Make Soccer Goals Bigger

Your sport might be boring. Let me fix it.

ILLUSTRATIONS BY MIKE FORCE

A regular season baseball game is statistically meaningless. You could skip the first 130 games and tune in around September during a Pennant race, and still technically consider yourself a fan. The only way to make baseball exciting is to reduce the number of games per season by half. But the MLB never will. People can’t handle it. Tradition is too ingrained in baseball. Instead they hand out bobble heads and beg people to come to the park. You can buy a ticket to a Mariner’s game for nine bucks — the cheapest Seahawks ticket is $185. Fans are addicted to the football.

Any regular season football game still outperforms most World Series games in October ratings. Most enthusiastic football fans will watch every single game their team plays. Can the same really be said of basketball, hockey or baseball? Only an insane person would actually watch every inning of every game their local MLB team plays. Even the biggest fans are usually passively listening on the radio while they do something, anything else. Baseball is background noise — the least suspenseful major sport.

For the purposes of this article, I created a Suspense Index.

The SI score of a sport = number of games played + the quantifiable opportunity for tension within a game.

See how we got these rankings at the end of the article.

Simplified, the lower the score, the higher the suspense ranking.

•Football — 18+4+2.9 = 24.9

• Soccer — 34+4+4=42

• Basketball — 82+28+3.27 = 113.27

• Hockey — 82+28+4= 114

• Baseball — 162+19+2.8 = 183.8

Baseball has a very poor Suspense Index ranking (few runs scored, way too many games). Football has a high Suspense Index ranking (fewer games and last minute performances that can swing games seemingly out of reach). Superbowl 51 saw the most improbable comeback in history after being down 28–3 in the third quarter. If a soccer team is down by 3 goals with 20 minutes to play, their perceived best case scenario is a tie. This is still wildly improbable, not to mention deeply unsatisfying. But any football team can technically score 16 points in less than a minute. Even scoring 27 points in the 4th quarter to win a football game is not impossible, just less likely.

People think I’m insane when I say that soccer is broken because the goals are too small. Imagine if basketball hoops were smaller and teams only scored three times in a game. That’s a lot of running back and forth. The low-scoring game of soccer inaccurately reflects the true ability of each team. This leads to ties, seemingly arbitrary tie-breakers, and ultimately a gnawing existential dread. At worst, the ties lead to deadly riots and full blown stadium warfare. People kill each other because they can’t handle this cognitive load. (In hockey, this manifests in on-ice brawling.) I like tiebreaker shoot-outs because the tension increases exponentially, however a lot of people see it as a cheap corruption of the game.

I will admit that in soccer and hockey each score holds much more weight, but only if the game is close. The outcome becomes substantially less interesting if one team outperforms the other early in a game. A tied soccer game with five minutes left is arguably more gripping than a tied basketball game with five minutes remaining. In conceding this, is a game is more satisfying to watch if we think the better team won, rather than it resulting in a tie?

In soccer and hockey, if we measure the number of very close shots-on-goal during any given tied game, we know which team is better. A tie is hardly a satisfying (or fair) assessment of the matchup and is absolutely un-American. My whole life is a tie. We watch sports to see someone win, to make memes out of the teams that lose. Fuck ties.

The best solution is to make the damn goal bigger. About 10 to 20% bigger. We would get more goals, we would get a better sense of each team’s ability, and we could minimize ties and tie breakers. Frankly, this change would alter the game so significantly that few people could handle it. Perhaps we could try Big Goal leagues where we would be able to test out the excitement of the new system. You could score from half field, creating entirely new strategies. Teams would no longer simply protect their lead, which is boring. They would be compelled to continue an offensive approach, for fear of losing their lead.

Football has succeeded because it maintains the core of the game but it also allows for dozens of tweaks to the rules. The NFL does so in order to keep suspense high and protect its players. Teddy Roosevelt created the forward pass for college football so fewer players would die during the game. Before his rule change, players in leather helmets would simply smash into each other and their brains would hemorrhage.

Some people complain about the tedium of football plays only lasting a few seconds. But a lot of fans know that there is suspense built in between plays. Coaches make adjustments which means the potential outcomes are about as varied as the number of possible moves in a chess match.

The NFL recently increased the height of the goal posts. Why?Because kickers have gotten so good that they were booting the football above the goal piping, driving fans insane on close calls. Was it in or out? We didn’t know until they finally increased the pole height*.

Here are a few more suggestions:

These rule changes would preserve the soul of baseball while improving suspense.

