Rugby Sevens: The Twitter of Team Sports?

This weekend, the World Cup for the sport of rugby sevens is being played in San Francisco.

I’m not a huge rugby fan, and I don’t really understand the game, which seems to depend heavily on subtleties of the rules that govern exactly what you can and can’t do while bodies are strewn in piles on the ground after one player tackles another (which happens a lot). But I enjoy watching nearly any new (to me) sport, and trying to figure out what’s going on. And there’s plenty of scope for that in rugby.

Rugby sevens differs from rugby union chiefly in the size of the teams – seven for sevens, of course, and fifteen for rugby union. Apart from that, the differences in the rules are much less than the differences that separate rugby union from rugby league. And yet the games have a very different feel to them.

Perhaps the most curious thing about rugby sevens is that the games are so brief. They have two seven-minute halves, measured by a clock that rarely stops, with just two minutes between halves. The game rarely takes more than about 20 minutes, start to finish. I cannot think of any other team sport where a full contest takes less than an hour or so, and most are much longer. Is this the sport for short-attention-span moderns?

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Tried by the Centre Court

The long Wimbledon semi-final match in which Kevin Anderson defeated John Isner 26-24 in the fifth set put me in mind of a Flanders and Swann monologue called “Tried by the Centre Court”. Here’s an excerpt:

Wimbledon.  June.  Ladies’ Singles.  Third Round.
. . . .

Miss Hammerfest leads by two games to one in the third set, having won the first by 18 games to 16, lost the second 25 to 27.

I never liked tennis.

The piece is purportedly a (mostly) interior monologue by an umpire at Wimbledon, who has the bad luck to officiate at a particularly long and dreary tie.

Why is it that professional tennis preserves a format that invites such ridicule?

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Breaking Three-Way Ties

The United States Backgammon Federation (USBGF) has promulgated an interesting method for breaking three-way ties in the tournaments they sanction:

• A contingent bye is awarded to one player randomly chosen from among those who received the fewest byes previously in the event . Suppose A is chosen.

• B plays C. Suppose B wins.

• B plays A .

• If A wins, then A has earned the bye. Player A places first; B places second and C places third.

• However, if A loses, then the bye is given to player C instead of player A. The A vs. B match is recorded as the semi – final, and the B vs. C match is recorded as the final. B places first; C places second and A places third.


To appreciate what’s going on here, you need to bear in mind that USBGF tourneys generally offer substantial cash prizes. Say, for example, that for a particular tourney the payouts for the top three places are $3000, $2000, and $1000. Assuming that the three players are of equal skill, this means that the the player who gets the bye, A in the example, will win $3000 half the time, and $1000 the other half of the time, with an average expectation of $2000. The other two players will win $3000 a quarter of the time, $1000 another quarter of the time, and $2000 half the time, so that their expectation is also $2000. As long as the prize payout for the second place winner is one third of the total fund for the top three places, the expectations will be equal.

A clever procedure. But is it possible to do better?

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(Un)fair Weather at Shinnecock Hills

Today’s third round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Shinnecock Hills raises some fairness questions that we’ve seen before, but in a novel context.

The U.S. Open in general, and Shinnecock Hills in particular, seems to take pride in making the course so difficult that even the world’s best golfers begin to post scores not much better than ordinary skillful golfers playing golf under more reasonable conditions. Large parts of the greens are so severely sloped that a golf ball will not stay on them. They are so bumpy that the ball does not roll true on them. The rough is exceptionally rough. And the weather has conspired to exacerbate these problems considerably.

The persons responsible for this travesty claim that the course is difficult, but still “fair”. Let’s test this assertion using each of the three meanings of fairness: fairness (A), where reasonable expectations are honored; fairness (B), where everyone gets an equal chance; and fairness (C), where superior skill is to be rewarded.

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Remaking March Madness, Part III

The official brackets for the NCAA Men’s Basketball tourney have been announced. I won’t bother to redraw them here – they should be all but unavoidable in other sources.

There is, as usual, great wailing and gnashing of teeth about who got in and who got snubbed. I don’t have an opinion about any of that. But there is little or no discussion about some of the worst features of the bracket. Gee, I can hardly wait for the big game between Virginia and U. Maryland Baltimore County. I’m glad it doesn’t conflict with Duke v. Iona, which should be a bark burner! Shades of Bambi v. Godzilla.

As promised, I made a hypothetical draw that avoids such silliness.

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Remaking March Madness, part II

So how can the NCAA basketball tourney be improved? In a couple of ways.

First, it needs to make better use of its seven-round structure. Currently, the first round with its four play-in games is the only early round in which the conventional seeding system doesn’t poison most of the fixtures. So I’ll move more games from the very bad second round to the first.

And next, something needs to be done about the seeding. Here I’ll borrow from the wisdom that informs most professional tennis competitions to moderate the problems with seeding.

Here’s a revised bracket. It covers one of the four regions – the other three will work the same way: NewMM

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Remaking March Madness

The NCAA basketball tournaments are upon us. Soon there will be brackets posted in places where brackets are seldom seen, and millions of fans will be pouring over them. It should be a good moment for Tourneygeek and his fellow tournament mavens, and I suppose it is, to some extent. But it would be much better if the tournaments were more sensibly run.

What’s wrong with March Madness? Essentially, the problem is that it’s organized in such a way as to maximize the number of dull, lop-sided fixtures. Rather than just complain, this year, I’ll suggest some changes that, within the basic parameters of the existing tourney, ought to make for a much more exciting and entertaining tournament. In this post, I’ll begin by describing some features of the current system.

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