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Suspense and Sports Television

The prolific sports scholar Allen Guttmann suggests that the careful recording of stats is one of several defining characteristics of modern sports. The widespread interest in player stats suggests that certain types of sports fans are interested in comparing the on-field achievements of athletes just as much as they are in the individual achievements themselves.

But when it comes to watching games, we are only interested in who wins and loses, according to recent research by a trio of economists. In their summary of a longer paper, William Chan, Pascal Courty and Hao Li argue that spectators are ultimately driven by their need for suspense.

"Our research analyses spectators' demand for drama and investigates whether such demand could explain the use of rank order schemes in sports. We hypothesise that spectators enjoy 'suspense' in a game — rather than caring about players' efforts per se, spectators derive greater entertainment value from contestants' efforts when the match is on the line. This definition of suspense is different from a pure 'taste for uncertainty' or a pure 'taste for effort.' Suspense combines these two components, both of which have been shown to influence the demand for sport events, by assuming a complementary relationship. Spectators at sports events get the most entertainment from players' efforts when the game is close and the outcome still uncertain."

The coverage of the final round of the Masters this past Sunday suggests that CBS Sports understands the key insight of this research. But they also understand that suspense, along with star power and some nifty shot-making, makes for must-see sports TV.

It is customary that a live golf television broadcast follows the final pairing on Sunday and shows their play live, interspersed with other players from tape. (See Richard Sandomir's fascinating discussion of this in The New York Times.) This is where the suspense of the game lays on a Sunday afternoon. Can the leaders hang on? Which of the leaders will win?

But if you watched the final round of the Masters on TV, you saw very little of the leaders — Kenny Perry, Angel Cabrera, Chad Campbell — for much of the day, and a lot more of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. The reasons why are obvious. The two were making an improbable charge up the leaderboard, adding to the suspense of the game.  But in addition, people tune in to watch Tiger and Phil, particularly when they are playing well together. Even if the suspense of the birdies the two were piling up was absent, I think CBS would have stuck with them for much of the day. When it comes to Tiger and Phil, TV ratings trump suspense. But CBS didn't have to make that decision.

Interestingly enough, I suspect that when we look back to the 2009 Masters, we are as likely to remember the winner, Angel Cabrera, as much as we will compare the on-field achievements of Tiger and Phil, particularly Mickelson's dazzling 30 on the front nine, en route to a fifth-place finish.

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