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June 27, 2010

Making Soccer Less Boring: A Modest Proposal

Now that the U.S. team has been eliminated, and with it the thrill of having an emotional attachment to the World Cup, I can go back to reflecting on why soccer is so boring. The basic reason is not so hard to come by: there is not enough scoring. Because there is not enough scoring, the bulk of the playing time passes with no concrete result, and the outcome is unnecessarily random. Even when a great team is matched up against a mediocre team, if you were to replay just a few critical seconds out of the hour and a half of action, the outcome might be different. Yawn at the wrong moment and miss the meat of the game.

There is an analytical basis for determining the amount of scoring a sport should have, and soccer is well below the ideal.

First, the greater the number of scores, the lower the chance for a lucky win by a team that is inferior. The number of scores required to move this random component to an acceptable level depends on the nature of the game. For example, if I were up against a professional basketball player in a game that involved each of us taking shots from the foul line, there is a reasonable chance I would win if the game consisted of only one shot each. If we each took ten shots, I would almost never win. On the other hand, if I were up against a world-class sprinter, one race – one score – would be enough. Absent a hamstring pull, he would win a hundred times out of a hundred.

Countervailing the benefit of having the outcome determined by more scores is the negative effect of having too much scoring. Up to a point, the more scores, the more interest and engagement for the spectators. But there is a turning point. Create a game with too many scores and the individual scores become inconsequential.

So in designing the ideal scoring for a sport, you want enough scores to reduce the chance of one team wining by dumb luck. The more randomness in any one score, the more scores you will want, so that a clearly superior team will win most all the time. But you don’t want to overdo it with the scoring. I think that soccer and hockey have too few scores, basketball and tennis have too many, while baseball and American football are somewhere near the sweet spot. This sweet spot can be determined empirically. A sport has enough scoring if a team that, in a large sample of games, tends to lose to most everyone rarely beats a team that tends to beat everyone.

This is all preamble to a way to improve soccer: have more scoring. It will reduce the random component, and lead to more minute-by-minute excitement. Change the game so that a dominating team wins by 10 to 5 rather than 2 to 1.

Here are a few changes I might propose in soccer to increase its entertainment value and reduce the randomness of the outcomes.
  1. Free substitution. Allow fresh players into the game. This will make for more aggressive and faster play, which should lead to more scoring. Free substitution will also allow better strategic use of players with special skills.
  2. Shorten the field. The ball will then spend more time within striking distance of the goal.
  3. Increase the size of the goal. The most direct way to increase scoring.
  4. Slope the field. Have the field slope toward the nets, both from the sides of the field and the center of the field. This will keep the ball closer to the goal area. Furthermore, this change will lead to a host of new scoring strategies. If a team can be distracted from the game -- by, say, a staged fight or a naked fan running across the field -- the ball will just roll into the goal.
  5. Use two balls. Having two balls in play will increase the number of shots, and spread out the defense. The balls can be color coded, with one ball being worth two points and the other ball one point.
  6. Add a goal tunnel. Have a corrugated metal tube that runs into the goal from beyond the goalie area. If someone can kick the ball into the tube, it is an automatic goal, since the goalie cannot defend it. New and entertaining strategies can be added with this feature. For example, players can be "tunneled" by being slammed against the sharp metal edges of the tube, thereby increasing the physical component, and with it, the entertainment value of the sport.


  1. subtle humour is always the best variety

  2. I can't figure out who he is mocking. Was there someone prominent who proposed "improvements" to soccer recently?

  3. While ideas 1-3 are certainly do-able and practical - I would MUCH rather see ideas 4-6. I might actually become a fan if those ideas were implemented. :)

  4. Rick;

    I usually enjoy your analysis - but this is not grounded in any theory at all.

    Please read Bernie Suit's book "The Grasshopper" to give you a proper grounding in the theory of playing games.

  5. It is just the opposite - soccer is NOT boring because of the few goals. Therefore chance is always an important part of it. If you look at sports with lots of points, like Tennis, these are boring because the same persons always win (like Boris Becker and Steffi Graf back then and now Rodger Federer). There is no chance for the underdog what so ever - that is boring!

  6. If I may..

    7. Do away with the referees and allow the free market to take care of things.

  7. The ideas are obviously an attempt at lame humor.

    But, what I can't tell is if Rick really does find football boring? which would be quite pathetic because its so much better than American sports!

