“In the United States we structure most competitive contests to ensure that talent and performance are the main determinants of outcomes.”
On the afternoon of July 9, like millions—maybe even billions—of other people around the globe, I sat on a couch to witness the World Cup finals between Italy and France. I watched the game with 20 French economics students who were spending the summer at the University of Chicago, and who were, in the end, more depressed about the outcome of that title game than they were about their own economy. But not only were they more interested in the whole spectacle than I was, the same would have been largely true even if France has not been in the final game. First and foremost it was the championship game for soccer itself, or “football” in French and other languages.

Throughout the entire 2+ hour ordeal, I kept asking myself: Why would anyone waste good time or money watching this sport? Ignoring for a moment the lack of scoring, the ubiquitous flops that would make an NBA player jealous or incredulous, and “unnatural acts” such as not being able to touch the ball with your hands or arms, I began to apply basic economic principles to the sport, and tried to understand why 6 billion people, including my graduate teaching assistants from Milan, Rio and Barcelona, seem to care passionately and a few hundred million, mainly in the United States, don’t.

Like Watching Paint Dry

In our society and our sports, most Americans like to see some relationship between effort and reward. In labor and product markets, we appreciate competitive market forces and incentives that reward ability, hard work and ingenuity. The same is true for the sports we participate in and follow as spectators. While we can appreciate the grace, artistry or skill associated with, say, figure skating or soccer, we like it best when someone keeps score. And we like the scoring to have some measure of justice or rationality to it.

For example, when a baseball team comes up to bat, there is a non-trivial probability that it will string together a few hits and score at least one run in that half-inning. When an NFL team has possession of the football and starts its march toward its opponent’s goal line, a reasonable percent of the time (ok, so it’s not exactly true with the Chicago Bears) it will score a field goal or touchdown. When an NBA or college team moves the ball quickly and artfully up court, the result is usually two points. Imagine what basketball would be like if the circumference of the rim were reduced by 40 percent or the basket were raised to 20 feet. Fans would get annoyed and players, discouraged.

In contrast, when a soccer team has the ball, the chance it will score on that possession is effectively 0.001. Over 90 minutes (the length of a game), there are hundreds of changes of possession with no change on the scoreboard. A team can dominate the game, control the ball beautifully, pass with tremendous élan, out-play the other team and still not score. In fact, during the 90 minutes of regulation play and the two 15-minute overtime periods in the World Cup finals, the only scoring came from a penalty kick and a corner kick; no points were the result of advancing the ball up and down the field. This was also the case with many of the World Cup tournament games played in Germany this summer. (Ice hockey suffers from the same defect, but there at least the prospect of violence can hold the interest of beer-sotted fans.)

To the untutored eye/fan, scoring appears random—an occurrence that could as well happen by chance as from a clever game plan and good execution. While France and Italy were two of the stronger teams in the tournament, they were certainly not favored to win it all. For various reasons, Brazil, England and Spain fell by the wayside; and over the course of 90 minutes in a decidedly low-scoring affair, a referee’s call or a 30-second burst by an arguably weaker opponent means something akin to a fluke can determine who advances.

That may well suit, and be consistent with, European sensibilities about equality, risk-taking and economic outcomes—witness the French protests in the Spring that would have granted some (albeit it very limited) power to employers to dismiss incompetent workers or adjust their payrolls to over-arching market forces. But it is inconsistent with most Americans’ preferences for some semblance of strategic decision-making, coupled with observable effort, that leads to a predictable outcome—more sales, a raise, a better mousetrap, or more points.

However, there are clearly some Americans who are uncomfortable with competitions that produce winners and losers, and soccer appeals to their egalitarian, risk-averse streak. (The same crowd usually also can be counted on to oppose globalization.) I find it interesting that in such enclaves, parents who have achieved a certain exalted socioeconomic status in life by being highly competitive now want their children to value cooperation rather than individualism, to not take things so seriously, to be nice and otherwise work for the commonweal. Winning is unimportant, and everyone gets a ribbon. It’s politically perfect here and economically perfect in some foreign quarters.

Feet-Rabbits’ and Others’

In the United States we structure most competitive contests to ensure that talent and performance are the main determinants of outcomes. Although random events, luck and bad calls by officials are always present, we do not want them to determine the final outcome. (We are not entirely consistent here: for example, in horseracing, gate draws and “clutter” in a 15-horse field reduce considerably the chances that the winner will actually be the best horse. Almost 70 years ago, to settle it once and for all, War Admiral and Seabiscuit went head to head in a well-known race.)

We seed swimmers—the best two get lanes 4 and 5—on the basis of previous times. Regular-season performance generally creates a Home Field/Court/Ice advantage for the stronger team. We play “four out of seven” to determine a champion in baseball or basketball, which reduces the probability that the weaker squad will pull an upset. Our enormous sympathy for the outmanned underdog is certainly present in our society and in our action and sport films—from James Bond to Jerry MaGuire, to Rocky and Cinderella Man in boxing, to Hoosiers and Glory Road in basketball—but overall we generally prefer that the better team—or individual competitor—win.

With a single official and very little scoring, a penalty kick inappropriately awarded can effectively decide a game, and soccer and its fans seem indifferent to this outcome. In American sports there is more aversion to this happening and a stronger tendency to minimize its impact. Maybe this “coin flip” tendency in soccer is cultural, but it may also have some economic basis. The flops and dives may make for artistry and good theater, but it may also simply be an “income effect”—America is richer than the average Latin American or European country, so it wouldn’t be surprising that we devote more resources to scrutiny—getting the call right. In U.S. sports we employ many more officials and also rely on videotape and Instant Replay to reduce the error term. (Having multiple referees with diffuse power might also reduce the likelihood of gamblers bribing a single very powerful referee, a problem that has plagued European soccer recently.)

