Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The risks of pre-booking tickets for the RWC and strategic behaviour

Recent selections for the French team to take on New Zealand this weekend in a long-awaited rematch between Les Bleus and the All Blacks have led many to suggest that the French may be looking to lose the match to navigate their way through the finals matches via the 'easier' side of the draw. This has led many spectators (including those interviewed here) to complain that what was originally one of the glamour matches of the early stages of the tournament may now not live up to pre-tournament expectations.
This is part and parcel of the appeal of a sporting tournament. The Irish upset of Australia has turned some pre-tournament predictions a little askew (in terms of affecting the quarter- and semi-final draws) and now teams have to think strategically.
From a spectator's perspective, do we really want to see a tournament where the teams we expect to win actually win and we actually know who will win even before the tournament kicks off? What would be the point of going along? Spectators want uncertainty of outcome, according to a lot of economic research, but there is also some research to suggest that there are also people who expect their local team to win and they attend matches just to see this happen.
This game highlights the perils of pre-booking tickets. If you wanted to see both teams at full strength going at it hammer and tong, you'd have been a believer of the view that the stronger teams will always beat the weaker teams and that coming first in the pool was all that mattered. Also, you'd be of the view that you will always play your best team every time and give every game 110%. Of course, these beliefs are not unreasonable at all. This is the way many of us were brought up as children playing sport. But World Cups are strategic tournaments, and teams have to play strategically in order to get to the Final and hopefully win it.
If you were to ask the coaches of the All Blacks whether they'd be devastated if they lost this game, you'd probably get the same guarded answer that the French coach gave in his reply to the news piece. The reality is that the World Cup is a tournament that requires teams to pass through the group stages in as good a shape as they were when the tournament began (i.e. with little to no major injuries). If you have the chance to influence your position in the post-group stage due to upsets elsewhere, then you'd be silly not to consider it. I don't blame Marc Lievremont at all - if France wins, he'll look like a genius, and if France loses, well, they lost, but they may just end up on the 'easier' side of the draw come quarter-final time.
And all in this country know what happened in RWC 2007 in the quarter-finals.
Part of what motivates this post is an interesting chapter in the book Soccernomics by highly-regarded UK sports economist Stefan Szymanksi and his journalist colleague Simon Kuper. They present a top-notch analysis of the beautiful game, with fascinating insights. They also demonstrate that even though many expect the strongest teams to win the tournament, the law of probability suggests that it really can come down to performances on the day, and any team can win it. The fact that the All Blacks have only won the tournament once in its history despite consistently being ranked as the top or near top team in the world around the World Cup does lend weight to this theory.

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