Let's embrace the uniqueness of the World Cup

Jayson Spikes
September 07 2016 05:12PM

Everyone loves best-on-best hockey, and it's almost here! 

We've waited over a year for it, and now it's like Christmas Eve for the hockey world. World Cup of Hockey training camps are well underway, games start on September 17th and fans couldn't be more ecstatic! Except, reality tells us that isn't really the case.

Everywhere you look, there's an extremely negative aura floating around the World Cup. It's hard to tell exactly what the majority opinion is, but it's hard to ignore the vocal naysayers striking down the idea of the tournament. 

The things I hear from friends and coworkers in relation to the World Cup are mostly grumbles and groans. There's been more than a few pieces striking down the idea, but an early installment of the NHL-directed criticism was this piece by the Toronto Star's Kevin McGran published following the tournament's announcement.

In essence, there seems to be a sentiment floating around that this tournament is illegitimate because it is just an attempt to make money. And anyone looking for proof of this claims looks no further than the inclusion of Team North America and Team Europe. A real, pure tournament, the argument seems to go, (like, perhaps, the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup) would include only countries, such as Switzerland and Slovakia (the #7 and #8 ranked countries, per the IIHF rankings).

Firstly, I say, if you think the International Olympic Committee and FIFA aren’t making money hand over fist for hosting their tournaments, then you are in denial.

Secondly, I say, so what? If the goal of sports fans is to watch competitive, exciting events, then this tournament has you covered. More so than the alternative people seem to be proposing. 

Look no further than the betting odds. The NHL has injected considerable uncertainty into this event. According to www.bwin.com the odds of the various contestants winning the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, 2017 U20 World Championships and the 2018 Winter Olympics are as follows:

2016 World Cup of Hockey

 2017 U20 World Championships

 2018 Winter Olympics

Canada

1.95:1

Canada

2.20:1

Canada

2.50:1

Sweden

6.50:1

Sweden

5.00:1

Sweden

4.50:1

Russia

6.50:1

Russia

5.00:1

Russia

4.50:1

USA

6.50:1

USA

5.50:1

USA

7.00:1

Finland

10.0:1

Finland

7.00:1

Finland

11.00:1

NA Youngstars

19.0:1

Czech Republic

34.00:1

Czech Republic

13.00:1

Czech Republic

23.0:1

Switzerland

101.00:1

Slovakia

67.00:1

Europe

34.0:1

Slovakia

201.00:1

Germany

101.00:1



Denmark

501.00:1

Switzerland

151.00:1





Norway

301.00:1





Slovenia

501.00:1





South Korea

501.00:1

Admittedly, these are not perfect comparators owing to:

  • The larger fields in 2017 and 2018; 
  • The timing of the events (2016 vs 2017 vs 2018) 
  • The roster uncertainty of those future teams (in particular the 2018 Winter Olympics, where a decision on NHL player availability has yet to be made, but also for the 2017 U20 World Championships where it is hard to predict which players will be made available by NHL teams).

So this is far from an apples-to-apples comparison. However, I would argue it is still very interesting. The table shows at least some evidence of a perception that this tournament is going to be considerably more tightly contested than it would be with Switzerland and Slovakia as the 7th and 8th entrants.

The table shows a precipitous drop off in odds of winning beyond the #6 team for the 2017 U20 World Championships and the 2018 Winter Olympics and suggests that Team North America and Team Europe should be able to compete with the top 6 hockey nations in the upcoming World Cup of Hockey. I mean, as of writing, Team North America has better odds of winning the World Cup of Hockey than the Czech Republic! In fact, looking elsewhere, www.Bodog.eu has Team North America tied for #5 with Finland.

Why does any of this matter? The implied argument of detractors is that they would care more about a tournament that had two teams in it that had history, but were heavy underdogs, instead of two teams that are manufactured to be competitive. The research, though, suggests otherwise.

When discussing competitive balance there are, in essence, 3 types of uncertainty:

  • Game uncertainty
  • Playoff uncertainty (variety of teams with a shot at the trophy)
  • Consecutive season uncertainty (dynasties).

There is a vast body of literature (see references below) dealing with the impacts of competitive balance on fan attendance and interest. Owing to that, the topic deserves a proper, in depth analysis in a later blog post. For now, though, I just want to highlight a few findings. There is agreement amongst researchers that competitive balance influences fan interest in sports (though, as with most areas of research, they disagree on what type of uncertainty is most relevant and how statistically relevant it is). 

Just a few notable findings:

  • Research suggests that for the 1988 MLB regular season, attendance was maximized when the home team had a 60% chance of winning (as determined by pre-game sportsbook odds)
  • Research suggests that for the 1996 MLB regular season, attendance was maximized when the home team had a 66% chance of winning (as determined by pre-game sportsbook odds)2
  • Research suggests that competitive balance on a league wide scale had a positive impact on fan attendance across the league (instead of simply in game probabilities)3
  • Research suggests that the only relevant uncertainty for fan attention in a particular season for MLB over a 102 year span was playoff/championship uncertainty in a particular season 4
  • Research suggests that fan attendance is different for favourites and underdogs:5
    • For fans of a home favourite, the researcher suggests that as the odds of the home team winning increase, attendance will be negatively affected;
    • For fans of a a home underdog, the researcher suggests that competitiveness of games had little to no impact on fan attendance, suggesting, perhaps, that fans of weak teams are incentivized to go to the arena to see a good visiting team or an upset. 

There are some contradictions in the above papers that aren’t worth getting into here, but they all do support the notion, at least to some degree, that more uncertainty (i.e. competitive) sporting events lead to increased fan interest. If the NHL has managed to make the World Cup of Hockey more competitive, as the sportsbook odds seem to suggest, then that is a win for the NHL and us fans.

Conclusion

The NHL’s structuring of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey is certainly non-traditional, but in no way should it be controversial. As a business, its decisions were driven by profit, as almost all of its decisions are, but when we are talking about a very short lived tournament, the NHL profit-making decision was aimed at making the tournament more appealing to fans by increasing parity. 

Here, the NHL’s interests were aligned with that of us fans, and so I won’t fault them for this one.

Plus, we get to see more Connor McDavid, and that is never a bad thing.

And, also, should we really be piling on the NHL for this decision when it has plenty of other marketing missteps for us to lambast? I mean, it’s not like the NHL’s trying to make NHL superheroes a thing. 2011 Guardian Project anybody?

References

  1. (Knowles et al (1992): The Demand for Major League Baseball: A Test of the Uncertainty of Outcome Hypothesis);
  2. (Rascher (1999): A Test of the Optimal Positive Production Network Externality in Major League Baseball); 
  3. (Schmidt and Berri (2001): Competitive Balance and Attendance: The Case of Major League Baseball);
  4. (Lee and For (2008): Attendance and the Uncertainty-of-Outcome Hypothesis in Baseball).
  5. (Meehan et al (2007): Competitive Balance and Game Attendance in Major League Baseball)

F36668b1ca5197c6d8467d1d9fb57f45
Jayson Spikes likes hockey and economics and, since sports economics is totally real a thing, he can write about two of his passions at the same time right here, discussing the behaviour and incentives of fans, players, coaches, general managers and owners. The business, finance and psychology of sports are other topics that interest him and may show up in his posts.
Comments are closed for this article.