Don’t Use Your Head

“Use your head” is usually a figurative admonishment from a coach to a player, not a literal demand. In American contact/collision sports where there is some risk of injury to the head or related body systems, we try to protect one of our most prized possessions—our brains, aka “human capital”—from harm. (And we also protect our second most prized possession with another specialized piece of equipment.) When batters face Roger Clemens, they can at least come up to the plate with some hard-plastic head gear. Football helmets are engineering marvels to protect their contents. Even when a football player “spears” an opponent, for which he receives a yellow flag instead of a red card, he’s at least wearing a helmet. (Note to Zidane and Roethlisberger: Pay attention here.) Only in boxing and soccer, where the head is “in play” and even used as a vital input, do we see one’s brains so unprotected. Even macho Indy Circuit drivers, cyclists and snowboarders wear helmets. That bullriders and horseback riders in rodeos do not is not a counterargument, only a reflection of that gene pool.

Of course, football players used to wear leather helmets, batters would step into the batter’s box with only their wool team caps, and ice hockey players refused to wear helmets. But as players got more valuable, we—and they—took more care to protect them from life-threatening injuries. “Fielding” a soccer ball with one’s head is not likely in the same league as facing Mike Tyson at close range (even with ear muffs), but it would be hard to find a neurologist who thinks it’s good for you. Again, not surprisingly, with higher levels of income, Americans are more likely to take more precautions with their heads relative to citizens in poorer countries, and boxing is decidedly a sport whose athletes have always come from the lower economic rungs.

I Love You; You’re Perfect; Now Change

While I marvel at the things that soccer players can do to the ball with their feet, I suppose that having Michael Phelps swim 100 meters in handcuffs would also be amazing to watch. Once.

Whatever the evolutionary path humans took escaping from the seas or caves, much of it must have constituted a “full-body workout.” And it is no accident that most of our work, activities and sports involve upper-body strength, sheer speed, an extensive amount of hand-eye coordination and the use of some form of instrument—a hammer, keyboard, bicycle, skis or club-equivalent that we hold in our hands, strap to our feet, throw, or climb into. As Yogi might have said, you can make a list: baseball, basketball, football, golf, tennis, auto racing, swimming, skiing, cycling, table tennis, wrestling, bobsledding, fencing, volleyball, weightlifting, bowling, archery, badminton, pole vault, shot put, lacrosse,….

“Illegal use of hands” constitutes a foul in football and other sports (and teenage dating), and one may not use one’s foot or leg to deflect the basketball. But at least there is not a total ban on the use of arms and hands. Running up and down a soccer field without ever being able to use one’s arms is, well, un-American and un-natural. Competition on the soccer field, like many of the economies engrossed with the sport, is more constrained and inflexible. Successful sports—and economies—have been able to change and absorb tinkering around the edges as times, circumstances and people change.

The line between what is sport and what is entertainment has always been blurred, even for soccer, with its superstar performers and their off-field celebrity and notoriety.

But FIFA could loosen up a lot before anyone would start to compare soccer with the defunct XFL. In an age where advertising, especially television advertising, is such a large source of revenue, to avoid stoppages—natural or unnatural breaks in play—reduces the opportunity to inject more spending into the sport. Americans may indeed have short attention spans, though the case is more cited than made empirically. But natural half-innings in baseball, quasi breaks with crossovers in tennis, and contrived quarters and times-out in football and basketball allow for advertising, some rest for players and changing strategies for coaches/managers, as well time for insightful commentary by the Bob Costas of soccer broadcasting.

Inserting such breaks into soccer is not rocket science—the 45-minute halves could be broken into three 15-minute periods. Widening the net and relaxing the rules with respect to offsides could produce more scoring. Allowing more player substitutions is another “no-brainer.” Other sports have modified the rules in response to perceived spectator interest to produce more excitement, more (or less) scoring, balance between offense and defense, and the overall pace of the contest. Implementation of the 3-point shot and the 24-second (or 35-second) clock in basketball has improved the game; and, of course, other sports such as golf, tennis, swimming or track-and-field events have adapted to technological advances in equipment and clothing.

I also admit to being flummoxed by watching the “disconnect” in the World Cup finals: For 120 minutes everyone was involved in the action and the probability of scoring was approximately zero, then we switched to the penalty-kick phase in which only two players are involved at a time and the probability of scoring was about 100 percent. Settling a tie in basketball after 40 or 48 minutes of action by letting the five players on each team shoot one free throw, or picking the Masters champion by seeing how many consecutive 10-foot putts Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson could make, would leave us quite dissatisfied, whatever the eventual outcome.

Plus Ca Change

Why hasn’t soccer changed more? Is it risk aversion—why ruin a good thing when most of Earth’s 6 billion inhabitants are happy the way things are? Or FIFA’s intransigence and monopoly power? Or an easy way to express some anti-American sentiment? Or just the athletic equivalent of European and South American labor and product markets trading the prospects of a larger economic pie for a more egalitarian distribution of the existing one?

One of the appeals of soccer in many areas of the world may be its low cost—a bunch of guys (and/or gals), a ball and a goal, which could be either a make-shift net or just two stones or t-shirts; no fancy gear or playing surface necessary. At higher levels of income one may gravitate to more luxury or elite competitions. The U.S. may only constitute four percent of the world’s population, but we also account for about a fifth of world output. And our economic vote will likely continue to engage in and watch something other than soccer. And just maybe in this arena as well as others, 60 million Frenchmen can be wrong.

Don’t even get me started on cricket.


*Mr. Sanderson teaches economics at the University of Chicago and does research and writing on the business of sports.

For more articles by Allen R. Sanderson, see the Archive.