Tricks for minimizing ties

Various methods have been tried for cutting down the chances that a contest will end without a winner, especially in our television sports. Evidently, TV executives believe that few fans want to watch two teams slug it out for three hours without one of them emerging victorious. (I can't imagine where they get this idea.) So college football borrowed the two-point conversion from the Canadian Football league to decrease the odds of two teams ending with the same score.

Eventually, the NFL adopted the same rule. When that didn't solve the problem, the NFL instituted the sudden death format for regular season games. More recently, high school football invented a new system, which the college boys have since adopted (at least for their League Championship Series). Each team gets the ball at the other team's 20- or 25-yard line and has four plays to score. Then the other team gets their shot. As soon as one team scores more than the other in a given "round," the game is over.

Other sports have other "solutions," but none of these eradicate ties completely. Baseball teams could conceivably play extra innings forever without a resolution. In basketball, every overtime period could end in a tie. In tennis, players could win every other point and never finish their so-called "tie-break." A hockey or soccer shoot-out could end with identical scores. Tied golfers could play hole after extra hole without one of them winning.

And, of course, all these attempts to avoid ties create other problems. For one thing, players — even superbly conditioned athletes — are often physically and emotionally drained after playing a whole game, so the quality of play is likely to suffer. In some cases, it can get downright sloppy. Instead of being a contest of beauty, grace, and athleticism, it becomes a war of attrition, which is not always fun to watch.

In addition, when a contest goes into extra innings or extra holes or overtime or a shoot-out, the TV schedule is strained and local stations have to decide whether to carry the feed (assuming the network stays with the contest until the bitter end). If they don't, they risk alienating the fans. If they do, they risk alienating those who wanted to watch the scheduled program. What a terrible dilemma!

So what's the solution? Well, eliminating ties (and overtime) in the two types of games ("more/less" and "first/last") requires slightly different, but related, adjustments.

Techniques that eliminate ties

Let's start with "more" games. In this case, we have a precedent. In the game of Go, I'm told, one player is awarded half a point at the beginning of the game, so a tie score is impossible. What a clever (if slightly inelegant) way out of the dilemma! We could easily use this tie-breaking rule for all "more" games, games which could end with both teams having the same score. (Remember that, by definition, a "more" game involves only two teams.) In baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer, rugby, polo, water polo, field hockey, lacrosse, and so on, one team could be given half a point to start. No overtime, extra innings, or shootout would be necessary. Boom! Problem over.

Actually, I think there's a similar solution that's a little more elegant, one that would include many "first" games as well. This solution involves the concept of "otherwise." The object of a game would be described as follows: "If X happens, Player (or Team) A wins. Otherwise, Player (or Team) B wins." At present, there are very few familiar games that can be used as models for such a game, but Fox and Geese is one. We might say that the player moving the Fox wins if the Fox captures all the Geese. Otherwise, the player moving the Geese wins.

"Otherwise" games

How could we use the "otherwise" concept to eliminate ties in "more" sports and games? Well, as an example, we could express the object of baseball as follows: "If, after nine innings, the home team has more runs than the visiting team, the home team wins. Otherwise, the visiting team wins." That object would accomplish exactly what the half point would accomplish without the awkwardness of recording the score as 4.5 to 4.

To describe the revised object for any other "more" sport or game, we'd have to substitute the appropriate word or phrase for "runs" and for "nine innings," but the solution would be basically the same. For Othello, for example, the object would be described as follows: "If White has more points after the last legal move, White wins. Otherwise, Black wins." Simple, elegant, effective.

Okay, let's hear the objections.

1.   Fans love overtime. Well, maybe one or two OTs or three or four extra innings, but when a game goes much longer than that, I think fans begin to lose interest. People start filing out. Their internal clocks have wound down. At a gut level, they know the game should have been over 45 minutes ago. Besides, their baby-sitters have to get home. When you define the object in "otherwise" terms, you guarantee that the game cannot last more than four quarters or nine innings or three periods. People can schedule their lives more sensibly and will be more willing to come to games, knowing they'll be able to see the whole thing.

2.   Shoot-outs are exciting. What could have been better than the U.S. women's soccer team winning their World Cup game with a dramatic kick from Brandi Chastain? Well, I think a game in which one team had to score in order to avoid losing would be much more exciting. Think of that. Two minutes to go, the game "tied" 1 to 1. If the U.S. scores, they go ahead. If they don't, they lose. Notice they're not playing just to tie as they would ordinarily be. The payoff is much higher. To score is to take the lead, not just get a chance for a shootout. To fail to score is to lose. Think of the frantic attempt to score that goal in those final seconds. The goalie comes out, the team attacks furiously, the other defends ferociously. On the other hand, suppose the teams are really tied going into the last two minutes. What incentive does either team have to score? The best strategy for both teams is to stall! So even if the shoot-out itself is dramatic, the end of the last quarter might be incredibly dull. That would never happen if a tie was defined as a win for one team and a loss for the other.

