Wednesday’s Champions League Final pitted two English teams—Manchester United and Chelsea—against each other for the first time in the 53-year history of the tournament.
It was a fierce battle, as both teams missed opportunities to put the game out of reach during regulation, and ultimately the game was forced into overtime with the scores knotted up at one.
After neither team was able to net a goal during the two overtime periods, the match moved into penalty kicks to determine the winner.
And it was at that point that a beautiful sporting event was ruined yet again by a terrible overtime system.
Now don’t get me wrong—the penalty kicks proved to be very exciting.
Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the greatest soccer (or football, depending on where you are) player in the world currently, missed the third kick for United, opening the door for Chelsea.
And then, when you thought Chelsea had it wrapped up, Captain John Terry slipped on the team’s fifth shot for the win, sailing the ball far right of the post.
United went on to win when keeper Edwin Van der Sar made a diving save to his right, and the celebrations began.
But lost in the celebration was how United managed to win the historic matchup, by beating Chelsea in a challenge that is entirely different than the game that had taken place over the initial 90 minutes of regulation, and extra 30 minutes of overtime.
And herein lies the problem that many of our college and professional sports are facing today—overtime rules.
For starters, let’s take a look at some of the main sports and see how their respective overtimes are currently formatted:
The NHL currently uses a combination of points, extra time, and a shootout. When regulation ends, each team is awarded one point in the standings.
They then play a five-minute extra period, four on four plus goalies, in sudden-death format.
If the game remains tied after the five minute extra period, they move on to three penalty shots each, which then becomes one for one sudden-death penalty shots thereafter to determine the winner, if necessary.
The NFL currently uses the simple sudden-death overtime period. If the score is tied after all four quarters of regulation, there is a 15-minute overtime period, in which the first team to score wins.
Possessions for both teams are not guaranteed. If the score remains tied after the 15-minute period, a regular season game ends in a tie, whereas a playoff game continues having extra periods until someone scores and a winner is determined.
College football uses an entirely different format.
If regulation ends in a tie, the teams each get one possession, starting from their own 25-yard line. From there, the game action takes place like that of a normal game, in that a team can get first downs, and can score a touchdown or choose to kick a field goal at any time.
Any sort of turnover ends that team’s possession, and the other team restarts the attempt to score from the 25-yard line.
After each team gets a possession, if there is still a tied scored, the teams switch sides of the field and first possession, and repeat.
After three of these cycles, if necessary, teams are forced to go for a two point conversion after scoring a touch down, as opposed to kicking an extra point.
Within each cycle, both teams are guaranteed one possession, and this continues until a cycle ends without a tie. At that point, the team with more points wins.
In the MLB, when there is a tied score after the culmination of nine innings of play, the game moves onto extra innings, one inning at a time.
In this format, each team gets an opportunity to bat, with the home team maintaining the right to bat second each inning.
Additional innings will continue to be added on until either three outs are recorded with the home team batting and the visiting team having a lead, or until the home team acquires a lead while batting, at which point there is a winner.
Both the NBA and NCAA basketball are the same on their overtime rules. When regulation ends, there is a five-minute extra period to determine the winner.
If the score remains tied after the five-minute extra period, additional five-minute periods continue to be added until one ends with a winner.
So what should be done?
There you have the current formats of overtime for some of the major sports that are followed in the United States. Some of the methods are great as-is, and do not need to be refined.
Meanwhile, others desperately need to be revamped so we can avoid travesties like yesterday’s Champions League Finals.
Starting with what needs fixing, I'd move right away into a problem that encompasses the overtime systems for soccer and hockey.
In sports like those, where scoring does not happen as often as basketball, I can appreciate a sudden death overtime period.
It’s great to see teams playing with such concentration as to know that any mistake they make can result in an immediate and sudden ending to the game, and perhaps their season.
With that thought, hockey initially gets it right.
On the other hand, I would like to see that method used more frequently in soccer—as they call it the “golden goal” method—as opposed to the “silver goal” method that was demonstrated in yesterday’s game.
To watch top-level athletes perform with the sense of urgency that a sudden-death format encourages is to witness those athletes perform at their highest levels. That is always my ultimate goal with sports.
But the real issue that I have with both sports’ overtime methods is what happens after the extra periods are finished without a winner.
