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Why I Believe I Find Watching Ice Hockey and Soccer (and Some Other Sports) Boring
Rick Garlikov

Notice, this is not an article on "Why Hockey and Soccer Are Boring to Watch". Boring is in the mind of the beholder, and, clearly, for millions of avid, sometimes even rabid, fans, hockey and soccer are most exciting. Possibly, after I explain what I think makes these sports boring to watch to me, someone can explain why my perspective is the wrong way to look at them, and show me how to enjoy the games.  Also, this is meant to be a more general look at what makes any sport boring to watch, not just hockey and soccer.  It is just easier to talk about a particular sport or two by name, but the reasons I will give can apply to many sports, and to any particular contest within a sport, even if that sport is otherwise typically exciting.

First, I want to make the distinction between viewing a game impartially and having a team or player I want to win. Having a rooting interest can make a sport far more interesting than not having one. Having a rooting interest can make a particular contest exciting in a way it would never be to me if I did not care who won and were just watching impartially. This essay is about the difference in how interesting a sport is likely to be to me as an impartial viewer. That is, American football tends to be interesting to me sometimes even if I do not care who wins, whereas a soccer match might only be interesting to me if I care which team wins, as in watching Olympic soccer.

Second, I must admit I am somewhat jaded by most sporting events because I have seen lots of sports on television over the years, and, now, except for an occasional exceptional play, or an occasional player or team with exceptional skills, most of it is pretty much like what I have seen before. To spend two or three hours watching something I have essentially seen many times before, whose outcome I don't really care about because I am not rooting for a particular team or player, is of little value or interest to me. The same thing that was of interest to me when I was 10 or 15 years old is no longer of interest in this regard because it is not new and unusual. 

This pertains particularly to regular season games. Championship tournaments or playoff games are a bit different because the intensity is often magnified, and because the level of play is often better. There is more pressure on the players, and it is interesting to see whether and how they rise to that pressure. There are more psychological factors involved in games at the tournament or playoff level than in the typical regular season game in any sport. But still my interest in hockey and soccer is less than in many other sports. This is an attempt to explain what it is about these games/sports that makes them less interesting to me, and perhaps to many other Americans as well.

Third, I want to make the distinction between enjoying playing a sport and enjoying watching it. I love to play tennis, but I don't particularly enjoy watching tennis, especially on television. Occasionally there is some spectacularly well-played, exciting match but they are few and far between. For the most part watching others play tennis is about as exciting as watching two people I don't know or care about kiss. Some things are better in the doing with the right person than in the watching.

Now, it has sometimes been said that Americans just do not like defensive sports where scoring is difficult as much as they like offensive sports where scoring is easier. The claim is that for Americans, high scoring contests are appreciated far more than low scoring ones. So, the theory goes, Americans just do not like soccer and hockey because they are relatively low scoring, defensive sports.

I do not think that is the crux of the matter, though because (1) there have been some noteworthy and celebrated titanic low-scoring defensive struggles in sports I, and other Americans, like; (2) there are some high scoring, highly offense-oriented sports and particular contests that are not interesting; and (3) many one-sided high-scoring games have not been interesting except to those who rooted for the winners. Many of the American football Superbowl games have been boring simply because they were so one-sided, regardless of how many points were scored in them. In baseball, shutouts and no-hitters, and, of course, perfect games (games in which no player for one of the teams reaches base at all), are celebrated and exciting contests.

I think there are two things that, when they do not go well, work against hockey and soccer for me; and I think that in other sports these same things can operate during any particular contest to make that particular game be boring. The two things are: (1) whether something meaningful is likely to happen at any given moment during the contest, and (2) whether the contest gets decided long before it is over or not. In some sports, or in any sport during some games, aspect (1) also determines aspect (2) because of the nature of the game. Sports like soccer and ice hockey are so difficult to score in for numerous reasons, that there are few moments where a team has a reasonable chance to score, even though the defense does not have to be spectacular to prevent it because the nature of the game itself makes scoring so difficult. It is not that the defense has to be especially noticeable as it is in football or in a great pitching and fielding game in baseball, in order to prevent scoring. It is that the offense must be spectacular (and, often, lucky) in ice hockey and in soccer in order to score at all. And because of that, if a team can get ahead early in the game by more than two goals, it makes it so difficult for the other team to win (except in one case I will discuss below) that it tends to put the game out of reach early and determine the outcome.

In any possible sport, if we consider relatively equal opponents, there is some ratio or typical balance of offense to defense in the sense that opponents will each score some percentage of the time they have an opportunity. There is some sense of how easy it is to score versus how easy it is to prevent scoring. In offensive sports, there will be more scoring by both sides because in those games scoring is easier than preventing scoring. In defensive sports, scoring is very difficult and it is much easier to prevent scoring than to score. In sports or games in which defense is almost totally dominant, scores are almost always low, and they are sometimes boring sports or games for the same reason as are those games where both offenses score virtually at will and there is very little effective defense. 

