Tuesday, July 8, 2008

"The Best Team Won": Chance v. Talent

Last week, at the end of the European Championship match that saw Spain defeat Germany 1-0, the commentators here in Paris remarked: "Spain played the best through the entire tournament and they had the best team tonight."

So the best team won. But their comment also implies, in fact, that frequently the best team does NOT win.

As I mentioned in the previous post, chance plays a significant role in most sporting contests. But if chance is the sole decider of outcomes, there is little interest for spectators. Watching the results of a lottery is not inherently interesting. It only interests those who have a stake in the outcome and the outcome, not the process, is the only thing that matters.

On the other hand, if chance plays no role, if the team that is best on paper always wins, why watch? The New England Patriots should have won last year's Super Bowl. The Seattle Mariners should have won the World Series in 2001 (no, I'm not bitter... okay, maybe a little). But a fumble here, a bad hop there and the better team loses.

In baseball, the best hit ball (demonstrating the talent of the batter and his superiority to the pitcher in that at bat) results in an out, while a ball that the batter barely touches, a pitch that should result in an out is nubbed just inside the bag, hops over the first baseman's glove, rolls into the bullpen and results in a triple and two runs scored. Given the amount of chance involved and small margin of talent difference between teams, the 162-game schedule is supposed to result in the best teams going to the playoffs. And sometimes it actually works. Sometimes it doesn't (Rockies NL champs in 2007...).

Chance may play less of a role in individual sports like tennis or golf, but even here the difference between a ball that bounces dead at the net or that catches the tape and drops over for a point is minute. And external forces such as wind or "good" and "bad" bounces may play a role in both these sports.

We can imagine charts where chance and athletic effort each contribute to determining outcomes:

The numbers in these "chance" charts (guesses on my part) are mirrored more scientifically by those who set the betting odds. In sports where athletic effort is a higher predictor of victory, the gamblers (and by extension the odds makers) show more definitive odds: anyone other than Federer or Nadal to win is an extreme long shot in tennis these days, where in baseball it is much more difficult to predict. As a point of contrast look at two defending champs and their odds at winning: half way into Wimbeldon, with 16 players remaining (so if chance alone decided the odds would be 16-1), the favorite Roger Federer's odds to win the championship were 4-7 (bet seven, if he wins you earn an extra 4); half way into the baseball season with 14 teams competing (and some already preparing for next year) the favorite Red Sox's odds to win the AL championship = 8-5. Certainly, the longer season and possibilities of injury play a role, but imagine the Red Sox in a tennis-like, single elimination bracket right now with 16 other teams. The odds of them winning, even though they may be the best team, would still be something like 8-1.

Perhaps the element of chance (as an avatar of supernatural intervention--see previous post) holds our interest because we are longing for a glimpse of the divine in a secular world. Perhaps we watch because, like a good novel, chance makes the narrative of a single play or of a match or even of a season entirely compelling: the unexpected plot twists and the surprise (or anticipated) endings are written before our eyes. Perhaps the presence of chance affords us the opportunity to reaffirm our beliefs: either that the gods are on our side or that they are punishing us; either that good guys win or that losing builds character ("that's the way the ball bounces"); that our lives are controlled by a higher power (God or our boss); and that we aren't solely responsible for what happens to us--the wind, the sun, teammates, colleagues or neighbors intervene and help us succeed or cause us to go awry.


SM Sprenger said...

What if you enjoy the "beauty" of a sport? That is, you take pleasure in simply watching excellent athletes perform their art without concern for who wins or loses? When I watch baseball or soccer or, better, ski racing or ski jumping, I really don't care who wins... Really. Watching a lottery or someone playing a slot machine is boring because it requires absolutely no skill. There is no art to appreciate. And I venture to say that even most gamblers really don't care about sports--only about their potential gain. They might as well be betting on whether a hurricane will hit Louisiana or Alabama.

Derek said...

Another idea is that skill and chance are irrelevant (as per the outcome) to the spectator when compared to who the spectator wants to win. I don't mind if my team gets lucky and beats the better team, so long at they win. It's similar in most sports. Sometimes we choose the underdog just to hope that they somehow come back, whether it is through their own skill, a bad call, or luck; we just want a game that's fun to watch.

Corry Cropper said...

I agree, the beauty of a sport is part of the reason I watch. But I'd rather watch Federer play Nadal than ballet. Both are beautiful, but only the match has the tension of competition and an unknown outcome.

Bourdieu says that appreciate the "inherent beauty" of a game depends on your social class (in other words, cultured like you are, Scott, you appreciate "beauty," but someone with less "culture" would only care about who wins.)

By the way, you can bet on whether or not the U.S. will bomb Iran, if a massive earthquake will hit, or if a bird flu epidemic will break out. Unbelievable, but true: www.intrade.com

Will have to return to this more later.

SM Sprenger said...

It seems that if I were really "cultured" I'd prefer ballet to tennis--but I'm with you: tennis is more interesting to me. But I'm still not sure if it's because of the competition. I think it's because I was never properly exposed to ballet and don't understand it.

On another score, ballet is an art, not a sport. So comparing them is perhaps not apt. At the same time, it's ironic that I might enjoy the "art" of sport more than the art of an art!