Commentary

Are tie games really such a bad thing?

Originally Published: July 29, 2009
By Jim Caple | Page 2

Before we get started, let's clear up one popular misconception right away: A tie is nothing like kissing your sister.

Not that I have personal experience with that (nothing against my sisters, who no doubt feel the same way about kissing their brothers), but I do know that a tie game in sports is not akin to incest. It's more like finally going on a date with that person you've had an outrageous, obsessive crush on for months, the one you fantasize about at least five times an hour. It's feeling all "romantic" as your hormones rise, anticipating the pleasures of a good-night kiss (and quite frankly, more, much more), getting yourself all worked up and then getting completely shut down at the door with a chaste hug or a weak handshake and an insincere "but I like you as a friend."

[+] EnlargeCarlos Silva and Ichiro
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonThere's nothing worse than getting shot down for a good-night kiss. Just ask Carlos Silva.

THAT'S what a tie feels like.

Unless, of course, you pull out the tie from the jaws of defeat at the last moment with a stunning, last-second score. In which case, a tie is like going on that same date, having everything go horribly wrong -- I could have sworn I paid my credit card bill last month! How could I have forgotten to wear deodorant? Why did I order baked beans? -- only to get a surprising kiss at the end of the night and a request to "call me tomorrow at work."

"When you tie and you think you could have won, you're disappointed," Alan Hinton says. "And if you tie a game when you think you really could have lost it, then you're happy."

Hinton was a successful soccer player and coach in Europe as well as in the United States. He's currently a broadcaster for the Seattle Sounders FC of the MLS, a league in which 34 percent of all games have ended in ties this season. Yes, 34 percent! And that reflects a decrease from a month ago when 40 percent of the games had ended in ties. Columbus has won just seven of its 19 games, but it's in first place thanks to nine ties. D.C. United and Los Angeles each have 10 draws in 19 games. It's absolutely, undeniably, indefensibly ridiculous.

But is it necessarily bad?

Generally speaking in this country, ties are considered an insult to sports. In 2002, Major League Baseball's All-Star Game -- an exhibition of such little consequence many players leave for the airport before the game even finishes -- ended in a tie, and the outcry was such that you would have thought commissioner Bud Selig had walked to the mound and dropped puppies one by one into a vat of boiling water.

It wasn't always this way. Maybe we never have liked ties, but there was a time when we didn't consider them on par with dogfighting and telemarketing. Top-ranked Army tied No. 2-ranked Notre Dame 0-0 in 1946. No. 1-ranked Notre Dame tied No. 2-ranked Michigan State in 1966. Both games are considered all-time classics (though Irish coach Ara Parseghian received deserved criticism for running out the clock to preserve the tie in '66). When Harvard tied Yale in 1968, its dramatic rally was so exhilarating that the student newspaper's headline famously declared: "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29!"

Those days are over. Rather than accept ties, we are getting rid of them in virtually every other sport. We hate ties so much that college football added an overtime tiebreaker in 1996 and the NHL went to the shootout in the 2005-06 season.

It is only in soccer that ties still proliferate. Especially in the MLS. But again, is that necessarily bad?

[+] EnlargeAra Parseghian
AP PhotoNotre Dame coach Ara Parseghian ran out the clock to preserve a tie with Michigan State in 1966.

"I'm torn because I'm a sports fan and growing up in America, I can understand the common fan's frustration with the draw. You came to a game and nothing was resolved," Sounders midfielder Peter Vagenas says. "But I've also played this sport, and I can appreciate a 0-0 draw as much a 5-4 thriller. I think a true soccer fan appreciates what goes into a game, and sometimes the best games are draws. I understand that the amount of draws that we've had this year is not good, but I've been in the league where we had the shootout and that was a debacle.

"I think if you're a casual fan in Los Angeles, and you want to be a fan of the Galaxy but they draw 10 games in a row, I don't think that will help. But the true soccer fans understand it, and I don't think it affects them much. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't think the casual fan isn't taken aback. I'm a big sports fan, and I don't like to see draws in other sports. I wouldn't want to see a Lakers game if they tied in the end."

No one, not even Orlando Magic fans, wants to see a Lakers game end in a tie, but I'll grudgingly admit draws also have value. Or at least that single point you get for a draw in soccer (as opposed to three points for a win and zero points for a loss) has value. Especially when going up against a far superior team.

"You have to understand the difference between the size of clubs," Seattle goalie Kasey Keller says. "In Spain you have two giant clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona. And if you're a small club and you're playing in one of those two cities and you can get a draw, that's a massive victory for your fans because those are places you're expected to go get rolled over. It gives you something to win other than winning."

