Oct 28, 2009

Improving the rules of football

“The first-move advantage in chess is the inherent advantage of the player (called White) who makes the first move.” Chess’ flesh and blood version, “American” football, suffers from the same problem. When it comes to overtime, the team that gets the ball first by winning a coin toss wins more than 60% of the time. Obviously, letting luck decide the outcome of a game based on the rule-of-law is problematic.

Tim Harford explains how Chris Quanbeck, a Green Bay Packers fan, came up with the idea to auction off possession of the ball in the natural currency of the game: field position. The team willing to begin furthest from its scoring line would receive the privilege of possession. Yeon-Koo Che of Columbia University and Terrence Hendershott of Berkeley formalized  the idea. As they explain with the figure below, the auction outcome should end up around the 18 yard line, where the chance of winning is counterbalanced by the risk of a dangerous fumble or interception.

But doesn’t adding luck, in the form of a (random?) coin toss, make the game even more exciting and “human”? I would think that, quite contrary, the auction would add another layer of strategic decisions based on game theory and psychology…in other words, what football fans, such as David Romer and Steve Levitt, really want.

As Quanbeck puts it, “Imagine the excitement of live bidding!  Two head coaches meet face-to-face at center-field in a test of guts and strategy.  The home crowd goes crazy as the bidding proceeds, imploring their coach to take the ball and drive to victory.  However, the hometown coach must stay cool to ensure he doesn’t end up pinned against his own goal-line on fourth down.   Either way, the coach has nobody to blame but himself.  If you want the ball, take it.  But be careful what you ask for”.

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