Thursday, January 5, 2006

Is Football the Most Exciting Sport?

So it is official: Football is the most exciting sport in the world to follow as a fan. So says American research. And if there is one nation suspected guilty of not getting ‘soccer’ then it is the old US of A.

Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is famous for creating the world’s first atomic bomb in 1945 so it almost sounds like an April Fool that they have announced findings of studies about what makes sports exciting and concluded the Beautiful Game is numero uno for a reason.

Researchers Eli Ben-Naim, Sidney Redner and Federico Vazquez, who sound like they could be a refereeing team at this Summer’s World Cup, began with the thesis that excitement comes from unpredictability (the same reason football should never be compared to sex!) and after analyzing 300,000 games over the last century they found that football beats America’s big 4 – basketball, baseball, ice hockey and ‘helmetball’ when it comes to the underdog having his day.

Is Football the Most Exciting Sport?

"If there are no upsets, then every game is predictable and hence boring," said Ben-Naim. After initially rejoicing at the discovery of at least a few level-headed Americans who have put one in the eye of the sports jocks who bleat how 'soccer is boring',I would hasten to add that excitement is not the only reason that people follow football.

Many find it engrossing because it satisfies their inherited ‘wolf-pack’ instincts to be part of a tribe at ‘the hunt’, to feel they belong amidst a crowd of like-minded individuals when they witness a big event en masse and I even know a girl or two who admits to enjoying the athletic young male bodies surrounded by thousands of other men (though I stress they are in an extreme minority!)

But it is unquestionable that the possibility of dreams coming true is inspiring and this remains the best argument against the Chel$ki-fication of the sport. The situation where one team retains far greater spending power than its rivals, with the exception of baseball, is not tolerated in American pro sport, where salary caps and a college draft system that allows the worst-performing team to get first pick of the best young players for the next season has created a relatively level playing field.

Since the Premiership began in 1992/3 there have been four different winners: Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Blackburn Rovers. The Superbowl has had twice as many in comparison over the same time period. The consensus in the US is that fans and sponsors will get turned off a league where the same team wins every season which perpetuates a curiously egalitarian system in the heart of free market capitalism.

There has not been a mass turn off yet in the Premiership, although over the last two seasons there has been empirical evidence of a slow decline beginning. The mean average crowd of 35,462 in 2002/3 had slipped to 33,890 last season and particular Premiership clubs such as Sunderland and Middlesboro have witnessed noticeable banks of unsold seats in their stadia this season. Chelsea, that apparent money-printing factory, also took the unprecedented step of placing an advert in London’s Evening Standard to ask fans to buy tickets for one of their games.

We should not jump to ascribe this to the Abramovich effect because other factors such as ticket prices, negative styles of play and a general economic slowdown do come into the equation but competitiveness must surely be an important factor.

The one caveat to the scientists’ findings was that over the past decade the Premiership was less competitive than Major League Baseball and had thus become less exciting. But the last ten years have seen the English top flight's attendances grow almost 40%. Legions of us have been saying that the Emperor has no clothes but until the Premiership gets hit in the pocket the status quo will continue.

Sean O'Conor

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