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Mercy Rules in Professional Sports: Competition vs Entertainment

Blowouts are inevitable in sports, but comebacks are also having a renaissance. A moment to consider the potential of mercy rules in professional sports.

Over the weekend I got an alert on my phone from the ESPN app. I looked at my screen in bewilderment as it said that the Los Angeles Angels were up 23-0 on the Colorado Rockies in the 4th inning…of a baseball game. The Angels would go on to win the game 25-1, good for the 11th largest run differential in a game in the history of the MLB. It is a scoreline so obscene in the professional ranks that it truly shocks the viewer.

Many have taken this opportunity to suggest a mercy rule for professional sports. This is something we typically see in youth and high school sports, although it has occasionally occurred in college sports, where a game is ended or shortened because one side’s lead appears to be insurmountable. I posed this question online and there were a few answers that came through on suggested framework for this to occur (such as a 42 point lead in football, a 15-run lead in baseball, or a 50 point lead in basketball). But the overarching question is, should such parameters even be in place or do they ruin the integrity of professional sports?

Craving Competition

We’ve all been there before. You are at a sporting event and the game starts getting out of hand. Maybe it is a three touchdown deficit in the third quarter of an NFL game, or a 35 point lead heading into the fourth quarter of a basketball game. As soon as this starts happening a familiar sight appears: fans heading for the exit. While there are notions of fan etiquette, and the people that stay for the entirety of the game mock those leaving early, it is easy to understand why someone would choose to leave early.

Fans attend a game to be entertained, and there is not much entertaining about witnessing a drubbing, especially if it is your team that is on the wrong end of the scoreline. So it is easy enough to understand that if a game feels well enough in hand leaving early to get to your next activity or simply beat postgame traffic is not a terrible idea from a logical perspective. Many people often characterize professional sports as a bit of a TV show, usually a soap opera but in this case, we can call it a sitcom. And in the sitcoms of professional athletics, I look at massive blowouts like filler episodes.

So by this logic, it can be inferred that the garbage time of a blowout game is relatively useless from a viewership perspective. Why continue to waste time with a game when a team is down by an avalanche of points or goals? If the idea is watching competitive sports then mercy rules make sense from a fan's point of view. After all, sports is entertainment and a lopsided match isn’t exactly entertaining for anyone. Sports create natural drama, where you can see the human condition on full display in the tense moments of a game, regardless of the sport. Blowouts take that drama away, it becomes infinitely less interesting and robotic.

So if we were to assume that leagues decided to implement professional mercy rules, I would imagine that the thresholds would look something like this:

  • NBA: A 50-point lead at any point in the game

  • NFL: 35+ point lead heading into the 4th quarter

  • MLB: 15 run lead at any point in the game

  • NHL: 6 goal lead heading into the third period

  • Soccer: 5 goal lead at half-time

We can all agree that whenever these circumstances happen, we are all hoping for the end of the game because it has lost all entertainment value. But despite that, there are reasons to keep on playing these games, and the likely reason why mercy rules have not been instituted in professional ranks.

Layers of the Game

While many know that the ultimate objective of any game is to win above all else, when a blowout occurs there are reasons to keep on playing. The first is to get experience for younger players on a team. Let’s use the NBA as an example of this. Most NBA rosters have 15 players on the active roster. Typically rotations are between 8-10 players, meaning that 5-7 players do not receive playing time regularly. This allows younger rookies and developing players to receive valuable playing time that they simply would not be afforded if a game was halted due to a mercy rule being in place.

But beyond that, blowouts allow coaches to experiment with things that can be utilized in future games. Whether that is a lineup wrinkle or a new play strategy, blowouts offer a live game situation that can be handled like practice since the outcome is already known. Consider if in an NFL game, a coach wants to try a new variation on a Spread formation but isn’t sure how defenses would scheme against it. A blowout would provide that opportunity that simply cannot be accomplished in practice.

The last reason for mercy rules not being instituted are for the purposes of standings. In many leagues, point differential may be a tiebreaker to determine a playoff spot or ranking in the event of a tie. For example, in the NBA point differential is the 6th tiebreaker for a team to enter the playoffs, meaning that completing games is of the utmost importance. This applies to both teams, the team winning will feel the need to keep scoring to increase their differential while the losing team might hope for a run towards the end of the game that could lower their negative differential. Every point counts after all.

Many fans will often clamor for mercy rules whenever there is an obscene blowout, but the reality is that they do not happen as often as many people think. There are often comfortable victories, but a complete dismantling is not as common. In the NBA, there are 1,230 games played in a season. This past regular season there were 22 games that featured a margin of victory of 35 points or more. The NFL plays 272 games per season, and this past year only 12 games featured a victory of 28 points or more. So while these blowouts do occur, they are not indicative of the majority of games.

Statistical Variances

Hope is an addictive element of sports. The idea is that just a few plays go a different way and the momentum of a game can swing like a pendulum to create some true intrigue. Huge deficits used to be a death sentence in many sports, but in recent times that no longer seems to be the case. With the advent of more skilled offensive players and rules that incentive those offensive players, leads can evaporate quickly. Look no further than the NFL for an illustration of this becoming a new reality.

Two of the top 5 largest comebacks in NFL history came this past season. The Minnesota Vikings overcame a 33 point deficit to win a game and the title as the biggest comeback in NFL history and the Jacksonville Jaguars overcame a 27 point deficit (in the playoffs!), good for 5th best all-time. In fact, 5 of the top 9 comebacks in NFL history have all come in the last decade, indicative of the shift into an unpredictable game that is defined by offense. This is also the case in the NBA, a league that has fully embraced the three-point shot. 7 of the 10 largest comebacks have all come in the last 20 years. This is again indicative of a league that has fully embraced offense because sports is ultimately entertainment, and the offense is more entertaining.

The advent of more pass plays in the NFL, more three-point shooting in the NBA, and more home runs in baseball has meant that no lead is ever safe. We are seeing more double digit comebacks than ever in the NFL, and more blown 15-20 point leads in the NBA. Having the continued potential of these means that the cost of doing business will be the occasional stinker that is a massive blowout. The classic example of this is when an NBA team simply cannot make a three point shot and quickly goes down by 20 or 30 points as a result. If the shot never falls then they will never get out of the hole. That ugly game is the price that we must pay as the viewing public for all the dramatic comebacks that have come to become commonplace over the last couple of decades.

As it pertains to a mercy rule, the spirit of the rule is aimed to avoid humiliation in youth sports where the variance of talent can be very wide. But when it comes to professional players that represent the cream of the crop this same thinking cannot be applied. While it is a fun thought exercise to wonder at what point a game should be ended, it is a pipe dream thought from fans that come to mind whenever a lopsided game comes across our televisions. There will continue to be obscene blowouts on the fringes of our favorite games but they must exist for all the thrilling comebacks that we have been blessed to see over the last couple of decades.

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