Word History

Why Do We Say Teams Get a 'Bye'?

Why are they leaving? Where are they going?

What to Know

In sports, bye refers to a team automatically advancing to the next round of tournament play without competing and bye week refers to a scheduled off week for a given team. The term is not related to goodbye but is instead believed to be an alteration of by, as in the team is "standing by" to play later, or "bypassed" while other teams play. One early sport to feature a bye is coursing; the b-y-e spelling is likely influenced by an existing term from cricket in which a wicket-keeper misses a ball.

man-watching-football-at-home

The bye week, featuring professional armchair quarterbacks

Many people might see the word bye and interpret it as a shortened form of the common farewell goodbye. We see it rendered this way in print sometimes as well:

Alexander, however, jumped up and grabbed his backpack. "I gotta show Mom all the little buggies. Bye, Charlie." He saluted my brother. "See you later, Bug Man."
— Pam Zollman, Don’t Bug Me!, 2001

Use of 'Bye' in Sports

Bye is also found in a couple of different uses pertaining to sports and the scheduling of tournaments.

In the National Football League, for example, each team is scheduled to have one week near the middle of the season where they do not play a game. That week is termed a bye week.

With backup Brad Johnson at quarterback, there's a hold-the-fort mentality until starter Tony Romo returns from a broken right pinkie, which has caused him to miss two games and will probably keep him on the shelf until Nov. 16, after the Cowboys' bye week.
— Peter King, Sports Illustrated, 3 Nov. 2008

In some tournament formats, certain participants (usually those that have already won a specified number of games) are automatically advanced to a further round of play (a semifinal round, perhaps) without needing to play the round (in this case, the quarterfinal round) that other teams would have to play and win to qualify for that further round. It is said that those participants that automatically advance earn a bye for that skipped round. Sometimes this occurs due to the fact of there being an odd number of competitors, thereby leaving at least one without an opponent.

Ask him about this season, the best of his nine-year career, and he says "we" and "my teammates" so often, you'd think any Joe with funky facial hair could QB the Broncos to a first-round playoff bye.
— Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine, 16 Jan. 2006

The men were drawn to play as follows: Butler against Ostrander, Turnbull against Johnson, while Warfield drew a bye.
Hamilton Literary Magazine (Hamilton College, N.Y.), June 1896

Is 'Bye' Short for 'Goodbye'?

How did we arrive at bye for a word to refer to these instances when a competitor is not scheduled an opponent?

It has nothing to do with farewells (even though one might think of participants getting a bye as departing from the field for a moment). Rather, the sporting sense of bye is believed to be an alteration of the preposition by. The connection here is that one who sits out a round is “standing by” or is being “bypassed” while others play their rounds.

So how did the spelling bye come to be preferred for such instances?

According to citations dating from the 1840s, one of the first sports on record to make use of something called a bye is coursing (the pursuit of running game with dogs that follow by sight instead of by scent). A dog that ran a bye would run its course even though it did not have a designated opponent, often due to there being an odd number of competitors. The odd dog would be required to run, however, so as to ensure it ran the same number of races as the other competitors in the field--and, presumably, so that it would not later have the advantage of fresh legs.

By that time, the spelling bye already had its own sporting use in the game of cricket. In that game, it referred not to one scheduled without an opponent, but a run scored on a ball that is missed by the wicket-keeper.

Given that news writers tasked with covering one sport (cricket) might have also been assigned to cover other sports (such as coursing), it is not hard to imagine why they would have preferred the spelling that was already familiar from cricket. So now we have byes and bye weeks for all sorts of sports and games.

And now, until next time, we bid you farewell.



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