Saturday, July 07, 2007

"Uncertainty of Outcome" revisited

Among economists, there's a theory that competitive balance within a league will improve attendance. The argument is that, when historic games are rerun on ESPN Classic, ratings are near zero. The economists conclude that when fans know in advance who's going to win, they're not interested. So, by extension, when they "almost" know in advance who's going to win – such as a live contest between a strong team and a weak team – they should also be uninterested. Therefore, fans are the most interested in games between two equal teams.

I think they're jumping to conclusions. It may be that fans prefer competitive balance, but the "ESPN Classic" argument just doesn't make sense. There are lots of other, more likely, reasons that fans may prefer a live game to a rebroadcast game.

1. Fans care about a lot more than who wins. When watching a live game, anything can happen, and we might see something rare and exciting. It might be a perfect game, or a no-hitter. Someone may hit for the cycle. There could be spectacular catches, or managerial blunders. Our favorite player may go 4-for-4.

Why conclude that fans prefer uncertainty of who wins? Maybe they prefer uncertainty of whether there's going to be a no-hitter. No hitters are more frequent when one team is really bad. By the same ESPN Classic logic, maybe fans prefer *less* competitive balance?

2. Fans are more likely to go to games featuring the best opponents – even when their home team is mediocre. In that case, they are favoring games where the visiting team is very likely to win. This, of course, is contrary to the thesis that fans prefer uncertain games. (See Guy's comment
here, in my previous post on this subject.)

3. Even when a game is almost certain to go to the favored team, sometimes it doesn't. When that happens, the game is very exciting and satisfying for the fans. Isn't it possible that the thrill of the underdog win compensates for the fact that it won't win very often?

Maybe it only partially compensates, or maybe it even overcompensates. In any case there's got to be *some* effect there, unlike the ESPN Classic game, in which we know one team *never* wins.

4. How are rebroadcasts different from live games? One obvious answer is that we know who will win. But there are other aspects too. One of them is simply the fact that a live game is ... live.

Suppose you're watching a live game, and the phone rings. You put your Tivo on pause, and chat for a few minutes. Then you hang up the phone. Do you watch the part of the game you missed? I don't – I skip the parts I missed, and immediately go live. There's just something unsatisfying about watching the game delayed, when the rest of the world already knows what happened. Maybe that's just me, but I can't be the only person in the world who thinks that way. I'd argue that in general, that a live game is desirable for its own sake, and not just because you don't know what's going to happen.

5. The NHL Network often shows vintage games from the 60s and 70s. They don’t tell you in advance how they're going to come out, and you'd have to have a pretty good memory to remember every game over two decades. So when you watch these, you're uncertain about the outcome.

But they're still less exciting. Why? Not because the outcome is uncertain, but because the game isn't news. When the Devil Rays play the Red Sox live, there's an impact – the standings change, the players' stats change, and so on. When we see the Devil Rays play the Red Sox in a replay from 2001, it just doesn't matter, even if we don't remember what happened at the time.

6. Finally, if uncertainty of outcome is what's important, how come fans aren't consistent in when they care about it?

According to the sports economists, fans are significantly less interested in watching a game where one team has a 70% chance of winning than one where it's 50-50.

But suppose it's 5-3 in the top of the 9th, two outs, runners on first and third, and the go-ahead run coming to the plate. Pretty exciting, right? But, historically, the batting team has a very small chance of winning. Between 1974 and 1990, this situation happened 171 times, and the team at-bat managed to win only 9 of those. (Data
here.) That's not much uncertainty of outcome. But how many fans would turn off the TV in those circumstances?

Of course, this ninth inning isn't exactly the same as a full unbalanced game. For instance, waiting for the outcome will probably take only a couple of minutes here, rather than the three hours it takes to sit through a Yankees/Royals game. So there's less of an investment. And, the situation is indeed pretty exciting, where one swing of the bat might make the difference.

So let's take a less exciting example. Suppose two teams are exactly equal, but in the bottom of the first, the leadoff batter hits a home run. The home team now has a .685 chance of winning the game. In terms of uncertainty of outcome, that 1-0 situation is the equivalent of a last place team hosting a first place team.

