini-games are exciting and the fans love them.

And in a world with so many entertainment choices, professional sports everywhere needs to provide value for the entertainment dollar. If that really is their rationale for these tie-breaking mechanisms, I can actually understand some of their arguments even if I don’t agree with them. The mantra of the business of sports is to always give the fans more. The game itself is secondary. It’s all about entertainment. It’s about really being there, the entire atmosphere that many sports marketers and business types call the “in-game experience”. And as part of this “game experience”, ending it as a tie game after regulation time isn’t enough. Give them more value, more entertainment, more excitement. That’s what the shoot-out or mini-game is for. Get the fans out of their seats screaming with excitement. We want that highlight-reel breakaway goal. The spectacular leaping and diving touchdown catch. It’s all about the moment. It’s all about the entertainment. You’re not just selling the steak, you’re also selling the sizzle that goes along with it.

If that’s the way professional sports is going, at least here in North America, then there’s no place for “purists” like me. The tie game is dying a slow death. And perhaps with it is a piece of the sports landscape as we know it. It’s really more business than sports now isn’t it? Or entertainment rather than sports. When you go to a sports event, it’s not about the game anymore. It’s the whole package. As we just talked about, it’s what sports business people call “the in-game experience”. Which explains why you get loud rock music blaring during every stoppage in a hockey game (or between innings in baseball). Or silly gimmicks like firing T shirts from a cannon into the crowd during intermissions. It’s a non-stop assault on the senses. And if the game is tied at the end of 60 minutes and overtime, then the shoot-out becomes part of that assault. It’s just a spectacle to entertain the masses. Oh, and we get a winner too! To go back to my earlier example, the Bruins defeated the Montreal Canadiens 5-4 in a shoot-out. And because the game was in Boston, the fans went home that night feeling happy.

Ever heard that famous line: “I was at a fight and a hockey game broke out”? Sounds like the Broad Street Bullies and Mr. Clarke again doesn’t it. But we’re not in the 1970’s anymore. In today’s sports landscape, where entertainment is king and the game itself sometimes seems like an after-thought, maybe that line really should say “I was at a rock and roll music concert, and a hockey game broke out”. Hmm!!

But I sense that now I am not talking about tie games any more – that my entry is evolving into a discussion of the business of sports in 21st century North America. And all this leads into a whole new topic – one that is best discussed another day.

Until next time 🙂

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