The Blog

  • November 1, 2011
  • Socializing Sport

    Is it time to socialize sport?  That might seem like a strange question given the social nature of sport but in at least one area, sport is among the least socialized of human endeavors.

    Earlier today the Pac-12 fined USC coach Lane Kiffin $10,000 for criticising the officiating in Saturday’s USC-Stanford game in which USC lost in triple overtime.

    When Kiffin criticized the officiating the league did what leagues always do.  They curled up into a fetal position, cited their rules and issued a fine.  Conference commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement released late Monday, “The Pac-12 has specific rules that prohibit our coaches from making public comments about officiating, and this prohibition specifically includes comments that create doubts about the credibility of the conference’s officiating program.”  The error went untreated but the coach was disciplined.  It’s so childish.

    That just about ended it.  According to Kiffin the sides “agreed to disagree” and Kiffin is focusing on the next game with Colorado.

    The trajectory of this controversy, while predictable, misses quite a lot.  In the old days, prior to instant replay which was introduced at the Army-Navy game on December 7, 1963, the officials’ rulings on the field were final due to the fact that there was no real way to review anything and the officials as eyewitnesses with knowledge of the rules were best positioned to make calls.

    Instant replay changed everything.  You could say that it socialized sport or at least sports officiating.  With replay everyone became a witness and an official and the cloak of infallibility fell from striped shoulders.

    It helps no one when a league gets legalistic and fetal.  It simply shows that the league is behind the times and that it is offering a sub-par customer experience.  You might blanch at calling sport a customer experience but what else is it?  Fans pay for sport as a product through seat purchases and by watching hours of inane ads for things we’d probably buy anyhow like beer, trucks, tires and the like.  Fans pay and they are not getting what they pay for.

    How to improve?  Glad you asked.

    Let’s assume that nobody is perfect and that even great officials will get a call wrong now and then.  A few years ago, Major League Baseball, tired of criticism of the uneven umpiring over balls and strikes, installed cameras, radar and computers to monitor balls and strikes.  To no one’s surprise, strike zones were indeed variably high, low and wide.  But by installing the equipment and educating umpires, the strike zone became more uniform because the umpires improved.  It’s a great success story.

    Another success is the NFL’s use of instant replay to review some calls.  Numerous calls have been reviewed and some changed over the last few years due to review of the evidence by officials.

    Replay works and it ought to be implemented at the college level and higher.

    Now, here’s an important point.  Sometimes you can’t review a play and the ruling stands and sometimes the ruling is bone headed.  In those cases, especially if evidence presented after the fact confirms a blown call, leagues have to get used to doing the customer friendly thing.  They have to admit the mistake and say they are sorry.  It doesn’t mean the outcome of a game has to be changed but it does show respect for the customer and a focus on the customer experience that is lacking in most of sport right now.  Customers simply want validation.  Is that too much to ask?

    If you are a league, that’s not as horrible as you might think.  It doesn’t call into question the capabilities or sincerity or honesty of your officials, it simply means they goofed.

    To drive that point home, it’s time for leagues at the college level and above to publish scorecards on their officials and, if the officials travel and work together, the scorecards should reflect an aggregate score for the group.

    As soon as you do this you can set up metrics for reliability.  We’re not perfect but let’s say we expect that the right call will be made 95% of the time or 98% of the time, pick a number, it almost doesn’t matter.  Officials or groups of them that don’t make the metric would be re-educated, put on probation, dismissed or sent to Pawtucket.

    This opens another can of snakes, namely the way officials are paid.  Let’s just say too many do it for the love of the game and that’s wrong given all the money in sports.

    This may not be a perfect system either but it gets us off the dime and away from the hierarchical and paternalistic approach of going fetal and citing your holy rules.  It also makes an attempt at improving the customer experience which is sorely deficient today.  Sport would be smart to do this too.  Look at demographics and you’ll notice that people under 30 — those digital natives — have for many years been embracing sports that are more participatory and that lack the judgmentalism of big business sports.  Something to think about.

    Published: 12 years ago

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