3.   It's unfair to give one team an arbitrary advantage. But of course we already do that. Virtually every sporting event, except various "bowl" games (including the Super Bowl), takes place in one team's backyard, and most fans and participants and rule-makers seem to think that that generally provides a distinct advantage for the so-called "home team." Otherwise, why would the elite teams in the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, and MLB work so hard all year to earn "home-field advantage"? Nobody complains that this arbitrary advantage is unfair.

But if people really think that teams should have no "unfair" or "arbitrary" advantage at the beginning of the game, then the obvious solution would be to counterbalance the presumed home-field edge by saying that the home team had to score more points/runs/goals than the other team or the visitors would win the game. In other words, all ties would be losses for the hosts.

Alternatively, if we thought that increasing the home team's chances of winning would bring more fans to the game, we could say that all ties are wins for the host team. In either case, all teams in a league would have the Otherwise Advantage an equal number of times a year, just as all teams now have home-field advantage an equal number of times a year. Or, if we were interested in "parity," it would make sense to give the underdog for that game (as determined by the oddsmakers) the Otherwise boost. It really doesn't matter. The game would be more exciting and have a conclusive ending regardless of which team gets that initial edge.

4.   If the score were reported as a tie, no one would know who won the game. Yeah, this is a huge problem. All we'd have to do is put a star by the winning team (as in *Astros 4, Mets 4). After all, when scores scroll across the TV screen, the winning team is usually designated with an arrow or is highlighted in some way, as if fans can't tell which score is higher!

5.   Eliminating the possibility of a tie is fundamentally changing the game. Oh, please. Adding a three-point basket, a designated hitter, a two-point conversion, a shoot-out — none of these "fundamentally" changed anything. We're still calling those games basketball, baseball, football, hockey, and soccer. No one is proposing a name change (or even an asterisk) to distinguish them from their earlier versions.

So why would the Otherwise Advantage change a sport into something else? The strategy would change, of course — to the benefit of the fans and the sport— but none of the rules would be affected in any way. In fact, all that would change is how the game's outcome would affect the two teams' records. Instead of being recorded as a tie for both teams, the game would count as a win for one and a loss for the other. Isn't that desirable? No nasty ties cluttering up team's records. That's obviously what the leagues themselves want because they keep instituting (ineffective and inelegant) methods for eliminating ties.

6.   It's un-American or unsportsman-like not to have teams start out on equal footing. And yet we tolerate such situations now. In some cases, one team will make the playoffs only if they win the game, but the other team will make the playoffs if they don't lose. One team, in other words, is playing to win and the other to win or tie. I've never heard anyone call this situation un-American or unsportsman-like, and it usually makes for a very interesting game. Giving one team the win in case of a tie does nothing more than this — it puts one team in the position of having to win and the other in the position of having to win or tie.

7.   But you want to create this highly unusual situation for every single game ever played from now on. Exactly. What's your point?

8.   Sports fans would never accept such a radical change. I don't see why not. They've accepted some pretty big changes over the years, from interleague play to instant replay. This is actually a fairly small change by comparison.

More important, it not only eliminates ties but it increases the chances for exciting games with frantic finishes. It makes every single possession of the ball/puck, every single time at bat, much more dramatic and much more significant. If a team were "behind" (that is, they would lose if the score didn't change) at the beginning of their offensive opportunity, they would either still be behind at the end of it (Arrgh!) or they would be ahead (Yaaay!). They could never ever be merely tied (Yawn.) The "lead" would change much more often than it does now, and it would never be good strategy for both teams to stall.

At any point in the game, including the beginning, one team would be ahead (in theory if not in score) and the other would be behind. In addition, the end of "regulation" would really be the end of the game — always. No more 21-inning baseball games. No more quintuple overtime basketball games. How much more could you ask for from a scoring system? What sports fan — except the purist who wants to outlaw the slam dunk — would object to any of that?

If there are other objections, I can't think of them. In my opinion, this suggestion is a simple, elegant solution to the vexing problem of ties in a wide variety of "more" sports. If you disagree, I'd love to hear from you.

Now let's move on to the problem of getting rid of ties in "first" games, a bigger challenge.

"Down with Ties!" by Stephen Sniderman19 | 20 | 21

The Life of Games
No. 2 (April 2000)
©2000 Kadon Enterprises, Inc.