What Is the Fairest Way to Run a Sports Tournament?

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIFebruary 19, 2009

In my perfect world, there would be no single elimination sports tournaments in either individual or team tournaments.  The purpose of a tournament is to find out who is the best at something.  Single elimination type tournaments rarely, if ever, fairly satisfy this criterion.  Practical?  Yes.  More exciting for the fans?  Absolutely.  Easier to plan and run?  No question about it. 

And do not get me wrong, often the best athlete or team—or, at least the athlete or team who performed the best during that tournament—wins.  Plus, there is something to be said that if you want to claim to be the best at something you have to be able to perform well when the pressure and the stakes are the highest. 

I understand all of that, however, it is impossible to always be performing at your best.  In fact, by definition, no individual or team comes close to accomplishing this.  50% of the time you (or a team) performs below average and 50 % of the you perform above average.  Rarely, do you play your best.  Nothing is going to save you have if you or your team is having a bad tournament. 

However, a non-single elimination tournament can save you if you are the best, but happened to have one below average game.  Or, sometimes you perform well, but some other individual or team played their best game or match in their life.  These examples are bad luck —not usually choking—and single elimination type formats increase the chance of luck in a tournament. 

Which, of course, decreases the chance of the best athlete or team or winning the tournament.  To me, this does not seem right.

In a typical golf tournament they play 18 holes four times—which seems reasonable.  In sports such as tennis (and volleyball, table tennis, and badminton in the Olympics) at least they play a series of sets (best of three, five, or seven) which makes it reasonably fair.  Ditto for most of the field events (example: shot put) in athletics where you get three or more attempts. 

However, in races (swimming and track) you get only one shot.  This is tough in the sprints where if you do not get off to a great start (or you are going up against Usain Bolt!) you probably won't win, or worse, lose by 1/100 of a second.  Ouch!

In American football (NFL), given that the physical nature of the sport does not allow them to play more than once a week, a single elimination tournament is the only practical way to go (at least the best team gets the home field advantage for every round but the Super Bowl).  College football, for no good reason, has one game and no tournament.  Moronic is too soft a word for this system. 

I like the NBA, NHL, and MLB because they all have best of seven series throughout the playoffs (except the first round of the MLB which is best of five—I find this silly).  College basketball has too many teams and consequently, has no choice but to run a single elimination tournament. 

In soccer (football), the World Cup has pool preliminary matches followed by a single elimination tournament where sometimes the World Cup winner is actually determined by penalty kicks.  I cannot imagine that anyone thinks this is the best way to run the sport's world biggest team tournament (especially given that it is held only once every four years). 

I would only have 16 teams (currently 32) in the finals and have two pools of eight teams.  The teams would play a round robin tournament and the top four (first and second in each pool) teams play a double elimination tournament (if needed to not cut the number of teams—you could have a semis before the finals—with possibly the top eight teams in the world or the six zonal winners and the next two highest rated teams getting a bye to the finals).  

This will result in more games (10-12 for the winner, currently they play seven), and the possibility of two final games (this is why double elimination tournaments are not popular even though are clearly fairer), but so be it.  After all, sometimes fairness has a price.  Welcome to my perfect world (impractical as it may be).