Some of the best workplace discussions are those which have nothing to do with work: the so-called “water-cooler” conversation that greases the gears of the white collar domain.
While office managers may look on with concern over lost productivity, they’re often as guilty as the rest, joining subordinates in Monday-morning-quarterbacking the big game or hashing out the best Christmas movie of all time. Perhaps those managers recognize some benefit to the occasional distraction from the day’s business. Surely it won’t matter if that TPS report is filed a few minutes late.
Our office is no exception, and I found it noteworthy to observe, twice in the last two weeks, the topic of “what is the most boring sport?” luring colleagues within earshot from their respective desks. For an undefined period of time (but we know when it’s over), work duties are set aside as the question becomes top priority. And when the designated BS session inevitably ends with no conclusive finding, we resume our paid duties in the hope that something we said got through. Well, given that this debate has come up twice, it’s apparent that, as with many of our legitimate meetings, nothing was settled and the oral arguments will resume at an appropriate lull in the future.
So I want to be ready. I’ve given the “boring sport” topic more thought than I’d care to admit, digging into what exactly it is about athletic contests that appeals to us. Call it defining the terms.
My theory in short: it comes down to scoring. It’s the essence of sports, the only way to objectively separate winner from loser. For purposes of our office debate, we’re talking about the “big five,” a predominant subset within the realm of organized spectator sports for which game progression and scoring operate independently of each other. Baseball, basketball, football, hockey and soccer all can advance and sometimes even end with or without scoring by either team. Contrast this with tennis or golf, for which scoring plays are integrated into the progression of the match. One can’t happen without the other.
Because of this difference, the big five have widely varying rates of scoring. That’s the crux of our “boring” question. The scoring play represents the ultimate gratification of our emotional investment in the game. How often that happens, and its degree of significance in the contest, largely accounts for our overall interest in the sport.
If I worked at fivethirtyeight.com, I’d have come up with a chart to illustrate the differences in the big five based on scoring frequency (or alternately, scoring ease). But let’s hammer it out in words. On one end of the spectrum is basketball, where teams score on a large percentage of their possessions. Accordingly, the value of a score is diminished. It’s for fans who have a high tolerance for repeated but small slices of gratification, with tons of baskets made, but not much interest in correlating a particular basket with the final outcome.
On the opposite end are soccer and hockey, where scoring a goal is comparatively difficult and therefore rare. One goal is a big deal. Two or three goals can be an insurmountable lead. And tie games are a common occurrence all teams and fans must accept. That’s OK, though. There’s nuanced gratification in a team’s ability to create scoring chances, even when they don’t hit home. Or in playing defense, which functions on the understanding that preventing an opponent from scoring is itself a form of scoring. And when there’s an actual goal? Let’s just say the celebration is more pronounced than when a basketball player sinks a jumper.
And then in the middle are football and baseball. Scoring tends to happen with moderate frequency, but typically not more than 6-7 times per team per game. That means a touchdown or home run can be the difference, but often they aren’t, meaning you may have to watch to the end to be certain. It gives fans a healthy frequency of gratification with enough “droughts” in between to give that gratification meaning.
So what’s the most interesting sport? I have my own views, but in terms of pure popularity, it appears basketball, with its many, many scoring plays to cheer, might have the brightest future. Repeated gratification, even in small doses, is the driving factor. The NFL and Major League Baseball seem to understand this as they continue to tinker with their rules to favor offenses and ease scoring. You can’t have bat flips and end zone celebrations without home runs and touchdowns. Soccer and hockey, with their well defined parameters and global audiences, have limited options (and limited appetite) for change and therefore will likely maintain limited appeal here in the U.S., where fans want to see points.
None of this accounts for the other myriad subjective and intangible attractions of athletic contests that capture people’s interest. It might be the sheer speed thrill of downhill skiing, the muscular artistry of gymnastics or the primal brutality of mixed martial arts. We like them… well, because we like them. It’s probably a social phenomenon worthy of discussion, but let’s save that for another day. I should really be getting back to work.