It seems to me that what makes a sport or a given contest exciting is that at any given time something significant can happen, whether that is a score or the prevention of a score, and that the outcome is in doubt pretty much throughout the contest. There are some sports and some contests where at least one of those things does not happen, and I think those are the contests which then are boring, even if other games or match-ups in that sport are usually interesting. When a sport tends to have most of its contests be like that, it is not an interesting sport to me. This is true whether it is a high scoring, offensive sport or a low scoring defensive sport.

Consider the case of Dean Smith's invention of the "four corners offense" in college basketball. When there turned out to be virtually no apparent defense for it, the NCAA had to outlaw it because it made basketball boring because it almost totally prevented scoring. It made the game almost totally defensive in nature for most of the time and it meant that most of the games' winners were essentially determined early. What Smith did was to have good players who could mount an early lead in a basketball game, and who then were especially good at playing "keep away" with the basketball by spreading out into the four corners of the floor and doing whatever was necessary just to keep dribbling and passing the ball among each other without taking any (risky) shots at all. Once Smith's North Carolina team got ahead in a particular basketball game, the game was essentially over. It fit the rules of basketball but didn't seem to be basketball. And my argument for why it was not exciting for anyone but Carolina fans was that games were decided early and that there was almost no opportunity for anything meaningful to happen scoring-wise once the four corners was put into operation during a game.

It is my contention that games are exciting for the average impartial fan in, and only in, proportion to the amount of time there is during the contest where, apart from spectacular individual plays of the sort that make highlight films, something meaningful to its outcome is likely to happen. That means that a meaningful offensive or defensive play is likely to occur. In games where the offense (or the team on offense) pretty much scores at will or where the offense almost never scores, that is not going to happen. It is not important that something significant happens on each play, but that there is a probability of its happening that is within the viewer's patience zone. And it means that any such scoring play or defensive stop is significant in some way to the outcome of the game, but not so significant that just one or two plays likely determine the outcome of the game by putting it out of reach for the other team.  Power plays in ice hockey and corner kicks or penalty kicks in soccer are exciting moments in those sports because they are the moments where a score, or a spectacular defensive play, are so much more likely to occur.

But during the normal course of play, hockey and soccer games I have watched without having a partial interest in one of the teams seem to me not to have sufficient individual plays to make them interesting, nor sufficient realistic scoring opportunities to make them interesting. Moreover, although occasionally in hockey and soccer a score is the result of superior strategy, teamwork, or skill, the difference between scoring a goal and just missing one or having one blocked is more a matter of luck than skill. In ice hockey in particular, it is not clear why some shots slip through and others miss, other than luck. Yet because goals are so scarce in hockey, a luck shot can determine the outcome of the game and it can dictate the style of play. Moreover, once an offensively weak team is behind by two or three goals, the game's outcome is pretty much determined because in hockey and soccer, as in four-corners basketball, there are not enough realistic scoring opportunities left in the game. Similarly in a relatively strong offensive, high scoring sport, a game can get out of hand early if a stronger team gets ahead because there is not sufficient realistic opportunity to limit their continued offensive output later to catch up with them. 

American football seems to recognize the need for reasonable proportional chances to make significant scores or stops of scoring. When outside factors, such as kicking strength improvements, change the scoring balance significantly, the leagues affected will change the rules between seasons in order to restore the balance. Once kickers could kick the ball on kick-offs past the endzone or could make field goals from too many different field positions, kick-off lines were moved back to allow greater possibility of runbacks, and goal posts were moved back, and the spot for giving possession to the defensive team for missed field goals was changed in order to put more risk in trying to kick longer field goals and to make it harder to kick them successfully.

Contemporary tennis is faced with the problem that composite racquets allow players far more power and control on their serves, so that some players on some court surfaces have such an advantage that the serve is about all that is left to the contest. A match may come down simply to whose serve was better on that day, and that is not nearly as interesting as watching a match where there is more to playing and more to winning than just how many dominating or unreturnable serves were hit. It is only great to watch good serve and volley tennis when that is a feat, not when it is the norm because of technological progress in equipment. So some tournaments last year have required use of a larger, slower ball in order to give more opportunity for a controlled return of serve in those situations. 

