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A Proposal to Improve Overtime in the World Cup

- July 5, 2010

As I watched Ghana and Uruguay move through a scoreless overtime on Friday night, I was reminded of a recent conversation I had with my colleague “Jon Eguia”:http://politics.as.nyu.edu/object/JonEguia. We were lamenting how it essentially seemed like the shoot out turned the game into a coin flip (does anyone have any data to prove otherwise? eg., that the better team wins more often in a shoot out?), and were comparing it to the situation that you sometimes get in overtime in Champions League games where, because of the away goal rule, once one team scores you end up with a situation where there will _definitely_ be a winner in the overtime, so one team has a tremendous incentive to pull out all the stops and try to score, and, if they do, the other team then has the exact same incentives. This seems like a more fun type of game to watch then the normal cautious dance you get in overtime at the World Cup (the crazy ending of the Ghana-Uruguay game not withstanding).

Jon, however, had a solution. His proposal was that immediately following the end of regulation, the shoot out should take place. This would then be followed by the normal half an hour of overtime, but with the new caveat that should overtime end in a tie, the team that had _already won the shootout_ would be declared the winner. Should one team end overtime victorious, then the results of the shootout would be irrelevant.

I see two big advantages of this rule change. One, you are guaranteed 30 minutes of football where one team knows that if it does not score, it will lose. Yes, this would lead to the other team packing it back on defense (but not, it should be noted, excessively changing personnel, on the chance that it could lose the lead and need to score), but this would be compensated by the other team going all out to try to score. I think I would rather watch this type of game for 30 minutes than the standard, cautious overtime play.

Second, you get a shoot out every time you go to overtime. Shoot outs are indeed fun to watch, but I think the problem with them is that they smack of arbitrariness. So while Jon’s proposal doesn’t actually remove the arbitrariness, it does give the players the chance for redemption in the ensuing overtime play. Which in turn might make it that much more enjoyable to watch the shoot out: you get the fun of the drama, without it necessarily being the final word on the matter.



Update: Turns out that Jon was not the first person to think of this idea – Juan Carillo of USC published an article on the topic in the “Journal of Sports Economics”:http://jse.sagepub.com/content/8/5/505.abstract#aff-1!