  8. Or alternatively you could:

    1) Watch the sport more than every 4 years to gain an appreciation for it
    2) Ask the other 6 billion people on the globe who consider their national pastime for their opinion

    And riddle me this ... what makes the paint-drying, coma inducing spectacle of a 1-0 pitchers' duel (where the amount of athletic movement in over 2 hours equates to no more 30 seconds of a soccer match) more interesting than a 1-0 victory by South Korea over a European power?

  9. Like you, I also am not a baseball fan. But in the one dimension of the amount of scoring, I think it is closer to the ideal than is soccer. But as baseball illustrates, that is not always enough.

  10. This made my morning. I don't know if you were seious, but those suggestions are hilarious, thanks for the good laugh. It'd be even more funny if you were serious though :)

    It's funny that if you have not grown up with a sport, you find it pointless and boring. I don't get baseball, hockey, football, and don't understand how people can spend hours watching them.

  11. Other reasons soccer needs more scoring are that: 1)the probability of a comeback is so rare; 2) more (easier) scoring would likely decrease the need for shootouts even in the event of O/T.

    Lacrosse is a good model for this; game scores in the NCAA tournament range from the high single digits to mid teens per side; the game can be in doubt even with a 5 goal lead and each goal is meaningful unlike in basketball.

    Basketball would probably benefit from making each period meaningful, e.g. 3 of 5 period wins wins a game like tennis, and eliminating or severly curtailing timeouts.

  12. No changes are needed. The point is that whilst you say a mediocre team can win this can only happen through a defensive error or an amazing piece of attacking skill/great shot.

    The great thing about football is that nearly every goal can be traced to a mistake of some kind and some corresponding skill by the other team.

    The fact that football has grown and grown in popularity whilst the rules have hardly changed in 150 years says just how perfect the game is!

  13. Perhaps you should direct your obvious talents at coming up with an alternative to the dreaded penalty shoot-out.

  14. More goals mean a higher chance of a spread between teams that are of different caliber, and thus fewer shootouts. It also means that an overtime is more likely to result in a goal.

    My post was picked up by Business Insider:

    and has about 60 comments -- some people didn't seem to get the humor at the end.

  15. Nice try! My even more modest proposal.

    1) Allow a max of 3 subs per half rather than just for the entire match.

    2) Change the way points are awarded for wins, losses, and draws. Wins get 2 pts plus the goal difference, draws get 1 pt to each, but scoreless draws either go into overtime or penalty kicks with 1 pt awarded to the winner.

  16. adn the Broweser site noted: "Making Soccer Less Boring" by
    Rick Bookstaber .....''The best sort of humour. Builds slowly, so that only by the very end do you suspect you are being made a fool of. Even then, some of the ideas — a shorter pitch, two balls, free substitution — have a plausible ring..."

    I loved the humour. Er, humor. As a bona fide card carrying soccer player from teenage years at high school in West. Mass and still a big fan of the beautiful game who personally dislikes NBA and MLB and NFL and hockey too..... long live soccer, yes!

    Danny Bloom (1949 - 2032)

  17. Making Soccer Less Boring
    Rick Bookstaber | 27 June 2010
    The best sort of humour. Builds slowly, so that only by the very end do you suspect you are being made a fool of. Even then, some of the ideas—a shorter pitch, two balls, free substitution—have a plausible ring

  18. two balls in the field? seriously? put 2 balls to american footbal and 2 cameras and you could watch every ball at a separate TV channel...

  19. Seriously, I think 2 things would help.

    Change the offsides call to be like hockey. That once the ball is in a defensive zone there is no offsides and the POINT is to get behind the defense to receive a pass and score. This would entail something like a 3 second rule in basketball to prevent someone from camping out next to the goal.

    Eliminate ties and shootouts by having the teams play until someone wins in a sudden death overtime. This is one reason baseball is superior to soccer. There are no ties in baseball.

