"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.