Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Offense or Defense Dominant

Jacob Levy linked to an interesting blog/essays about sports and whether and how to evaluate what can and does make a spectator's experience better or worse.  Written by a political theorist, Wayne Norman, it specifies a starting assumption or first principle:
“The ultimate spectator experience in sport will always involve an equal appreciation for both offensive and defensive play/tactics.”
This makes much sense to me, as American football is perhaps the most enjoyable sport to watch as offense and defense are both taken quite seriously by players, coaches and the media.  It is not just about Drew Brees and Peyton Manning but about the defenses that can stymie them.  One of the sneaky things about football is: there is just a bit more scoring than in soccer but seems like much more so since the points are magnified--one touchdown is seven points (an average game of 21-14 is really 3-2).  Defense is huge in this sport.  The essay goes onto argue that few folks who watch or cover soccer find defense to be interesting or well-analyzed.

Best paragraph for a scholar of IR:
One cannot help comparing the romantic appeals for the contemporary Brazilian and Dutch teams to celebrate their glorious historic offensive personalities, even in a losing cause, to the demands of aristocratic generals in the First World War ordering the troops to charge out of their trenches and face certain mass casualties across a battlefield that was now defended by machine guns.

Anyhow, this also helps me understand why I only watch NBA basketball in the playoffs--when offense and defense are at their peak.  It also makes baseball a bit more interesting, as both great batters and great pitchers are lionized and most highlight shows do feature the defensive gems of the night--diving by infielders to stop ground balls, jumps over the fence by outfielders to deny homeruns, etc.  Indeed, this is the year of great pitching with multiple perfect games, lower run totals and the game is perhaps the better for it.  Homeruns and walks are a boring combination when steals are taken out of the equation by the steroid era.  Strategy and tactics come back into play now when runs are a bit more scarce.   Indeed, in the second essay, Norman ranks baseball ahead of football in defense awareness.  Perhaps I am tainted by the "chicks dig homeruns/steroid era" as famously depicted in an where Greg Maddox and Tom Glavine were working on their homerun hitting rather than their pitching.

Norman goes on to admire defense in hockey, but that is easy for him--he is not inundated by hockey.  For me, HDTV has made hockey more enjoyable, but, as the displaced American in a hockey-mania-ed town, I'd rather watch football.

Of course, the big unaddressed question is where does ultimate fit in this hierarchy?*  The third essay notes that Norman's ranking coincides mostly with sports that go from least flow to most flow, from where offense and defense are most separate (baseball and then football) to least (hockey, basketball, football).  Ultimate is between football and basketball, as the defense and offense (the most competitive teams will often have one line that is more chock full of defenders since they start the point on defense and another full of offensive players if they are receiving the "pull" to start the point) are quite clear but also quite temporary.  Possession by one side can last quite a while (more than the 24 second clock in basketball) or quite short.  On any play, a turnover may occur in ultimate.  In football, unless the turnover immediately produces a score, new folks come onto the field--the offense.  In ultimate, after a turnover, the defenders become offense, just like in basketball, soccer, and hockey.  Scoring in ultimate is much higher than in any other of the sports discussed here except basketball--most games end when one team scores eleven, thirteen, or fifteen points.  The indoor league version is much faster on a shorter field with slightly different rules with much higher scoring.  But, on the other hand, it is like football in that the team that turns the disk over less wins. 

Is defense equally valued as offense in ultimate?  I guess that depends on who is doing the valuing.  My first cut at this is that I feel most excited/enthused/jazzed after making a great defensive play than making a great offensive play.  That may be due to my own limitations--my strengths are on offense, not defense, so making a big defensive play is going to be rare for me and thus more valuable.  When I spectate, I think I admire both offense and defense--that whoever lays out (dives) or has big ups (jumps) or displays a smart choice gets my attention, not just if it is done by the offense or defense. 

Of course, I should emphasize offense more because that makes me more valuable.  I have good throws and can see the field pretty well.   My decision-making is good but not as strong as it could be.  Defense requires more work, more concentration, more athleticism (speed and jumping) and these are not my strengths and never have been.  I can hustle for a short distance--diving for the disk, but hustling on defense for an entire game?   Um, not so much.  Of course, I'd like to think the greatest skill in ultimate is knowing oneself and what one can and cannot do.  Hence my preoccupation with offense.

Like the offense/defense debate in IR, this debate in sports will not be won anytime soon.

*  Of course, ultimate has yet to become a major televised sport.  I guess it needs to be an Olympic sport first to get some TV time.  It is certainly international enough to count, but American dominance (as displayed in the recent World Championships suggests that Olympic status may not happen soon).

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