Mar 6·edited Mar 6

Wow, what a great guest post. I have beat up on previous guest posts, but please keep these kinds of guest posts coming! It was opinionated, and backed up those opinions with robust argumentation, while leaving plenty of room for disagreement in the comments.

Speaking of disagreements, the sports czar idea is terrible. Whatever theoretical improvement might come of it, would pale next to the downside of turning yet another major aspect of society into a partisan political fest. You'd add "preferred sports rules" to the already huge basket of opinions that come bundled with political identity. It's already hard to be pro-gun and pro-market but also pro-choice and pro-immigration, for example. Now I have to choose who to piss off by being pro-Elam? [Edit! I accidentally wrote I was pro life. My actual position is that all aspects of pregnancy should be under the pregnant person's control.)

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Soccer really needs power plays. It's insane that basically every competitive game gets decided by the refs.

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The NHL made a number of rule changes in the past 25 years to increase watchability, most notably the elimination of the two-line pass rule (which prevented a player in their defensive zone from directly passing to a teammate on the other side of center ice). College hockey never had a two-line pass rule, and it was well-understood that college hockey was a more wide-open game and, specifically, included tons of breakaways. The result in the NHL was pretty immediate---just a much more wide-open game that *feels* faster to fans. All this despite the fact that overall scoring has *dropped* since the two-line pass rule was abandoned (largely for other reasons, such as improved goalie play).

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Soccer games tied at the end of regular time should not be settled by penalty kicks.

The penalty kicks are too much like coin-tosses -- they are very inaccurate reflections of the merits of the respective teams.

I'm not a serious soccer fan, so most of you are better informed about this than I am. But as a casual fan -- i.e., the kind that the soccer world needs to convert in order to grow in the US -- I have to say that games ending in penalty kicks are very annoying. And this is compounded by the likelihood of ties, given the generally low scores.

Maybe do something about the low scores, too. But at least find a different way to resolve ties.

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In general I agree innovation in sports is good and the lack of competition limits the rate at which major leagues tweak their rules. But I think this post dramatically undersells the amount of rule change in the NFL and NBA in recent decades to make the game product more appealing (and, in the NFL’s case, safer). They perhaps haven’t made a “big bang” like the introduction of the 3 point line but the cumulative effect of incremental changes has been dramatic. To wit:

The NFL has dramatically increased the importance of the passing game through rules protecting the quarterback, limiting defensive contact with receivers, and reducing when and how defenders can hit offensive players. It also introduced the 2 point conversion in the mid 90s then changes the PAT rules to make the 1 pointer less appealing.

The NBA’s introduction (or renewed enforcement) of the hand check rule in the mid 2000s dramatically increased the importance of offensive guard play. They have also adjusted rules around illegal defense, take fouls, and time permitted to bring the ball up court. Of course they also have made myriad changes to the draft lottery, playoff seedings, and now the play-in tournament to incentivize regular season performance.

Baseball was largely the exception until now, which is why these changes (especially pitch clock and shift banning) seem long overdue. They did introduce the zombie extra inning runner and universal DH in recent years, plus the ever-expanding wild card and inter league play.

It almost goes without saying that the tension is that sports leagues rely on history and tradition to build their narratives and sustain their fan base so there is a natural conservatism against major rule tweaks, so they typically occur more frequently only when the product on the field is clearly suffering (as baseball is now, or your 1990 soccer example). I don’t think the NFL or NBA really have that problem right now, in part because of the continual tweaking they do.

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The NBA has been using the Elam ending for the All-Star Game. It's reportedly being considered for next year. OT games are fun to talk about but they can get ugly as players fatigue and foul out.

For baseball there are a few implemented innovations that I'd consider fan-friendly. 1) Universal DH. I love to see good-hitting pitchers (I'm glad they added the Ohtani exception) but the development and risk of injury turned the 9 spot into an offensive sinkhole. I'm a NL guy but think this was a good change. 2) Banning the shift. We'll see how this goes but it might encourage less "three true outcome" strategy. Could prolong games, though. 3) More interleague play. EVERY team will play a series at your stadium once every 2 years (alternating home and away). All part of MLB finally erasing the NL/AL divide (it's about time though I really am a NL traditionalist at heart). 4) Making relief pitchers face 3 batters. LaRussa is a great manager but his endless parade of relievers strategy dragged the game on forever.

For all the gnashing of teeth by traditionalists who threaten to stop watching, they're the least likely to actually tune out. They're the "base voters" of the sports world. It's nice to see the leagues actually target "swing voters," especially since it spurs innovation. And there's your Slow Boring tie-in.

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> 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.

Even if you’re not much of a sports fan, I highly recommend reading the linked article by Ben Thompson, “What the NBA Can Learn From Formula 1”, https://stratechery.com/2023/what-the-nba-can-learn-from-formula-1/

It’s a highly informative and entertaining piece about the history of the sports media business and the current challenges faced by every US sports franchise outside of the NFL, particularly the NBA. These leagues are ultimately victims of the broader disruptions in the media ecosystem as cord cutters are ditching cable for streaming services. The sports leagues, and their intermediaries like the regional sports networks had a great deal with the cable bundle and it’s not clear how they’ll survive without it.

Of particular concern is slow decline in viewership of these sports, and that will only accelerate due the failure to cultivate fandom among younger cohorts. Cable used to serve as something of a gateway drug that made it easy for anyone to become a casual fan, and for many of those to become diehard fans. With the younger generations ditching cable for streaming, that opportunity is lost.

Thompson contrasts that against the massive success of Formula 1 to grow a new fandom, including through the Netflix series “Drive to Survive”. The show is apparently part documentary and part reality TV (I’ve never seen it), and also highly accessible to non-fans since it’s on Netflix. Many attribute this series to the growing fandom of Formula 1. Thompson says that other sports franchises need to similarly adapt to the changing media ecosystem in order to nurture a new generation of fans.

