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Pro sports leagues should be more open to change
Fans deserve a better experience
Today’s post is from Joel Wertheimer, a civil rights attorney and policy consultant. You can find him @wertwhile on Twitter. We hope you enjoy it!
Matt asked if I wanted to write something that readers of this website do not normally read. Matt likes basketball but doesn’t seem to blog about it much, so I thought I’d write something about sports at a general level, inspired by the NBA and soccer: Why, until baseball’s recent addition of the pitch clock, have the major leagues gotten more conservative about rule changes?
The rise of the three pointer
In 1969, the American Basketball Association, competing with the NBA, added the three point line.
George Mikan, the first commissioner of the ABA, was one of basketball’s first truly dominant big men. He saw the rule change as helpfully reducing the influence of low post players like himself. He argued the three point shot "would give the smaller player a chance to score and open up the defense to make the game more enjoyable for the fans."
He was right. For a variety of reasons, the ABA was unable to successfully compete head-to-head with the NBA. But two years after the two leagues merged, the three point line was added to the combined league. The rule change proved enormously popular, fundamentally changing the balance of power in basketball. The three point shot opened up the area around the hoop and helped to change the popularity of the sport forever.
While the three point line had an immediate impact on the game, it’s also had more of a slow impact over time with the number of attempted three pointers rising steadily over time. This goes to illustrate a fundamental point — changes in the rules change the game, but the game itself then continues changing as new generations of players grow up and bring new skills and new adaptations to the table.
Soccer’s back-pass rule
The 1990 World Cup was a boring, low-scoring disaster.
West Germany beat Argentina 1-0 in the finals. Both semi-final matches were 1-1 ties that went to penalty kicks. The quarterfinals featured two 1-0 victories and a 0-0 tie between Argentina and Yugoslavia — one of five 0-0 ties across the tournament. Not only was the 2.2 goals per match the lowest in World Cup history, but many of the goals that were scored happened in a handful of group stage blowouts like America’s 5-1 loss to Czechoslovakia or the Soviet Union defeating Cameroon 4-0.
FIFA responded in 1992 with two rule changes. One was to make a group stage victory worth three points rather than two, increasing teams’ incentives to play aggressively when games are tied.
The other was to create the “back-pass rule.”
Prior to the back-pass rule, defenders could pass the ball back to the goalkeeper, who could pick the ball up and punt it long. Or put it on the ground and pass it before receiving it back. This was the soccer of the famous Simpsons “holds it” bit:
Any time a defender felt pressure, they would pass it back to the goalkeeper who could, you know, use their hands. The backpass rule ended that. Balls deliberately passed back to the keeper now cannot be picked up. The keeper has to play the ball with their feet, something they were largely less talented at compared to outfield players. This makes offensive pressure more effective and speeds the game up. It’s still a low-scoring sport in the scheme of things, but hyper-conservative play is no longer rewarded.
The stasis era
These are not the only examples of major rule-changes, of course. Football was played for decades before the origin of the forward pass. But that was a long time ago, and I’ve wracked my brain and the internet trying to find a major rule change like those in the major American sports over the past 30 years — changes that fundamentally alter the play of the game purely for the purpose of watchability.
I hadn’t been able to find one before baseball’s advent of the pitch clock this year, which appears to be shortening games significantly. In fact, the lists that are populated by Google’s increasingly broken search function frequently refer to rules that have made their sports less watchable, like adding instant replay or expanding the playoffs (diluting the importance of the regular season).
Leagues have made small changes to increase the quality of offense: the NBA and NFL have made it easier to play offense, reducing the amount of contact that defenders can make with offensive players, increasing the speed and scoring in the game. Hockey reformed its offsides rules, increasing offense. Prior to this year, baseball had only fiddled with the ball so that there are more home runs. But there are big structural problems going to the watchability of basically every major sport, that fans largely agree are annoying. And yet major rules innovation is exceedingly rare. Imagine suggesting a change to the point value of a shot today!
In basketball, intentional fouling, particularly to extend the clock at the end of the game, makes what should be the most exciting part of the game a bore.
