How Low-Scoring is Soccer?

Skee Ball

The most common gripe of football haters—soccer, not American football—is that the sport is too low-scoring.  This is a silly argument with even a moment’s reflection, even to those with no interest in the sport.  My favorite illustration of the point comes from an NHL player quoted in the Hockey News from a poll on how to make his sport higher scoring (this was before the Crosby-Ovechkin revitalization).  His response: “Make the goals bigger.”  Hockey News: “How much bigger?”  Him: “Like soccer goals.”  The point, of course, is that more or less goal-scoring is really ancillary to the actual issue of more or less excitement.  Anyone who understands a sport knows this, at least about the sport in question.  (And for the record, the NHL in fact did a great job of making the sport more exciting, not just higher scoring.  With the unintended consequence that it is now almost too dangerous to play, but that’s a separate matter.)

But since haters aren’t really interested in a serious answer, it occurred to me a better approach would be to level the playing field.  Soccer is, indeed, a low-scoring sport, but at least it doesn’t try to puff up its numbers.  When you make an honest and adjusted comparison, the sports favored by Americans don’t look quite as high-scoring as they’d claim.

Methodology 

So what exactly do I mean by an honest and adjusted comparison?  American sports tend to cook their books in two ways.  The first is by far the most obvious: they over-count scoring.  You might think that the most egregious offender would be basketball, which double-counts every shot except for 1) free-throws (of which you usually get two chances, like a do-over on a free kick or penalty), and 2) the longer shots that are triple-counted.  Unless, of course, you have any knowledge of American sports, in which case you’ll immediately recognize that this inflation by more than 100% pales in comparison to the outrageous scoring system in American football.  So job one is to compare goals, which only get counted once, to the average number of points awarded for comparable scoring events in the other sport.

Job two is a bit more subtle, and potentially more contentious.  The principle is pretty straight-forward: different sporting events take different amounts of time, so in order to measure scoring as a reasonable proxy for excitement, they need to be adjusted for the amount of time actually involved.  A half with three goals in it is clearly more higher-scoring than a full game with the same three goals—in fact, just about twice as high-scoring.  The tricky part comes in figuring out how to measure time.  A football match is 90 minutes and an American football match is 60 minutes—except that they aren’t.  Football involves a small amount of injury time and American football involves nearly interminable breaks without the clock running.  Then there is baseball, which takes, well, as long as it takes.  Better take advantage of the seventh inning stretch, because you’ll need it if the game goes into extra innings.

Remembering that the goal is to evaluate goal-scoring as some sort of a proxy for excitement, I’ve selected how long a televised broadcast for each sport usually takes as the most honest measure of time elapsed.  It has certain practical advantages as well, but the main justification has to do with fairness.  After all, if what we’re trying to measure is some sort of crude yardstick for excitement, we ought to include all of the time a potential fan has to sit in front of a screen or at a stadium waiting for something to happen.  It’s true, Americans tend to like their sports with potty and beer breaks, and God Bless us for it; but you can’t honestly suggest that this makes the sport more exciting.  It isn’t soccer’s fault that it just keeps going, and it certainly shouldn’t be penalized for the fact.  If you want a fair measure of excitement, you need to adjust for how long the thing is really going on.

So, to summarize, comparisons of football to other sports need to be adjusted for the scoring system used and for the actual time elapsed (as captured in the average televised time of a game).

My original plan was to do the work to consider historical variation and variation across different leagues and do the number crunching to get things fairly accurate.  Then I looked at the clock and decided to go with some quick and dirty approximations based on the most recent season’s statistics (and only from the Premier League on the soccer side).  Cleaning things up will almost certainly only make marginal differences, and I’d rather have the big picture out there now.  With that said, let’s look at some actual sports and start comparing.

Football (Soccer)

Pelé_1960Based on 2012-13 English Premier League Season
Source: http://www.myfootballfacts.com/
(http://www.myfootballfacts.com/Premier_League_Goal_Statistics_1992-93_to_2009-10.html

Points per Goal: 1
Average EPL Goals Scored per Game: 2.79737
Televised Game Time: 120 minutes
Average Goals per Minute: 0.02331

Comments: Pretty straight-forward.  While the Premier League is on a relative high in terms of goals per game, that’s an uptrend in an historically-speaking low-scoring period.  In 2011-12, the Premier League averaged 2.81 goals per game.  If I really wanted to cook the books, I’d use Eriedivisie or Bundesliga numbers, which are pretty consistently the top two in Europe.

