The Function of the Tie Game

Across the four major US sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL), currently only football features the (exceptionally rare) tie game; for all intents and purposes, draws don’t exist in American sports. Why is that?

Especially when there’s an argument to be made that incorporating tie games into sports can bring positive elements with it, including: a more accurate account of the game; a better separation in the standings between good teams and average ones; a fairer set of in-game rules; better protection for players against injury and exhaustion.

While it’s valid that ties may not be a productive adjustment for all leagues to make – the NBA, for example, should consider adopting a target score standard instead – in order for them to be assessed as a legitimate option, the perception needs to be updated.

Declaring a victor in sports is perfectly natural; you play to win the game, after all. But the practice has grown out of control when nearly all competitions necessitate that there be a winner and loser, simply because fans have been conditioned to view sports as zero-sum.

Don’t misunderstand: the suggestion to incorporate stalemates isn’t in the service of participation trophies or consolation prizes. Instead, the belief is that with ties as a possible outcome, the result would more accurately reflect what occurred during the game; when two teams battle evenly over the course of a game, brute forcing a W and an L makes little sense.

Ties also have a fascinating dual capability to feel both better than a loss and worse than a win, depending on the viewpoint. Past that, in a three-outcome system, all wins become slightly more rare and therefore more valuable, which plays into the desire for meritocracy in sports.

For hard proof of the efficacy of ties, look no further than the English Premier League, which features near weekly instances of draws contributing to unique overall records, which serves the purpose of better separating clubs in the standings; over the course of a season, an average team will collect ties, while a truly elite team will rack up wins.

What causes the lack of ties in American sports to border on nonsensical is that to avoid them, at best, sports leagues utilize completely new sets of rules to determine a winner, and at worse, play “mini games” that hardly resemble the sport.

For example, in the NFL (where ties are possible) if the game reaches overtime, the team that possesses the ball first can end it by scoring a touchdown. That’s a lot of power to give to one team, so what’s the process for deciding which side gets the ball first? The refs flip a coin. Yes, even in the playoffs. In a league where franchises are worth billions of dollars, the sport is more interested in ending games quickly than it is fairly. Woof.

As for the MLB, in 2020 the league made changes to the game to try to limit how many extra innings were needed during regular season games in the hopes that concluding games sooner would help preserve pitching staffs. Even though instituting ties would’ve been a reliable solution for ending all games at 9 innings, the league tentatively adopted a rule where teams would start extra innings with a runner on second base in the hopes of expediting a win. In essence, Major League Baseball resorted to a Little League-style rule to avoid embracing ties.

In terms of sheer perplexity though, the NHL takes the cake. Not only did the league once have ties, but it replaced them with not one but two “mini games” to decide a winner. When a game reaches overtime, instead of continuing to play traditional 5 on 5 hockey, it morphs into five minutes of 3 on 3 sudden death; unsurprisingly, with 40% fewer skaters on the ice, the game becomes faster and looser which, whether intentional or not, benefits the quicker and more skilled team, while also removing much of the advantage that a heavier and deeper team had during regulation. Then, if the teams are still dead locked after five minutes, the winner is decided by an even more bastardized version of puck: the penalty shootout. Once again, the team with more skilled players has a huge advantage, as skaters get a free run at scoring a goal without anyone but the goalie standing in the way. While there’s no denying that these can create exciting moments, to use it as a tool to decide a winner is a load of blech.

Resolving games with a tie also jibes with the desire of athletes to limit their risk of injury and expand their opportunity for rest, both of which are slightly more achievable when game lengths are shorter and predictable. On a macro level, ties might also have an effect on the psychology of players, in that a tie game can mean a final score, so there’s potentially more to play for, and more to defend.

So, to recap:

No team wants to take an L solely because the rules dictate that a W must be allocated. Ties solve this.

The fewer number of games a sport plays, the more likely it is that teams have the same record, and the more difficult it can be to discern the good teams from the average. Ties solve this.

It’s baffling that in overtime, wins and losses are determined using lopsided rules or by playing new configurations of the game. Ties solve this.

Players want more rest and fewer injuries. Ties solve this.

As a message to the fans who really dislike the concept of ties, it’s handy to keep in mind that they would simply be a byproduct of a close game, and would have no bearing on a team’s ability to go for the win. In a sport with ties, victories become more prized.

Finally, on the branding front it’s relevant to note that in the US a tie is currently referred to as “kissing your sister”; if mainstream acceptance is to be coaxed along, this needs to be pivoted from. After all, ties exist in the eye of the beholder: they can feel miserable, they can feel accidental, they can feel miraculous.

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