Do we need uncertainty in Sport?

‘Doubt and unpredictability are part of the aesthetics of sport.’ So says Andrew Blake, author of The Body Language: Meaning of Modern Sport.

He has a point. Part of the beauty of sport, the reason we switch on our TVs and spend our hard earned cash is uncertainty of outcome. It’s a hugely researched topic within sports academia and something I spent some time looking into during my own studies a few years ago.

But do we actually like it?

Formula One over the last few years has lost a large part of its uncertainty of outcome, firstly with the dominance of Red Bull (2010-2013) and latterly Mercedes (2014-present).

It’s caused fans to switch off in their droves, its caused swathes of sponsors to exit the sport (along with the global financial crisis) and it’s caused the rule makers to rewrite the regulations in an attempt to create more level playing field, and thus more uncertainty.

Formula One is a sport that largely relies on unpredictability for the neutral fan. It doesn’t evoke passionate team followings like football and rugby. Sure the tifosi will always demand a Ferrari victory and patriotic fans will want their countrymen to succeed, but the neutral wants an unpredictable contest.

The Premier League, in all its multi-billion pound glory, remains one of the most unpredictable top league in Europe. Whilst the same cream rises to the top in most seasons, on any given day, the Bournemouths, the Hull Citys and the Norwichs can go to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge and win more often than minnows in other leagues.

The FA Cup’s enduring appeal is that unique, albeit uncommon, occurrence of the giant killing. We watch hoping it can and does happen.

You contrast this with athletics.

Usain Bolt, winner of three Olympic 100 and 200 metre gold medals, pretty much eliminates any uncertainty from his races.

We watch to see a sportsperson at the peak of his powers and we want him to win. We seem not to care that we know the result.

When Usain Bolt doesn’t contest in Tokyo 2020 and a number of athletes enter the final with a chance, will we get so excited?

So what’s the difference?

The Grand National would be pretty boring every year if the favourite always won.

Men’s tennis too has been dominated in recent years by four players, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

We relish the contests between any of these two in major finals, ignoring the inevitable victories for them along the way. Seeing two of the best exponents ever in their sport slugging it out is what appeals in men’s tennis, even if it removes any factor of an underdog.

At the Olympics, fans were robbed of the chance to see Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic renew their rivalry in the final with the World Number One making a teary exit in the first round.

British fans may have let out a wry smile that Murray’s path to eventual gold became easier, but would they have preferred to see Djokovic in the final? Would the sport have been better off too?

Were organisers and fans delighted to see Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori contesting the 2014 US Open final?

Moving back to Formula One, is it not right to see teams that have perfected their craft and produced immense technological machines being rewarded accordingly with race victories and the riches that come with it? If you make a sport too uncertain, is there any incentive to enter?

In the same way that Usain Bolt has perfected his body and technique to run faster than anybody else, so too have Mercedes engineers in creating a fast car. Is there a difference?

When we reflect historically on sport and talk about a ‘golden age’, we often think of periods of dominance between a select few rather than an era when anybody could win.

Nicklaus, Palmer, Player in golf. McEnroe, Connors, Borg in tennis. Limited players hold monopolies and it’s revered.

Will the current SuperLeague season be remembered as a classic with any one of six teams in the frame for the title? Will last season’s Premier League, the most unpredictable since its inception in the early nineties, be recalled fondly in the years to come?

Predictability can be mistaken for being boring.

Sometimes sport needs the best being the best.