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The Elam Ending is NOT an improvement. It completely eliminates buzzer beaters and overtime. Last night the Knicks and Celtics played a 2 OT thriller. Last week the Kings and Clippers played a 2 OT game that was the second highest scoring game in NBA history!

The problem it proports to solve is eliminating late fouling; however, this can be remedied by giving the team being fouled the option of shooting free throws or taking possession with a fresh shot clock (yes, there are issues with this as well, but there are other ways to solve this that don't involve such a dramatic change to the game). But most importantly, by eliminating the clock at the end of games, the sense of urgency in a comeback is completely gone. It's actually quite exciting to watch a team try to execute a play with a limited amount of time on the clock!

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I'm of two minds about the new pitch clock. I think it'll be very beneficial 96, 97, 98% of the time. Speeding up the game is good.

On the other hand, when I think of my favorite moments of all time, the moments with the highest drama, those moments have often played out with excruciating slowness, and the drama was magnified not in spite of that slowness but because of it. The cat and mouse battle between batter and pitcher and so on. In situations like that the delays magnify the tension for the very reason of being so frustrating.

Baseball has two modes. Most of the time, particularly in the regular season, it's supposed to be leisurely and chilled out, something you and your kids can watch together while eating hot dogs and enjoying the weather. But at its biggest moments it transforms into a high-wire suspense movie, where the whole world seems to slow down, and the pressure ratchets up with every pitch until there's a massive payoff or a massive letdown, depending on which team you're rooting for. Baseball's drama is different in kind from the drama you get in basketball or football, which are *not* suspense movies, but rather action movies.

I fear that blanket application of the pitch clock will detract greatly from the greatest moments baseball has to offer. I can't imagine putting, say, the Kirk Gibson homer or the Jose Bautista grand slam inning on a clock. It seems like baseball is really focused on turning itself from a bad action movie into a mediocre action movie, but may sacrifice the suspense that makes it most special.

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Watching the last quarter of the Super Bowl reminded me why I can’t be bothered to watch football anymore. The rules-lawyering, pettifogging bitchiness surrounding everything, but most especially clock management, is just miserable.

I’m in Philly of course, and no one likes to lose, but my firm also has an office in eastern Nebraska, and none of the folks out there were particularly happy with how KC won either.

Start the game clock and run it unless sometime is at risk of dying on the field. Miss the play clock? Turnover on the spot.

Make Football Great Again!

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As for baseball (besides soccer, probably the sport most in need of a kick in the pants), by all means yes to the pitch clock. But if you're talking about pace of play, limiting the number of pitchers on the roster would force starting pitchers to stay in games longer and thus generate more offense late in games. The rise of the bullpen ("LaRussa Ball") has not coincidentally been correlated with Three True Outcomes hitters.

Banning the shift -- eh, you know, have batters learn to hit the other way (like Big Papi, poke a double down the left field line occasionally to keep them honest). Bigger bases, whatever. The extra inning ghost runner -- do these guys even like baseball??? Again, get rid of all the pitcher bloat and you don't need to pull crap like this.

Oh and fix the playoff format!!! 162 games is more than enough to figure out who the best teams are... you don't need a 5th or a 6th place team in there (basically an admission that the playoff titles are meaningless).

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My brother is a huge soccer fan and has slowly but surely gotten me into the Premier League and Champions League. One thing we squabble about all the time is the utility of the offsides rule in different parts of the pitch. The hill I'll die on is that getting rid of offsides inside the 18-yard box would juice scoring without changing too much about the fundamental's of the game. (This was especially inspired by Mbappe's disallowed goal against Bayern.) My take is that you'd essentially turn the 18' into a basketball half-court, where you can pass the ball wherever you like, but space is constrained and the boundaries work as extra defenders.

My brother insists that offsides is necessary all over the pitch, but he usually falls back on platitudes about the "integrity of the game," and I'm inclined to believe that those kinds of arguments are usually wrong.

Die-hard soccer fans: what's wrong with my idea?

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Not for nothing, I suppose I’ll save this for the mailbox: why *has* Google gotten so much worse? It really, really has.

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Pretending to be hurt in order to draw a yellow card is probably the most ridiculous spectacle in any major sport. There should be a rule that any player who is play-acting, writhing around in faux-pain on the ground gets the absurd yellow card on the opposing player who tapped him on his shin, but then has to sit out for 20 minutes.

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As an NBA fan, the meaninglessness of many regular season games, due to understandably needing to rest star players in a bloated regular season, is a much bigger problem than fouling at the end of games. The Elam ending is interesting, but it does eliminate what is truly the most exciting moment in a basketball game--the buzzer beater.

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Soccer needs to abolish the offsides rule. The fact that some of the most exciting plays are frequently called back because the player had half his body past the defender a split second too soon is a travesty. And defenses aren't incentivized to play actual defense- they're trained to create a line and rush forwards to try and catch the offense in a rules violation. Diehard soccer fans have calcified around the current game as if it's sacrosanct and can't be touched, but their objections to the change are short sighted. They always claim that the game will devolve into a bunch of players cherry picking and the teams punting the ball back and forth. This demonstrates a failure of imagination, where we assume that changing one thing won't lead to other adaptations. If you got rid of the offsides rules then sure, offensive players might leak further forwards, but it's not like the other team will just throw its hands up in despair- they'll adjust by keeping defenders back to actually guard the offense. This creates more spacing on the pitch, which naturally opens up the game to more skill players and enhances the flow of the game. Other objections to the rules changes have equally obvious counter-adjustments available to teams that make the change clearly beneficial to both teams and viewers.

Abolish offsides.

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