Breaking ties comes harder for some sports than others


World Cup this summer showed that determining a winner in soccer with penalty kicks is problematic at best and luck at worst.

The U.S. women’s cup team won and lost games decided by penalty kicks. Somehow that seems fair, because you are tempting fate anytime you have to rely on penalty kicks to win a game.

For the uninformed, after playing a regulation game and overtime period, the winner is determined by penalty kicks taken by five different players from each team. Trying to stop a penalty kick is little more than a guessing game on the goalkeeper’s part or a poor kick by the person kicking. Penalty kicks have little to do with how the rest of the game is played.

Imagine having to decide a basketball game by shooting free throws if the teams are still tied after playing two overtime periods. There’s plenty not to like with that idea.

Or, imagine having college and pro football teams alternate kicking field goals from 40 yards out until someone misses. Ugh.

Truth be told, most sports have trouble figuring out a fair and equitable way to end a game when the score is tied at the end of regulation.

To my way of thinking, if a soccer game is still tied after playing an overtime period, then the game should be played in 15-minute periods as sudden death. The first team to score wins. That can work in soccer because rarely does the team who gets the ball first go right down the field and score without a change of possession.

Even that idea isn’t without shortcomings though, because if the game is played with a strong wind, one team might never have a chance to play a sudden death period with the wind at its back.

Of course, the bigger problem is that the game might continue ad infinitum, which is how the rule makers got to the penalty-kick idea in the first place. I don’t know of anyone who likes penalty kicks as a way to determine a winner. But at least the game comes to an end.

Playing overtime in basketball is mostly fair and authentic to the game itself, although you have the possibility of the best players not being on the floor because of fouls.

Pro football doesn’t quite know what to do, hence the overtime rules keep changing. The new system may be better than sudden death, but as John P. Lopez of SI.com said, “NFL gladiators can sweat, bleed and bruise their way toward victory. But victory still could all come down to a heads or tails and a 170-pound kicker’s mental state.”

In high school, each team gets the ball at the 10-yard line, but the advantage is clearly with the second team to get the ball, because it already knows what it needs to do to win or tie the game.

In college, you have a similar problem, although the ball is placed on the 25-yard line.

As Lopez writes, “If a fan has to have the rules of overtime explained to him/her, it’s probably not a good overtime.”

One could make a case for baseball, tennis and volleyball as having the best overtime systems.

Extra-innings is equitable. The teams play until there is a winner. Nothing changes from regulation to overtime in baseball—pitchers pitch, hitters hit and fielders field. No clock is involved and there aren’t any special rules.

Tennis is another sport with a fair system. According to Lopez, Andy Roddick and Roger Federer played 95 minutes of heart-stopping tennis in one Wimbledon Final. That was in the fifth set alone, in which Federer ultimately prevailed 16-14.

“Like baseball, the rules don’t change, the players keep playing and the emotion and drama can be drenching,” said Lopez.

The biggest difference in determining various sports’ tiebreaker method is how easy it is to score.

And maybe it’s no coincidence that the sports with the best way to determine a winner when extra time is required are played without a clock.


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