After a scoreless game against Duke in 1953, Navy football coach Eddie Erdelatz said, “A tie is like kissing your sister.” Now, if Jerry Springer has taught me anything, it is that Americans are the experts in the latter, but the former, the noble draw (British for “tie”), is notable in its absence from any of America’s favorite pastimes.
In the MLB, games can only be tied due to weather or failing daylight, and even then will be continued later to ensure there is a winner. Basketball is similarly averse to draws, and technically as many overtimes as necessary will be played until one team can leave victorious. Sudden death overtime was added to the NFL in 1974 to solve, though not entirely prevent, the problem of ties, and a hockey game can go to a penalty shootout to break the deadlock.
On the other side of the pond, the art of tying a game is alive and well in my cherished sport of soccer. Last Saturday, there were 11 draws out of 40 games played in the top four tiers of the English league.
Now, soccer has a bad reputation over here as being a sport of boring 0-0 draws, and I’ll admit to having paid good money to witness a few in my lifetime, but just one of those games last weekend finished goalless. And a crucial point was salvaged from these ties, a point that for several clubs could well be the difference between survival and relegation now that we are at the business end of the season.
However, draws in soccer are just the tip of the iceberg. There is another sport where ties are taken to a completely different level: cricket.
A traditional international “test match” in cricket consists of two innings played over five days. A strong performance by one side in the first innings can often make the game effectively unwinnable for the other team, even with three days still remaining. There is then just one option left for the losing side: to stand its ground and play for the tie.
Hour upon hour this team will attempt to bat out the game, resisting volley after volley from the bowlers and holding its nerve from sunup to sundown. When the dust settles and tired fans shuffle out of the ground to start their long journeys home, they may well do so knowing they witnessed a special moment in sport. An epic tie.
If a match ends with two teams level on points, this single statistic doesn’t mean it was a dull and dreary affair. And the opposite is equally true: a win doesn’t guarantee it was a great game.
Blowouts aren’t particularly thrilling; what most people want are exciting, close games, because live sport is really about entertainment. And those are exactly the sorts of matches that naturally lead to the two teams being tied at the end of regulation.
Whether it was a great game or an awful one that ends level at full-time, forcing the teams to continue from this point on is never a great way out. If you just spent 90 minutes of your life watching the sporting equivalent of paint drying, you will surely not be excited about the prospect of extra time, but even if it was a thrill-a-minute ride, some essential things are lost by extending the game: upsets and unpredictability. Statistically, the big teams will always have an advantage the more minutes are played — that’s why they are the big teams. The blood, sweat and tears expended by the little guy that kept them honest will come to nothing.
In a knockout tournament, you need a definite winner and loser, but when playing in a league format, it is the number of points a team can accrue by season’s end that matters. Automatically, the idea of a tie is not just compatible with this sort of competition; it can be crucial for the minnows in the league, the eternal underdogs. Hoping to defeat one of the biggest and richest teams in the world at their own ground seems almost futile, but sneaking away with a draw might just be possible.
These are the sorts of contests in which heroes are made. When your team, an insignificant club in the pantheon of world sport, travels right into the heart of the lion’s den and scrapes a tie against international superstars through solid teamwork, good tactics and a hefty dose of luck.
In the end though, however passionate I might feel about the thrill of a hard-fought tie, I might not be able to win this one, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps the draw feels as alien to an American sports fan as the game-ending buzzer or infinite substitutions do to me.
But please, when fate and the rules still manage to conspire to produce that elusive result, before feeling annoyed that you spent your hard-earned cash to watch a tie, pause for a moment and give the teams their dues. Maybe it was a boring, terrible spectacle, or maybe, just maybe, it was a legendary battle, the sort of game where no one deserves to walk away the loser.