Saturday, October 15, 2011

Professional sports are rigged

The "accidental" tackle? Photograph: Ross Land/AP
In case anyone was confused or upset about last night's Rugby World Cup semifinal between Wales and France, relax.

Professional sports cannot exist without funding, and a consistent source of funding is impossible without controllable results.
  • Advertisers must be able to count on viewers (advertising works wonders, but people must watch)
  • In sports gambling, the house must be able to win
If you think that's not enough motivation, perhaps you're not aware of the amount of money involved in those two areas.  With all the focus on the economic benefit to New Zealand of hosting the RWC, there been little press about the benefit to our sports gambling company, the TAB.
The biggest gambling losers are those who really can't afford it, but we encourage it anyway.
Rest assured that it's economically irresponsible to allow a professional sports match to just happen - too much is at stake.

The most recent example - Wales vs France (15/10/11)

This is hardly the first match I've watched that's awkwardly supported this economic truth, but it's a great example.  Sports-wise, this game made no sense.

It was only a guess for us viewers who might win - Wales were perhaps favoured.  But Wales' captain made a textbook dangerous spear tackle near the beginning of the game.  In itself, this is almost inexplicable - a player experienced enough to be the captain making such a high and spectacular spear tackle accidentally.  This is obviously debatable - make your own decision.  
The IRB has also said that in rugby union a spear tackle should be a straight red card. 
But this was just the start.

A team without a captain

Now Wales had one less player than France, for the rest of the game.  My DH immediately said "That's it.  Wales has lost."  That's the only logical conclusion (and was, in fact, true).  With competent and similarly skilled teams, the loss of one player, especially the captain, must disadvantage one team so much that the other team can use their otherwise similar skills to win.

But DH's logical conclusion would have led many viewers to stop watching this economically vital semifinal.  Some will watch anything looking like rugby, even commercials and endlessly repeated highlights.  But most only want to watch something exciting, and a foregone conclusion for teams you don't otherwise care about is not exciting.

It was a late game, and many viewers would have found something obviously better to do - in bed, with a book, doing the dishes...

How to save the money (I mean match)?

Immediately two (otherwise inexplicable) things happened:

1.  "Wales is going to win"

One commentator said this almost immediately.  He continued to repeat this absurdity until the late stages of the match.  He even said, "Would it be unprofessional of me to..." and broke into some silly pro-Wales chanting.  Yes, normally, that would be not only embarrassing but unprofessional. But he did his job - he kept some viewers glued to their screen, hoping for a sports miracle.

2.  France didn't try

Anyone who knows enough about rugby to argue with this knows it's true.  Wales was down one man and France kicked for the corner again and again instead of trying to take advantage of their numbers to score tries.

Even the commentators mentioned this difference between the playing of the two teams - make your own decision on how unlikely this behaviour is in a professional team in a semifinal.  Instead of being fired up by their obvious advantage, France relaxed.  Apparently they were exhausted by the experience of having only 15 men against 14 men.

That transformed what should have been an ever widening (and viewer discouraging) scoreline to a nail-biting finish.

The last mystery

Wales was twice in position in the end game to kick a drop goal and pull ahead.  They did not need a try to pull ahead, they only needed a drop goal.  They declined both scoring chances, instead continuing to batter the defensive line fruitlessly.

The last chance was in the final minutes of the match and was so obvious it was comical. Wales passed the ball to each other and attacked more than 20 times with no real hope of getting a try.  The clock ticked down to the end and they still did not take their only real chance at scoring and very real chance of winning instead of losing. 

In sports terms, this was insane.  The commentators said, "The question will always be asked, should the ball have been passed to (the kicker)...?"

Only if Wales was supposed to win.  From the result, I'd guess that the brief was for Wales to lose by a small margin.  Possibly the early spear tackle was part of that strategy.  I assume that this is a better result for the TAB.

Couldn't there be another explanation?

In that game, in isolation?  Possibly.  Feel free to entertain me further with one.

Given the money involved? I use Occam's razor, and I say no.

So why watch professional sports?

It's sociable, and it's often fun.

But like the opera, remember that when the plot doesn't seem to make sense, that's because it's just supposed to happen that way.

Relax and enjoy the show!


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