Sporting events are sub-optimally suspenseful, according to new economic research.

In the context of a mystery novel, these dynamics imply the following familiar plot structure. At each point in the book, the readers thinks that the weight of evidence suggests that the protagonist accused of murder is either guilty or innocent. But in any given chapter, there is a chance of a plot twist that reverses the reader’s beliefs. As the book continues along, plot twists become less likely but more dramatic.

In the context of sports, our results imply that most existing rules cannot be suspense-optimal. In soccer, for example, the probability that the leading team will win depends not only on the period of the game but also on whether it is a tight game or a blowout…

Optimal dynamics could be induced by the following set of rules. We declare the winner to be the last team to score. Moreover, scoring becomes more difficult as the game progresses (e.g., the goal shrinks over time). The former ensures that uncertainty declines over time while the latter generates a decreasing arrival rate of plot twists. (In this context, plot twists are lead changes.)

However in the context of the NBA’s playoff scheduling, “there is an equal amount of suspense and surprise in the 2-3-2 format of the NBA Finals … as in the 2-2-1-1-1 format of the earlier NBA playo rounds.” And in presidential primaries it doesn’t matter what order states go in–you can’t increase suspense by having smaller or more partisan states go first (a counter-intuitive finding, but they’ve got a mathematical proof that’s over my head, so it has to be true).

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.

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7 Responses to Making Sports Even More Exciting

  1. Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

    FYI, the NBA returned to the 2-2-1-1-1 format for the finals in 2014.

  2. trumwill says:

    This post makes me think of Quidditch. The rules being such that the main thing that matters is the catching of the snitch. So much so that what happens before that doesn’t matter all that much to the game what happens beforehand. Which on the one hand, might maximized suspense, but on the other hand, leaves you with a score that doesn’t reflect the talents of the team except the seeker.

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