A Cupful of Wisdom

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Soccer is the most boring thing to watch on television.

– America

The cynics are having a field day with the World Cup final, calling Spain’s last-minute-of-overtime 1-0 victory a snoozefest.

I’m not here to argue with them, but it is important to understand why.

Scoring Value

The other night, a kid named Travis Wood in his third major-league start threw a perfect game (no hits and no walks) for eight innings, then gave up a double in the ninth to end his no-hitter. The opposing pitcher, Roy Halladay, had thrown a perfect game earlier in the year, and gave up only five hits and no runs through nine innings.

At the end of regulation, the score was 0-0. Just like the World Cup final. Yet nobody was blasting that game as a dud.

From a cultural perspective, we’re junkies for statistics. Look at all the stats published with every major league boxscore in the newspaper. It’s always been that way. For many families, it’s a proud tradition as a father takes his kids to the game, and teaches them how to “score” the game as it happens.

Baseball is a sport that runs at its own pace, with lots of stops and starts in the action. There is a discrete beginning of every play and a discrete end. There is no defined time limit; a game takes as long as it takes nine innings to play, or until the tie gets broken at the end of an extra inning.

American Football is similar, in that every “play” has a discrete beginning and end. There is a clock that must be obeyed in keeping the pace, but its easy to keep stats on what is happening because you can divide the action into the plays.

Incremental Progress

The breaks in the action make for a better television experience for advertisers, but that’s not the cultural piece that matters here. It’s the way in which we measure incremental progress.

At the end of a baseball game, you have a load of stats that you can use to predict future outcomes. “Chipper is batting .410 in his last ten games; Left-handed hitters are pounding Morris for a .768 slugging percentage; Lee has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 14:1.” The trends are easy to calculate; some are useful, some not so much. But they always trigger spirited discussions.

Football gives a similar flavor, with passing stats and running stats and offensive production. A team that gains 600 yards a game is considered an offensive powerhouse, because it’s always done in the context of the same 60 minutes the other team is given. You can make a case that the score was not an accurate reflection of performance, because you can point to the incremental progress. “We gained the yardage and converted on third downs, but the turnovers near the goal line killed us.”

Basketball was an anemic sport until the advent of the shot clock. Teams could employ a “Four Corners” tactic to kill the clock with little action. In 1950, the Fort Wayne (now Detroit) Pistons beat the Minneapolis (now L.A.) Lakers in a 19-18 shootout. These days, that’s a low-scoring quarter. The upshot for fans is that shot clocks increase the number of discrete possessions and interactions, which opens up more statistics. It also makes those statistics more comparable across games, because you’re guaranteed to have more possessions.

In soccer, the flow of the game makes it very difficult to score the incremental progress. So it’s “boring.”

The Goal Is The G-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-oal!

Mathematicians are working on algorithms that will provide better statistics for soccer, but those aren’t very useful for the casual fan to keep up with. You’ll still be more likely to hear “Going into the 4th quarter, Favre is 0-for-7 on third down passing” than you would hear “In the 70th minute, Sledzik is patrolling the infield with a .687 engagement rate!”

Yes, you can keep track of “shots on goal,” and get aggravated at all those shots that carom harmlessly away, or those great passes across the mouth of the goal to a teammate who wasn’t there. But soccer is not a game of measurable incremental progress – and proof that you don’t always have to have it.

Too often, we use the statistics of incremental progress as crutches. “Yes, you beat us, but we outgained you 450-150.” Yet the score is simply the score. While it can be instructive to know how someone was beaten, or how likely it is to happen in the next meeting, none of those calculations matter to the end result.

In soccer, you win if you score more than the opponent. Period. Holding the ball, elegant passes and teamwork on the back line are important, but all it takes is a single lapse to undo everything.

Measurement is important – but how much of what you measure is germane to the final score? How much of your communication metrics are sound and fury, signifying nothing? And how much merely provides excuses and CYA in the event you don’t get the desired outcome?

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  2. "…how much of what you measure is germane to the final score?" Great thinking from @IkePigott http://bit.ly/do86ee