Close Encounters: How Often Do Sports Provide Exciting Finishes?

Kevin Love

We love close finishes. But how do professional sports leagues reward us for our love? Herein, we take a look at the percentage of "close games" from each league, and stack them up against one another.

People tune into a particular sports games for several reasons, including but not necessarily limited to:

  • My team is playing.
  • It's a close game.
  • The starting pitcher is a Christian!
  • Fights.

On that first point ... well, how many awful games have you sat through for the sake of your team? How many times did you stick around until the end, just to see them get blown out? If you're as much as a stupid tool as I am, dozens. Hundreds, maybe.

Instead, we're focusing today on the second point: the close game. There is no more effective way to get you to watch a game in which you're not personally invested. In fact, I would argue that a close game between two strangers is a more fun experience than almost any game involving your team: it's exciting without being nerve-racking.

We love close games. This is how professional sports are rewarding us.

Closegames_medium

I added up the totals of regular-season "close games" between 2007 and 2011 (in the cases of the NBA and NHL, the 2007-08 through 2011-12 seasons, through February 9th). Then I found the average of those five seasons, and stacked them up against years past -- at five-year intervals -- to see if any sort of trend could be observed.

Looking at the professional sporting world at large, there doesn't appear to be a significant upward or downward trend, but I think the numbers from some of the individual sports, in one way or another, can tell us a few things.

Major League Baseball

If we see fewer close games as the years pass, one possible explanation would be growing disparity within the league. In 1980, 32 percent of Major League Baseball games were one-run games, and 66 percent were three-run games (within the scoring margin of a save situation). Those figures faded slightly over the next 20 years, and in 2000, 28 percent were one-run games, and 59 percent were three-run games.

That might not seem like a dramatic dip, but remember that baseball grants us enormous sample sizes. When we're counting over 2,000 games a season, a seven-percent difference is a significant one -- in the case of the contemporary 2,430-game season, the difference between 59 percent and 66 percent is 170 games.

One possible explanation is that over that 20-year period, talent was spread just a little bit thinner across the league. In 1980, there were 26 teams; in 2000, there were 30. It seems to me that when we add more teams, we stand a smaller chance of keep assets evenly distributed between them -- especially if external factors mess with the market. There have always been rich teams and poor teams, but in the 1990s we began to see the rich and poor float further and further apart.

So what's up with the slight uptick between 2007 and 2011? Uh ... Moneyball? Someone smarter than I am should try to explain it. (In 2011, the above figures rose to 31 percent and 64 percent, which almost returned them to 1980's percentages.)

NFL

The NFL's presence on the above chart is the most zig-zaggy, which is to be expected given the relatively small sample size (there are nearly 10 times as many MLB games as there are NFL games). One thing is pretty clear to me, however, and that's the effect of the two-point conversion.

A one-score margin in the NFL meant only a seven-point difference until 1994, when the two-point conversion was adopted. It probably isn't the only reason that the percentage of one-score games rose from around 40 percent to around 50 percent, but I'd bet that it's the primary reason.

NHL

The primary explanation for the NHL's recent leap in the above chart is pretty simple: I didn't count tie games. A tie game is a close game -- it's the closest possible game, obviously -- but what I'm really trying to get at is the likelihood of an exciting, satisfying finish. This is where personal bias comes into play -- I, like many other fans, would not count a tied finish as a satisfying one.

Following the league's 2004-05 lockout, ties were abolished, and a shootout was instituted in the event that teams were tied at the conclusion of overtime. The result: one-score games shot up from 30 percent to around 45 percent, and today it's about as likely to see a one-score game in the NHL as it is in the NFL.

Prior to the 1983-84 season, there wasn't even an overtime, which of course resulted in even more ties and even fewer one-goal games.

NBA

When we watch a close game, the payoff we're all hoping for is the opportunity for the game to be won or lost at the very, very end. In this regard, the NBA does not pay off nearly as well as the other leagues: over the past five years, only 14.5 percent of games were settled by a single-score margin (I'm considering this margin to be three points, since four-point plays are pretty rare). And even if we count two-score margins (six points), the figure's only at 32 percent.

The explanation for this is rather obvious. Imagine that potential scores are represented by a dart board. Baseball teams are most likely to score between one and five runs, so for simplicity's sake, the dart board is sectioned into five big pieces. The odds that they'll score a similar number of runs are relatively high.

It's a similar story with the NFL. True, it's about as likely for a team to score 10 points as 34, but those numbers settle into "stations": 14 points, 17 points, 21, 24, 28, et cetera.

Meanwhile, an NBA team might score 75 points, or it might score 115, or literally any number in between. We have to cut this dart board up into 40 or so pieces. That NBA teams even finish closely as highly as 14 percent of the time is somewhat impressive.

The counterpoint, of course, is that there are so many scoring moments in an NBA game that there are far more lead changes, on average, than in any other sport. The drama is spread throughout the game. And arguably, that's more important and rewarding than anything that can happen in the final seconds.

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