Moving to a penalty kick or shot format to determine a winner ultimately takes a step away from the great action. Action that usually has led to such an exciting game throughout regulation and extra periods.
Of course, an argument can be made that the penalty shots are a part of the game, but they are without a doubt not a focus of the game, and therefore I do not believe they should be the deciding factor in who wins.
The Champion League Final yesterday proved that decisive penalty kicks can be very exciting to watch, but I would much rather see two highly-talented teams continue doing what they have been doing all game long to determine the champion.
Imagine a scenario in which a baseball game winner was determined by a home run derby? Or even worse, imagine a basketball game being determined by a dunk contest?
I’m sure it would be exciting, but events like that should be left for the All-Star Game “extra” activities, just like penalty shots perhaps should, and they should be left out of the decision making for who moves onto the next round or hoists the championship trophy.
My proposition for soccer and hockey would be for them to maintain one simple extra period, adding additional periods if necessary, in the standard sudden- death format—play as if a win or loss can be determined at any second, and we’re bound to see the best our athletes have to offer.
Determining a proper overtime format for football is not so easy.
Both the NFL and NCAA are close to getting it right in their current formats, but both has issues that must be fixed.
Starting with the NFL, I like that they play the game as it’s supposed to be played, continually adding on extra periods if needed, until there is a winner (in the playoffs).
However, a major issue that plagues the NFL is that so often, games can be determined before the clock even starts, when both teams meet in the middle of the field for the coin toss.
The fact that a team can win the toss, elect to receive the ball, drive to somewhere around the 35-yard line, and then kick a long field goal for the win—all without the other team ever touching the ball—is disgraceful.
One way or another, each team absolutely has to have the opportunity to get a possession.
College football, on the other hand, correctly ensures that each team gets a possession in their current format. And in fact, I have always appreciated watching a college football overtime game, and think that they are very close in getting it correct.
Unfortunately, I still find a flaw. Football is known as a game with three parts: offense, defense, and special teams.
Further, special teams are comprised of different parts, being kickoffs, punts, and field goals (consider extra points in the same category as field goals for this discussion).
In the current overtime method for college football, the kickoffs and punting portion of the game are completely eliminated.
This creates a situation similar to that of soccer and hockey, in that the game is played during regulation with all parts of the game involved, then suddenly in overtime only portions of the traditional game play are used.
Granted, college football is not as off as soccer and hockey in that the main aspects of the game—offense, defense, and field goals—are still concerned. Nevertheless, they should enforce the usage of all aspects of the game to determine a winner.
I think a solution to football overtime formats, in both the NFL and college, could be two five-minute periods, in which both periods happen regardless of score.
In my suggested format, both the first and second periods would begin with a kickoff, with the team who receives alternating between the two periods. This would more than likely allow each team a challenging but reasonable five minutes to drive the length of a field in an attempt to score a touchdown or field goal.
However, since all five minutes would be used regardless of turnovers or scores, it would force both teams to play a full game, involving all three key components to playing football.
The fact that there would be a guaranteed two periods would ensure that both teams get an equal opportunity at possession. With that, we would see an exciting continuation of the full game being played, and from there we would have the true winner.
And finally, that brings me back to both basketball and baseball. To be perfectly honest, for their given games, I feel that this is where the lone positives shine on our professional sports overtime methods.
I like how basketball has a simple five minute continuation of game play in both the NBA and NCAA. The last five minutes of regulation in a competitive basketball game are always the most exciting and challenging, from a coaching perspective, portions of the game.
The same can be said for both the top and bottom of the ninth inning in a close baseball game.
Waiting on each pitch, wondering if it will be a ball or strike, or whether or not the sacrifice fly will be deep enough to score the winning run on third, is one of the ultimate rushes while watching sports.
So is holding your breath when that last-second three-pointer is heaved at the basket with a team down by two points.
With each sports’ current overtime method, we continue the most exciting portions of the game until necessary to determine an ultimate victor. We continue some of the best moments possible while watching sports—and that is what I like to witness as a spectator.
In the end, we all love to watch sports, and we all love when sports competition is played at is best and truest forms. Under all of our sports current overtime methods, it is not evident to me that we have fully achieved this goal.
I think it is imperative that these issues are fixed, so that we are not left hoping a championship matchup never extends beyond regulation.