In baseball, data analysis has led to a game of strikeouts and home runs, with the ball in play just a fraction of the time it used to be. This transforms the game into a duel between the pitcher and the hitter that most fans in the stadium barely get to enjoy — rendering much of the strategic decision-making that makes baseball less visible to all but the most obsessive fans.
In the NBA, elite players rest as much as 25% of the regular season, which only matters for the ranking of teams in the playoffs, and the game is likely too intense to play 100 games a year. In soccer, every fan complains about lengthy VAR reviews or the unfairness of a penalty or a red card swinging a match, but nobody experiments with having a penalty box like in hockey or fundamentally changing penalty kicks.
There are rule changes that would improve the watchability of the product for fans, i.e. customers, that could presumably make the people who own the leagues more money. Basketball could institute the Elam ending, making basketball more like its pickup version, the best form of basketball. The rule gets rid of the clock at the end of games, setting a point total for both teams to try to obtain. In The Basketball Tournament where they have experimented with the Elam ending, at 4 minutes left in the 4th quarter, the clock is turned off, and a target score is set at eight more points than the winning team’s total. If the score were 115-107, the first team to 123 points would win. Fouling to extend the game instantly stops being rewarded, and the only way to win is to get defensive stops. Every game ends on a made basket. Fun!
Baseball has yet to do anything that will really increase the number of balls in play, although perhaps the sped up time between pitches will alter the game beyond speed. Soccer has had different forms of penalties, with Major League Soccer in the United States innovating before joining the rest of soccer in consistently granting an 80% chance at a goal for a minor infraction.
Change and competition
It’s notable that sports are always changing even when the rules stay the same. NBA teams shoot more and more three-pointers because players and coaches have learned over time that this is the optimal strategy for winning. Similarly, baseball has evolved to feature fewer and fewer balls hit into play as teams adapt to a consistent ruleset. The actual game, in other words, is always shifting due to the competitive pressure between the teams. It’s only natural that rules would change in response to shifting tactics, just as tactics change in response to shifting rules.
So why have leagues across the world become so resistant to rule changes that improve watchability?
For one, the sports leagues are raking in money on the existing fan base and product, despite degradations in the on field product. Major League Baseball, which everybody — including MLB itself — believes is a declining sport, had seen its revenues skyrocket over the past decade. Subscription services and local TV deals have allowed MLB to massively increase its revenues on a per viewer basis, extracting more money from its most loyal fans and growing revenue even while the sport becomes less popular.
There is also very little competition from start up leagues anymore. The ABA forced the NBA to innovate with the three point line. The American Football League and the NFL merged in 1970. The NFL has faced competitors (the USFL and the XFL) but none of them stuck. These are entrenched businesses with huge barriers to entry: stadia, TV deals, collective bargaining agreements, etc.
They compete with each other but rarely on the terms of the sport themselves. And they’ve become massive businesses. In the 1970s, the NBA was near bankruptcy. Now the least valuable franchises routinely sell for $1 billion or more. Wealthier people are more risk averse. And this combination of high wealth, and high expected future profits, means they will not take risks unless they fear the worst.
But perhaps the leagues will be forced to innovate in the coming years after decades of explosive revenue growth and relative stasis. The regional sports networks model is collapsing before our eyes, as cord cutting has led to lower revenues for cable networks that spent millions for the exclusive rights to broadcast games for local teams. If the regional sports network model, which had been a large share of revenues and depended on frequent games, dries up perhaps we will get increased innovation to improve watchability. The NBA could reduce games and make the regular season more exciting without giving up short term revenues.
Still, the leagues are concentrated industries, with large and growing revenues that led to stagnating products. Often, here, an antitrust specialist would pipe up and argue for increased competition. But in some respect the sports leagues now look something more like natural monopolies, where heavy regulation is necessary to ensure socially optimal outcomes. We may, in fact, need a sports czar, if current business woes are just a blip. Perhaps President Obama who frequently and sometimes successfully advocated for fans as President could serve in an ombudsman role. He can start with the Elam ending in basketball.