If uncertainty of outcome is so important, should we expect TV ratings to drop after the home run? Should we expect that if fans knew, in advance, that it would be 1-0 with no outs in the bottom of the first, they would be less likely to buy a ticket?

Just doesn't seem plausible to me.

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At Saturday, July 07, 2007 3:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think what makes live sports so exciting is the anticipation that something is going to happen. It is about anticipating a big check in hockey, a long pass for a touchdown in football, or a home run in baseball. The anticipation that something is going to happen is equally important as something actually happening.

It bugs me when people say that the shoot out in hockey is exciting because it isn't the shootout that is exciting, it is the anticipation that something is about to happen that is exciting. If the shootout didn't mean anything, it wouldn't be all that exciting. Does anyone really get excited about watching the NHL skills competition? It is the situation that makes it exciting, not the actual event itself.

The problem with classic games is people generally have no sense of the situation. Viewers generally don't have any 'connection' with the players or know their personalities or have as keen of a sense of their attributes as athletes. They don't necessarily have the sense of who is the home run hitter or who can throw the hard check in hockey. If you don't know these things, you don't get the same sense of anticipation. You can't anticipate a three run home run if you don't know if the batter has home run potential. You also don't know who's hot and who's not or where the two teams sit in the standings or if the two teams involved have a rivalry to recent history that would make the game a bit more 'special'. There really isn't a lot of 'meaning' in watching a classic game. I also think people really have a hard time getting that sense of anticipation for something that has already happened and you certainly won't have the opportunity to say 'did you see that great goal last night' to your co-workers the next morning. I think that means something.

At Saturday, July 07, 2007 6:19:00 PM, Blogger Brian Burke said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At Saturday, July 07, 2007 6:20:00 PM, Blogger Brian Burke said...

In all the examples you discuss, there is one consistent theme--fans are excited when the game is meaningful. In almost all cases, "meaning" is defined as consequential to playoffs and the championship.

Consider a league with 3 types of teams: good, average, and poor. Fans are most excited by good vs. good, and least excited by poor vs. poor. The other combinations fall in between. When good teams are playing, it usually means there are playoff consequences at stake.

Now imagine a league with perfect parity. There would be no good, average, and poor teams. Every team would be considered 'good,' at least by its own fans. Almost every game would have consequences, at least until the end of the season when there are 2 playoff-eliminated teams playing each other.

There is no such league, but the closer one gets to that ideal, the more often its games will excite fans.

At Saturday, July 07, 2007 10:56:00 PM, Blogger Bob Timmermann said...

I will only watch ESPN Classic replays of games if:
1) it's a game involving a team I root for and it's going to win an important game
2) a very rare historical tape.

For example, it is believed there are no extant intact copies of Super Bowls I and II. I have watched Super Bowl III at the Museum of TV and Radio, mainly because it was historically interesting.

For baseball, I will still to the end of just about every game I attend in person and watch to the end if I can because baseball has so many unique events and one of them may be something you never see again, like an unassisted triple play (but now I've seen two of those on TV).

But in basketball or football, I will more likely bail out on a rout. Those two sports are set up that at certain scores, it is almost mathematically impossible for the team behind to catch up. And the games will be finished off by substitutes, who are unlikely to achieve any unique accomplishment.

So in basketball and football, I am more likely to be leave the stadium or stop watching once I am satisfied I know who won.

I have tried taping and watching events later, but I hate it. I just hate it. I can't stand watching that way.

At Monday, July 09, 2007 4:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with all your points here. I think that uncertainty is still relevant here, but only on extreme scales -- I'm guessing at the 97%-100% certainty range. I would imagine that 97% or so represents the probability of a leading team winning a baseball game at the point where the real flood of spectators heads to the exit.

At Monday, July 09, 2007 11:17:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Yeah, I'd agree with that. Are there any sports that have those kinds of odds? I vaguely remember boxing matches were one guy was a 20-1 favorite, or something like that ...

At Tuesday, July 10, 2007 9:28:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anecdotally, probably the early rounds of tournaments for individual sports like wrestling and tennis. maybe you could compare attendance of early round matches between lopsided seeds and close seeds?


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