Every Game Counts The Same: Does It Really?

In most sports, there is a “regular” season and a “post” season. That is, the teams play against it each other for a set number of games to jockey for position in the playoffs. As I write this, I’m thinking about in particular, as it is getting very near to the end of their season. As the season comes to a close, many teams are either jockeying for position in the playoffs or they are struggling to remain one of the teams that will get to play in the playoffs.

I was having a conversation with someone the other day about the relative importance of each game, ie. “every game counts.” Some people like to say that games at the end of the season “count more” than games at the beginning of the season. They’ll tell you quite a fancy story about how and why the games at the end mean more to a team than the games at the beginning of the season. And I want to believe them. I want to believe that there’s a formula that accounts for “time” in the relative importance of games. To my knowledge, there isn’t and a game won in the beginning of the season is equal to a game won at the end of the season.

Looking at it mathematically: there are 162 games in a season. So, every game is worth 1/162nd of a team’s record. If a team wins a game on May 6th, that game is worth 1/162nd of that team’s record. If a team loses on June 12th, that game is still worth 1/162nd of that team’s record. And if a team wins the last game of the season (!) that game is still worth 1/162nd of that team’s record.

I think where a lot of people get confused or misled when it comes to games at the end of the season meaning more is because of the cultural bias. It is often written of and spoke of that games at the end of the season mean more than games at the beginning of the season. As a result, people begin to believe this and say it themselves (creating a bit of an ). At the end of the day (literally), the last game of the season has the same weight on a team’s record as a game at the beginning of the season.

Note 1: this line of thinking doesn’t apply to those sports that use a more sophisticated way of measuring the success of their teams. For instance, some sports, like soccer, often use “goal differential” as a way of distinguishing the relative placement of their teams.

Note 2: for sports that have such relatively “short” seasons like the NFL, one could argue that a game later in the season is worth more because of the various tiebreakers that are used for Winning percentage, etc., but the sentiment of every game counting the same still holds.

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