Sports Arena

Tie Breaking

Man's ingeniousness on the playing fields of life.

By 6.30.11

On June 21, in a first round of tennis at Wimbledon, American John Isner beat Frenchman Nicolas Mahut 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 7-6 (8-6) in two hours. (In tennis, the scores in parenthesis denote the single points, rather than games, in the tie-breaking game.) The result and length of their match is only remarkable in light of the match these same players played last year at Wimbledon, the longest in singles tennis history at 11 hours, 5 minutes.

Their 2010 match began on June 22 at 6:13 p.m. local time. It was tied two sets all (Isner: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3)) at 9:07 p.m. when the match was suspended due to darkness. Play resumed on the following day at 2:05 p.m. for the fifth, and final (best-of-five), set. Play continued past 5:45 p.m., the previous mark for the longest time, until darkness forced another suspension at 9:10 p.m. By that point, they were well into the fifth set, a set that, by Wimbledon rules, could only end when one player had achieved a two-game advantage. They were at 59-all. Play continued the next day at 3:43 p.m. and ended at 4:48 with a score of 70-68 in favor of Isner. In addition to longest match in tennis history, Isner and Mahut had had the longest set (the fifth, for 8 hours, 11 minutes), most games in a set (138 in the fifth), most games in a match (183), and still more records.

It had been a long five-set match in 1969 that caused Wimbledon to adopt, in 1971, a tie-break system (the "seven point tiebreak" with which we are familiar) when any set (other than the fifth) was 8-8. (In 1979, the tiebreak was trigged to when any set [other than the fifth] was 6-6.) That 1969 match had pitted Pancho Gonzales with Charlie Pasarell. It took five hours, 12 minutes, over two days: 22--24, 1--6, 16--14, 6--3, 11--9.

Whether the tennis matches are played under the traditional tie-breaking system of winning a set by two games, or under the seven point tiebreak system, the players play the customary tennis. The game isn't changed, for example, by having the players serve closer to the net or prohibiting a second serve.

How do other sports handle ties?

First, there are the sports that, we could say, prevent ties. They do it with videotapes and cameras and clocks. These are the sports in which the fastest wins. These are races, not games: swimming, rowing, running, horse racing, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, luge, bobsled, cycling. Consider when Michael Phelps won his seventh gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in the 100-meter butterfly by touching a pad 0.01 seconds before Serbian Milorad Cavic. The Serbian protest forced officials to review a tape that showed ten-thousandths of seconds. Cameras at the 2008 Olympics could take 3,000 frames per second

As to games, there are two principal ways to break ties. Some sports use "sudden death" -- the game is over when the first team wins a point during an extension of playing time. Some sports use successive periods period of play -- measured by minutes or by offensive possessions. And typically there's a mix of the two with the periods of play preceding the sudden death.

The National Football League (NFL) adopted a sudden death overtime 15-minute period to break ties in regular season games in1974. If the tie is not broken at the end of this extra period, the tie remains. Ties cannot remain for championship or playoff contests, however. Thus, five NFL championship games have gone into a second overtime period.

In college football, Division I-A of the NCAA adopted a tie-breaking system in 1996 that had been used by other divisions. Each team gets a possession, starting from the 25-yard line of the opponent. The pair of possessions is called an overtime. If tied after one overtime period, each team gets another possession. (Sudden death can occur, though, if the defensive team scores.) The record is seven overtimes and Arkansas was in both games: Arkansas over Mississippi 58-56 on November 3, 2001, and Arkansas over Kentucky 71-63 on November 1, 2003.

In match play golf (where a player gets a point for each hole won), the players play extra holes, one hole after another. The first to have a lower score after a hole wins. For stroke play (where the lowest number of total strokes wins), the rules depend on the tournament. The PGA Championship has players play three holes, the Open Championship four, the U.S. Open 18 (if tied after 3, 4, and 18 holes, respectively, then sudden death is used). The Masters uses sudden death from the beginning of extended play.

Baseball and softball break ties with extra innings. There have been two games played for 25 innings to break a tie. (A game with the most innings, 26, ended in a tie in 1920.) One was a September 11, 1974, game won 4-3 by the St. Louis Cardinals over the New York Mets. The other was a May 8-9,1984 game won 7-6 by the Chicago White Sox over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Lacrosse employs successive four-minute sudden death overtime periods whereby the first team to score wins. The longest game in men's NCAA Division I lacrosse was a 10 to 9 win by Maryland over Virginia on March 28, 2009, in seven overtime periods.

