Monday, December 27, 2010

Bonus Points

The New York Times reports on Minnesota ice hockey leagues that award a bonus point in the standings for teams that have fewer than a designated number of penalty minutes in a game.
While this idea seems unlikely to catch on in higher levels of  hockey, bonus points can be earned in other ways in quite a few leagues in several sports.

Rugby union uses a bonus point system almost universally. In the World Cup, and just about every top level league, a win is worth 4 points, a draw 2, and a loss 0. Either team can pick up a bonus point by scoring four tries in the game. And the losing team can also get a point if it loses by less than seven. So a game could end with your team earning 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 points.
One important competition that does not use bonus points is the Six Nations. The reason reveals the psychological pitfall of bonus point systems. The Six Nations is a six-team single round robin. Imagine if one team, say England, won all five of its games, without ever scoring four tries in a game. It would finish with 20 points. Now what if France went 4-1, scoring four tries in each victory, and losing to England narrowly. It would finish with 21 points and take the title, even though England was unbeaten.

There's always the possibility in a bonus point system that one team will finish ahead of another with a better won-loss record. There's something that just feels funny about that, and it's probably why more sports and leagues haven't adopted bonus points.

The English County Cricket Championship has had numerous bonus point systems over its long history. Cricinfo has a summary for the curious that is astonishingly complete, though slightly out-of-date. Under the current system, teams can earn points for putting up big totals in either runs or wickets, but only in the first 110 overs of the first innings.
Australia's equivalent competition, the Sheffield Shield, uses a simpler system that awards two bonus points for leading after one innings - the halfway point of the match. Imagine the N.F.L. awarding a bonus to teams that lead at the half or baseball giving the fifth-inning leader a point.

The North American Soccer League was known for innovations, some more successful than others. One was bonus points. Teams got 6 points for a win, plus 1 point for each goal scored, win or lose, up to a maximum of three. In 1984, the league's last year, the Minnesota Strikers tied for the league's best record, but missed the four-team playoffs because of a low total of bonus points.

The main goal of all these bonus point systems is encouraging scoring, or more precisely, attacking play. It remains to be seen whether the idea of bonus points to encourage fair play will spread beyond Minnesota ice hockey.

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