That may be true in Europe, where the gap between teams can be on par with the difference between Dennis Quaid and Randy Quaid, but such reasoning neglects to consider the fact that in MLS, the gap is more like the difference between Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Seattle and Toronto have terrific fan bases and game atmospheres, but teams still don't go into those cities worried that they won't be able to breathe due to the elevation and smog (as at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City), or have hooligans tip over their bus and set it ablaze. Going to Salt Lake and getting a tie is not as much of an accomplishment as getting one in Barcelona.

So what would be so wrong with the MLS saying: Hey, Americans are getting into this soccer thing. They just want to see a winner and loser at the end of the game. And we could grow the fan base by cutting down on the ties.

"They tried that in the NASL [North American Soccer League], and it didn't work that well," Keller says. "The fans are the fans of the sport. You know what I would like? A half-court shot in basketball that's worth five points. Maybe a home run that goes more than 400 feet should be worth two runs. You can make f------ stupid rules about everything, but the sport's rules are the sport's rules. You don't change it unless there is a good reason."

[+] EnlargeKasey Keller
AP Photo/George Frey"You don't change it unless there is a good reason," Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller said of ties.

But other sports HAVE changed their rules. Basketball added the 3-point shot. The NFL added the two-point conversion. Baseball added the designated hitter. College football and the NHL added tiebreakers. There is nothing inherently wrong with giving fans what they want, which in this country, is a winner. You honk and curse your way through rush-hour traffic to get to the stadium, pay $30 to park, pay $50 for each ticket, spend $8.75 for a beer, $5 for a hot dog and $4 for a lousy red rope … the least the teams can give you is a winner and a loser.

Or is it?

If two teams play a tremendous, very even game to the end of regulation, why should one go home with a loss due to a ball that just nicks the foul pole in the 13th inning or because it lost the coin toss or because a field goal attempt hit the upright? Perhaps we need MORE ties, and not just in team sports, but in races, where electronic timing allows us to measure performances to the thousandth of a second. Just because we have a clock that can determine a time difference that is impossible to detect with the human eye doesn't mean we should use it. When athletes train for years to compete in an Olympic race, it would not be so wrong to declare a tie and award two gold medals rather than brand someone a loser for finishing a 2-mile race the width of an eyelash behind a competitor.

Or consider Stage 4 of this year's Tour de France, when the team time trial left Fabian Cancellara and Lance Armstrong separated by 0.182 of a second for the overall lead. This, mind you, was after 273 miles and 10½ hours of racing. Fans around the world wanted to see Lance back in yellow after a four-year absence. After riding farther than the distance between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, would it have been so horrible to say Armstrong and Cancellara were tied rather than separated by the width of a tire?

Ties also help fans get to bed earlier. "In a world where everything is about what's next, there are a lot of people who don't want to go to a four-hour baseball game or a 3½- to four-hour football game," Keller says. "They know they can come to a soccer game where it's 90 minutes and they can go off to do their next thing."

Kansas City Royals bench boss Trey Hillman managed for several years in Japan, where baseball games are declared ties after 12 innings so that fans have time to go home before the subways close. He says ties have their benefits -- "It certainly saves your pitching staff and it can save a possible potential injury to a position player when he's used where he's not used to" -- but he still doesn't like them. "I grew up used to the game being concluded without a tie, and that was an adjustment for me in Japan," he says. "I was not a fan of it over there and I would not be a fan of it being implemented here."

Perhaps, as Hillman says, it simply is a cultural thing, but Americans just don't like ties. And for good reason. I appreciate the value of ties in soccer. I really do. But after thinking over the pluses and minuses, the fewer is still the better. I mean, isn't the whole point of playing sports to determine a winner? If you aren't concerned with victories and defeats, then why keep score in the first place? This isn't Little League. Not everyone needs to walk away feeling happy.

"I don't think ties would fly here," Dodgers manager Joe Torre says. "Yeah, you can cut it off at 18 innings, but when it's the 13th inning or the 14th inning, you're thinking, 'Dammit, we've played this game this long, we can't stop trying now.' It's the same in other sports. It really makes those players more competitive."

After all, no coach fires up the team before a game by urging players to go out there and tie the opponent. If that is never the goal, there is no reason to be satisfied with it as a result.

Although, Torre acknowledges, an acceptance of ties "would certainly have relieved me of a lot of stress at that All-Star Game a few years ago."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com