Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Some thoughts on baseball/sports

The typical Michael Oakeshott essay was to define two ideal, opposite types, explore their respective attributes, show why in their pure form the two types were unsustainable, and then indicate a clear preference for one of the two types (usually the one that was currently recessive rather than dominant).  The start of the baseball playoffs and the dramatic end to the regular season along with discussions of adding another wild card team points out how useful Oakeshott’s framework is for looking at sports. 

One pole or type in sports would be the purely competitive.  Its main feature is the attempt to find the best team or individual in the competition, with its main attribute being a rather lengthy season and a more or less balanced schedule or competitive platform in order to reduce as far as possible the element of luck.  A good example of this idea is the older format in baseball where the leagues determined their champions through the regular season without any playoffs.  The major tournaments in golf which had a next day, 18 hole playoff in case of tie, is also emblematic of this type.

The other type I would call the dramatic-commercial and as the name suggests the emphasis is on drama, and excitement.  It is a reaction to the real or imagined problems inherent in the competitive model.  In the baseball scenario discussed above most of the teams would be eliminated from competition fairly early with a corresponding loss in fan interest.  More teams making the playoffs means more fans following their teams through the entire season.  A sudden death playoff in golf means a winner will be determined on Sunday along with the inherent drama of one hole deciding everything.  The NBA’s rule that allows a team to call a timeout and advance the ball past mid-court is rules example of the dramatic-commercial (a rule which makes no sense from a pure competition standpoint).  When A’s general manager Billy Beane described the baseball playoffs as “a crapshoot” he was drawing a contrast between the competitive and dramatic-commercial types in baseball.

From the above perspective, it is easy to see general sports discussions like a playoff system in college football or an additional wild card team in baseball as attempts at finding the right balance between competition and drama.  And as sports has become more and more driven by television and commercial considerations it shouldn’t surprise that most of the changes have been in the direction of adding excitement, drama, fan involvement to sports at the expense of its competitive elements.

Addendum: at NRO this post touches on the same subject :

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