When a baseball pitcher one year invented a move that allowed him to pretty much pick off first base runners at will who took any sort of reasonable lead, the balk rule was changed during the following winter, in order to allow base runners once again to have a chance of stealing second or of going to third on a single. One of the amazing things about some sports, such as baseball, is that the increased fitness of players over the years, unlike in football, has resulted in very little change in the proportion of overall offense and defense. The size of the diamond has not had to be changed in order to keep offense or defense from dominating. As offensive skills have improved, so have defensive skills. And while there may be more home runs hit these days than there were prior to 1930, home runs are still both rare enough that they are a surprise and a feat and common enough that one or two during a game may not put that game out of reach.

The problem, to me, with soccer and hockey is that there is not likely to be much scoring and if some scoring does occur early, it tends to determine the game too soon. In the same way, but from the opposite direction, the problem with some basketball games is that there is so little defense that a few missed baskets tend to determine the outcome of the game. What I want is for games to give the team that is behind a realistic opportunity still to win. And I want offensive and defensive ability to count for more than just luck in determining whether a score is made or prevented.

There is one situation, even in low scoring sports where the defense essentially dominates or in high scoring sports where the offense essentially dominates, that allow individual contests or matches to be exciting to impartial fans. Those are particular games or series of games (e.g., best three out of five, or best four of seven) in which one team is (considered to be) much stronger than the other, but the far weaker team (the team least expected to win) gets ahead early and has to hold off what is thought to be the superior team. The suspense is in whether the superior team will "wake up" in time to win or whether if they step up their game, the winning weaker team will be able to withstand the onslaught. Insofar as one team is far stronger or has been more dominant than another, the stronger team can get relatively far behind and still be considered to have a chance to win the game or the series. That is not the case in match-ups between teams of equal ability or in match-ups where the stronger team gets ahead early, particularly in those sports that do not tend to allow much momentum shifts. While a stronger team with a large lead might still lose, the odds are so against it that there is no real sense of anticipation or suspense; thus there is little excitement. Momentum shifts tend only to occur in sports where the ease of scoring and the ease of preventing scoring are sufficiently balanced. And low scoring, defensive sports or high scoring, offensive sports, do not tend to allow that in general.

If my theory is correct, and if many Americans who do not find hockey interesting are like me, it would follow that we would be more interested in hockey if scoring were sufficiently easier that any game which is, say 4 - 1, early, is not thereby virtually over. If most ice hockey games needed something like 12 or 15 goals to win, and if the rinks or nets were larger, or if there were fewer players just "clogging up" scoring lanes, or if rules were changed to allow scoring to have a higher probability than it does now, we should then find the sport more exciting. That, of course, is not something for the purist, nor would it be the same sport in terms of history and tradition. But if the idea is to promote fan interest in a sport something like hockey or soccer, something of that sort might be both necessary and sufficient, if I am correct.

Note: Since I wrote and posted this, I am told by an avid hockey fan, Ben Staehr, that the NHL has had some rule changes that have resulted in ice hockey games having higher scores by an average of two additional goals.  I am not sure this is sufficient to meet the objections above, but it at least a step in that direction.  

He also writes that the speed and non-stop action of hockey makes it very exciting to him, moreso than games like baseball or football which have a lot of, often boring, time between plays.  While I do understand and appreciate that aspect of the game, and agree that time between plays is generally boring, still because the speed and constant activity in hockey and soccer do not often tend to result in anything unexpected, to me they are not exciting.  There are many sports that have constant play and great speed that, I think, are not exciting.  Unless one is interested in spectacular crashes or has a favorite driver to cheer on, 500 mile auto races are not particularly exciting for the first 490 miles or so.  Long bicycle races are not exciting to watch on television.  Marathons are not interesting to watch wire to wire.  I do not think it is the pace of play but whether there is a reasonably likely chance "scoring-wise" for something unexpected or at least unusual to happen that can affect the outcome.  Long races of any sort do not tend to have that, just as long games where scoring is very frequent (such as professional basketball) or where scoring is almost impossible.  Baseball has a similar problem during the half innings when the winning team is batting, particularly if they are ahead by a large margin at the time, because at that time there is no chance for the team that is behind to catch up.  The best they can do is to keep from falling further behind.  In baseball the defense can never score.  Volleyball is the same in that regard, except that volleyball allows the defense to change to offense after any given single play. A half inning in baseball can take many plays and a fairly long time.

I think that the way golf tournaments and golf tv coverage works, supports my contention in that most professional golf tournaments eliminate the players who have almost no chance of winning, by having a "cut" score halfway through. Then on the last two days of coverage, the tv broadcasts tend to concentrate on the shots of the players who have the most likely chance (at the time) of winning -- the "leaders".  Luckily with replays, they can show the spectacular shots of other players after they occur, but they seldom show the live play of players who are not "in contention" -- i.e., not likely to win or change the outcome by any given shot -- at the time.

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.