Basketball employs successive 5-minute overtime periods. The record is six overtimes in a National Basketball Association (NBA) game -- the January 6, 1951, victory by the Indianapolis Olympians over the Rochester Royals. In college ball, the record is seven overtimes -- the December 21, 1981, victory by Cincinnati over Bradley. Oddly enough, the score of both games was 75-73.

Volleyball uses neither "sudden death" nor extra periods. Volleyball games are 25 points and must be won by two points. To avoid any game becoming a "forever" game, leagues often state a cap over the 25, such that the first team to reach the cap wins.

Some sports employ shoot-outs, the method least satisfactory to coaches, players and fans.

Hockey used to employ 20-minute overtime periods until the tie was broken. The National Hockey League (NHL) game with the most such overtime periods was March 23, 1936, when the Detroit Red Wings beat the Montreal Maroons in six overtimes. This form of tie-breaking continues to be the rule for championship games. For regular season games, however, the American Hockey League adopted in 2000, and the NHL and other leagues adopted in 2001, the rule of a single five-minute overtime period using four players (plus goalie) rather than five (plus goalie) during the overtime and regular periods. (If, however, there is required to be a two-player advantage, it is played as 5-on-3 rather than 4-on-2.) If there remains a tie after this overtime period, the leagues employ successive rounds of shoot-outs using multiple players. In the NHL, if a tie persists after the first round of shoot-outs, the NHL uses a 1-by-1 shoot-out. There are special rules on whether goals during a shoot-out count for the goal-maker and against the goalie.

Team handball and water polo also use shoot-outs after overtime periods. Some field hockey games employ a successive reduction in the number of players on the field, called "drop-offs." Cricket and rugby both use shoot-outs in which the wicket, or goal, respectively, is not defended.

Soccer notably uses a shoot-out. First some history. In the 1860s, if a match was tied, officials would count "rouges," that is, shots on goal that were close. Later, soccer employed a one-game "playoff," or "replay." Replays are still used in some tournaments. In one instance, there were five replays. Soccer moved on to a drawing of lots.

Currently, while regular season games may end in a tie, championship games require some way to determine which team may advance. There are two successive 15-minute "extra time" overtime periods. (Both occur no matter the score.) If goals are made during these overtime periods, the goals count toward the score. A "penalty shootout" (or "kicks from the penalty mark") was adopted in 1970 if a tie persists after these overtime periods. There are rounds of five kicks, succeeded by rounds of one kick. The highest number of penalty kicks to break a tie, in a first class match, was 48, in a match between KK Palace and Civics, in the 2005 Namibian Cup. Goals made during the shootout do not count toward the match total, but serve only to identify the team that advances.

Obviously a shootout is like a drill rather than a game -- it demonstrates only limited abilities. About 10 years ago, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) tried alternative approaches to breaking a tie. One was to end the match as soon as a goal was scored in an overtime period. It is not called "sudden death" but "golden goal." Another alternative tried was granting the win to the team ahead at the end of the first overtime period, denominated a "silver goal." These alternative approaches were discontinued in 2004.

Still other alternatives have either been discussed or have been the subject of experimentation:

• counting most shots on goal;
• counting most corner kicks awarded;
• counting fewest cautions;
• removing players at progressive intervals (like hockey);
• allowing the attacker in the shootout 30 seconds to score against both the goalkeeper and a defender; and
• situating the attacker 35 yards from the goal (like hockey).

My, what a predicament! Imagine if the NBA debated whether to determine the winner of a tied basketball game by counting the most shots that hit the rim, the most free throws completed, the fewest number of team penalties, removing players progressively until it is one-on-one, or taking free throws from a specific place on the court. I have a different proposal. At least during overtime periods, soccer should suspend the off-side rule, allowing fast-break scoring against the unaided goalie.

This piece has been confined to an examination of rules governing the breaking of tied sports contests. There are related sets of rules governing the identity and number of teams to advance to tournaments, the seeding within tournaments, and the advancement within tournaments, especially where teams have identical records. Thus, there is the college football Bowl Championship Series (BCS) with its polls and its computers assessing many undefeated or once-defeated teams (about which there has been President Obama's declaration as well as discussion of congressional intervention!). And there are the numerous head-spinning possibilities constructed by the NFL, such as intra-conference and head-to-head play, in determining the identity of the teams for the playoffs. Of course, soccer has odd rules that do not reflect the range of athletic talent in the game of soccer. If soccer tournament play results in teams having identical records, the teams either draw lots or engage in a shoot-out. As bad as drawing lots is, consider the shoot-out in this context. The teams just show up at the O.K. Corral and have a shoot-out. Surely it would be entertaining and educational to review the rules adopted by the various sports as they strive to achieve justice and fairness in tournaments so that champions are deemed legitimate.

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About the Author
James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C. attorney.