  20. Rick, as always interesting thoughts and ideas... no other way to comment to your WSJ article (The scoring problem).
    While completely true - you contradict yourself at the very end - a penalty shootout is exactly what you are asking for - it's a even a 'goal tunnel'. You are guaranteed scores and guaranteed a winner. Linking it to chance is like an 'in and out' basketball free throw. So I sense a slight contradiction...
    The alternative is that you may think (like many people in the US) that penalties are a random experiment. They are not and can be trained - see e.g. Germany has never lost a penalty shootout - and missed only 3 in all World Cups (take note that Podolski's miss against Serbia was the first since 1982 - and then 1970...).
    That's what's missing in your analysis. You can train and get better. Unfortunately the messages has not sunk in with coaches and players. Why did Furlan almost tie the game in 92 minute - hitting the crossbar? Because he hits 20-30 free kicks after each practice. Have a look at the 1984 European Championship and free kicks by Michele Platini - they were always a score, a post or a very close miss - where the goalie had no chance.
    In the 70ies there was a formula in Europe of 3 corners equal a penalty - in the likeliness to score. It's more like 10-20 corners to a penalty now. Is there a reason for that? Are soccer players more stupid? Yes the game is more physical - but the capability to put the ball somewhere in a set piece - which happens at least 10-20 for each team in a game - is crucial. And not much trained.
    Count the # of free kicks that went into the wall. Most embarrassing.
    Blame it on the ball? It's out since December last year and smart associations have made it their official ball since the return season (MLS, Bundesliga etc).
    Blame it on the altitude? Sure it has an effect - anybody who has played soccer over 3000 feet knows. But the answer - practice!
    No need to change the rules - but hope for coaches to wake up. Once soccer players take as many free kicks as basketball players practice shooting, once soccer's play makers practice as many passes 'in the run' as football quarterbacks do, once soccer players practice shoots as ice hockey players (every practice!) - then the scores will go up and the 'fairness' of the game goes up. Not by a ridiculous rule chance (slope of the field - how implement that!) - but by what sport is all about - better practice, better coaches - better performance.
    Time for the soccer coaches to wake up and you to factor the key elements of sports (practice) in the model!

  21. I agree with one of your points: The penalty shootout does not have to make the game more random, but that ends up being the case, perhaps because there are not enough taken by each side. The goalie has to make a close to random guess which way the kick will go. The kicker has to kick with hair-splitting accuracy. The result is that one error on either side and the game is decided. If there were twenty taken per side then it would have the same effect as my free-throwing example moving from taking a couple of free throws to taking twenty each. But still, the game would finally be decided by something other than playing soccer. Penalty kicks are no more soccer than free throws are basketball.

  22. Just count 7 for every goal and 3 for every attempt on goal (from within the penalty box) and you'll feel right at home.

    Before fixing soccer (even though with an attempt at humour), how about not calling American football, football? There's far more reason in doing that and the status quo is not funny!

  23. How about increasing the score per goal? The only reason Football has such high scoring is because one touchdown equals seven 6 points, field goal 3 points, etc. Can you imagine if a touchdown only added up to one point? All that work for one damn point?!?! The differing scores of touchdowns, field goals, safeties, and extra points are what make Football exiting. If they did something similar in hockey and soccer, it would have many more American fans than it does now.

  24. Obviously humor. But I will re-echo sone of the comments:

    1. How about asking 6 billion people in 200 countries that make soccer (football) by far the #1 sport in the world?

    2. How about first NOT calling the NFL "football" football? "Handball" is fairly descriptive to me...

    3. You will never appreciate any activity if you only watch it once every 4 years. You cannot offer any credible suggestion with that scant knowledge of the game.

    4. Attitude toward the game here first needs a change. The average MLS player earns $50k a year, which is literally pocket change to Baseball, Basketball and NFL players. You cannot attract the best players in the world to MLS with that income.

    5. This country already has basketball, "football" and baseball. Even if soccer was crazy enough to adopt your suggestions, America will never love soccer in a million generations.

    6. If your suggestions are not humor, then it's arrogant to suggest that just because some people in our country don't understand soccer, the entire world that love the beautiful game must change just to TRY to please the few. The world is not telling us how to make baseball and NFL more interesting to them.

  25. that is pretty much really bias article that doesn't look into the beauty of the game

  26. Rick, you better stick to your day job!!!

  27. That's NOT an ethnocentric suggestion by Mister B. "Make it more American" is not ethnocentric!
    If I repeat it enough times, maybe I'll believe it.

  28. Good write up and much of what you said makes sense, especially rules changes 1-3 which I have always touted in a soccer discussion. However by adding the ridiculous rules changes 4-6, your message loss credibility.

    1. The idea of the post was to start with reasonable ideas and then slowly descend into more and more absurd proposals. It is risky to mix the serious with the ironic, and that is what I tried to do here.


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