American Football

The Three Stooges, Field GoalBased on 2012 NFL Season
Source: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/
(http://www.pro-football-reference.com/years/NFL/scoring.htm)

Points per “Goal”: 7
Average NFL Score per Game: 45.6
Average NFL “Goals” per Game: 6.54128
Televised Game Time: 180 minutes
Average “Goals” per Minute: 0.03619
aNFL Points per EPL Goal: 10.50
Average EPL Goals Scored in aNFL Points: 29.37237

Comments: Even more than the Premier League, the NFL is in a high-scoring cycle.  Only 1948 and 1965 have been higher.  If I wanted to get the points per goal just right, I’d have to modify the points per goal to account for extra points missed and 2-point conversions (which wouldn’t make much difference on average); and I’d have to figure out what, if anything, to do about field goals.  As it is, I’m just ignoring all that.  So in American football terms, the Colorado Rapids beat the LA Galaxy 53-11 Saturday evening, while Liverpool and Man City both racked up 32-11 wins.  By comparison, the Green Bay Packers battled the Detriot Lions to a 2-1 victory.  Who’s low-scoring now?

Basketball

Harlem GlobetrotterBased on 2012-13 NBA Season
Source: http://www.basketball-reference.com/
(http://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/NBA_stats.html)

Points per “Goal”: 2.644 (see rationale below)
Average NBA Score per Game: 196.2
Average NBA “Goals” per Game: 74.2
Televised Game Time: 150 minutes
Average “Goals” per Minute: 0.49467
aNBA Points per EPL Goal: 3.305
Average EPL Goals Scored in aNBA Points: 9.24531

Comments: Unlike American football, the points per goal in basketball needed some correction on two counts.  3-pointers were easy; they accounted for 7.2 of the 37.1 field goals per team per game on average, so that accounts for 2.194 of the points per goals.  Then, there’s the 16.7 points per team per game scored by free throws.  Unlike field goals, which arguably add to the excitement of a football game, free throws are pretty much mind-numbing gamestoppers (even in the last two minutes of a close game, it’s really only the missed free throws that are exciting).  So I just spread that 16.7 across the 37.1 potentially interesting scoring chances, which adds on the remaining 0.45 PpG.

Anyway you slice it, basketball is the crystal meth of the sports world.  The lowest-scoring NBA game since the introduction of the shot clock, (a 57-62 tilt between the Milwaukee Hawks and the Boston Celtics in 1955) still comes out to a net-busting 17-19 in soccer terms.  In fact, lowest-scoring NBA game full-stop still works out to a 5-6 scorcher (the Minneapolis Lakers’ 1951 loss to the Fort Wayne Pistons, 18-19).  In basketball, something’s bound to happen every 24 seconds.  It’s just probably not anything very important.

Baseball

Phillies_Phanatic5Based on 2012 MLB Season
Source: http://www.baseball-reference.com/
(http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/bat.shtml)

Points per “Goal”: 1
Average MLB “Goals” per Game: 8.64
Televised Game Time: 180 minutes
Average “Goals” per Minute: 0.048000
aMLB Points per EPL Goal: 1.50
Average EPL Goals Scored in aMLB Points: 4.19605

Comments: Though scoring in baseball is on a down-trend, it would be wrong to describe it as a historic low—the 60s and 70s, as well as the dead-ball era at the beginning of the 20th Century were notably lower.  I should add that I’m being very generous in pretending that most baseball games actually finish in the three-hour timeslot allotted to them.

If you take a look at the Oakland-Detroit series, it already looks pretty much like a football tie, 3-3 on aggregate (with the A’s advancing on away runs if it ended now).  Translated into EPL goals, that’s 1-2 in Friday’s game and 1-0 (barely) Saturday.  Oh, and if you think low-scoring means boring, Saturday’s game is one to watch.  Plus it ended with a pie in the face.  That should definitely happen more often.

Hockey 

Hockey FIght Fail!Based on 2012-13 NHL Season
Source: http://www.hockey-reference.com/
(http://www.hockey-reference.com/leagues/stats.html)

Points per Goal: 1
Average NHL Goals per Game: 5.44
Televised Game Time: 150 minutes
Average Goals per Minute: 0.03627
aNHL Points per EPL Goal: 1.25
Average EPL Goals Scored in aNHL Points: 3.49671

Comments:  This is the one sport where I feel that this year’s numbers may actually prejudice the results in favor of football.  Goals are down in the past two seasons off a 2005-06 high that is still quite low in historic terms.  Bummer.  At least this season is off to a roaring start, so maybe that trend is reversing itself.  Which means I will probably have to get over last season’s lock out and start watching again.

Math-wise, hockey couldn’t be easier.  In fact, hockey is in every way the American sport most like football—probably because it’s really a Canadian sport.  If soccer were played on ice with half as many players who got to carry staves and could break into fights with nothing more than a drop kick resulting, you’d be watching hockey.  In the 6 NHL games on Saturday night, teams averaged 2.67 (hockey) goals a game, which rounds down to just about 2 EPL goals (2.13).  The highest scoring game of the bunch, Winnipeg’s away win over the Los Angeles Kings, works out 4-2 in soccer terms.

Conclusions

So soccer is low-scoring relative to American sports, just a lot less than our inflated scoring systems would suggest.  No real surprise there.  But having these conversion rates at the ready can still be useful when it comes to befuddling haters.  Given US results in international comparisons of math skills, they probably won’t understand enough to talk back.

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