I’m a big fan of Royce Webb. Recently at TrueHoop he wrote a piece about ending intentional fouls. He asked a big list of yes or no questions about intentional fouls and the conclusion is that they aren’t good for basketball. In terms of the health concerns, I have no disagreements. Increasing the odds of injuries and concussions is just bad for everyone. However, some of the questions were around if fans enjoyed or wanted intentional fouls. And this a specific type of thinking I want to address.
What we say does not always line up with what we actually do!
There are a few fun examples. Dave Berri has recently pointed out that wealthy people have said that increased taxes will reduce their spending or investing. We’ve also heard people claim that higher taxes will cause them to leave. Neither of these seem to be true! There are more trivial examples too!
In the book Freakonomics they discussed speed dating. People were asked to list the type of person they wanted. The advantage we had is that we could compare this to the type of person they actually asked out on a date. Did these line up? Of course not!
We also see this all the time in sports. Ask fans what they want and they will say ‘a dynamic scorer who is exciting to watch’. But when we examine what actually causes fans to go to the game, fans want a winner! In 2004 most casual fans would have said they preferred Allen Iverson over Ben Wallace* But many more fans showed up on a nightly basis to watch the Pistons on their route to a finals.
Even on the issue of hard fouls. A very interesting recent post by Henry Abbott brings up that the “no layups!” gritty kind of play came about from the “Bad Boy Pistons” and Pat Riley bringing that style of play to New York (as with everything basketball related, the original research was by Dean Oliver). And if we look at the Knicks from 1992, when Pat Riley started, through 2001, the Knicks had top five defenses all of those years. And they also had great attendances. When Isiah Thomas came to town and brought lots of high-profile scorers and started racking up losses is when the fans stopped watching.
A related tangent
One thing I notice that comes up in the discussion about fouls is the idea that fans hate game stoppages. This is true, fans will complain about this. However, it turns out that interruptions can increase our enjoyment of things! You see, we adapt to our environments. So as we get used to something, it has less of an impact (good or bad) on us. So when doing something unenjoyable, like our taxes, the best strategy is actually to power through. When doing something we like, such as watching a good movie, the best strategy is to take breaks!
Ask a fan if they find timeouts during a close game annoying and they’ll probably say yes. Given that fans like winning and interruptions can increase enjoyment, it’s possible that the current timeout situation is actually making the end of games better for fans.
I want to be clear that I am not defending hard fouls. As we point out a lot here, injuries matter and are something that should be taken seriously. However, if the argument we are using is that we should remove parts of the game because “fans say they don’t like it”, we should be careful. What fans say and what they pay for and show up to watch are different problems, and we need to be sure not to confuse these.