Fewer time-outs, if any. Pitchers should not be allowed to take more than 20 seconds between pitches. You should’t be able to chat with the catcher just because your performance is sub-par. And batters shouldn’t be able to take unlimited time-outs to adjust their gloves. Each team should be allotted a certain number of offensive and defensive time-outs per game. If they go over an out is added as penalty.

No more switching pitchers mid-inning. Managers should assess a pitcher and make a decision between innings. This improves the entertainment value significantly, sparing the audience a ten-minute intermission right at the height of excitement, and arguably slowing the earned momentum of the other team. If a team is batting well, they should earn the multiple runs they’re going to get off a failing pitcher. The MLB’s recent elimination of the intentional walk ritual is a good start.

Hockey is in a similar position to Soccer. It has low scoring patterns (both average about 2.7 goals per team per game) and they both have ties and shoot-outs. Suggestions:

  • Make the goal bigger. Increase it by 4 inches on each side and an inch taller to improve the game. Turnout would be better for hockey games if the scores were 9–10, 7–11, 12–13. An accurate measurement of both teams would take place (shots on goal would equal more goals in this scenario). There would be less heartache over a tie if it’s undeserved, and more pride over a well-earned victory.
  • Fewer Games. Hockey also has way too many games (82) which makes Soccer (34 games) about twice as suspenseful.

Basketball games can swing pretty dramatically if one team starts to really turn it on, or one team collapses. A game could theoretically be won with 9 seconds remaining, even if a team is down by 8 points. Reggie Miller proved this in 1995. But the NBA’s problem is just like baseball and hockey, it has way too many regular season (and playoff) games.

Basketball has so many contests per season that teams like the Spurs purposefully sit their best players for entire games. Doing so angers the league, but preserving the health of their players helps in the postseason. So what did the league do? They added even more games to the first round of playoffs from best of 5 to best of 7, making the sport 3% more boring. They added even more incentive for teams to sit their star players during the regular season. Dumb. The first two rounds should be best out of 5.

Ultimately, if we’re not willing to eliminate games we should at least consider small tweaks that prevent boring lead protection and game stoppage. We should encourage more scoring and risk taking, and allow teams to fail spectacularly if they misuse their timeouts. Basketball has made one huge improvement recently by disincentivizing the insufferable foul-the-worst-free-throw-shooter strategy at the end of games. They responded to a lack of suspense and made the appropriate change.

Mike Force is a freelance illustrator living in Seattle.

— — — Footnotes — — —

*Adam Carolla should get credit for advocating for higher goalposts years before the league finally made the change.

The way to properly measure the SI is to take the number of regular season games and create a fraction. (Football is 1/18, Baseball is 1/162, Basketball is 1/82, Hockey is also 1/82, MLS is 1/34) Then create a fraction out of the maximum number of playoff games played for each team. (Football is 1/4, Baseball is 1/19, Basketball is 1/28, Hockey is 1/28, and MLS is 1/4).

Finally, we come to the most tricky and subjective part. We create a fraction out of the biggest deficit overcome in a game as proportionate to the average score differential in each sport, and create a fraction. This metric carries far less weight than the number of games played, but it gives us food for thought.

So the Buffalo Bills overcoming the Houston Oilers in overtime with a 32 point deficit gives them a fraction of 1/32. The average point differential in the NFL is 11 points. 32/11 = 2.9.

Basketball gets 1/36 for the Utah’s comeback over Denver in November of 1996. The average score differential in 2012 was 11 points. So 36/11 = 3.27

Baseball gets 1/12 for the Cleveland Indians 12 run deficit rally to defeat my notoriously disappointing Seattle Mariners 15–14 on August 5, 2001. Baseball’s average differential is was about 4.2 in 2015. 12/4.2= 2.8

Hockey gets 1/5 for the Miracle on Manchester, involving Wayne Gretzky of course, when he lead the Kings back from a 5 goal deficit in the third quarter. The average score differential in 2016 is about 0 goals. 5/0=5

Major League Soccer gets 1/4 for the November 9, 2003 match when the Quakes defeated the LA Galaxy after being down 0–4. The averages score differential in 2016 is also about 0. 4/0=4.

We then create a common fraction for each sport based on all of these fractions, and the lower the fraction, the higher suspense it commands.

Results

• Football — 18+4+2.9 = 24.9

• Baseball — 162+19+2.8 = 183.8

• Basketball — 82+28+3.27 = 113.27

• Hockey — 82+28+4= 114

• Soccer — 34+4+4=42