Business Of Sports: Playing a long game can come up short

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 30, 2018 - December 06, 2018.
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Sixty-minute football, “moving” free-kicks; no lets and no advantage in tennis; mixed-gender relays in something called nitro athletics; pay-by-the-hole golf ... That is a sneak preview of the ideas currently doing the rounds to shorten and, above all, enliven major sports.

“It is too long — they are not watching it,” observed Astro’s head of sport Lee Choong Khay in a recent interview. He was not talking about a marathon, a round of golf or a five-day cricket test but a football match. Yes, the people’s game, the most popular sport in the world by far comprising two hardly interminable 45-minute halves.

But in these days of shrinking attention spans, Astro is one of many broadcasters to discover that, to a certain generation, even 90 minutes can seem like a life sentence. Lee added, “They are interested, yes, and they will watch highlights, follow a team and buy a shirt, but getting them to watch a whole game is difficult.”

Some sports are acutely aware of this, which is why they are experimenting with abridged versions. Most radical-sounding is the idea of hour-long football matches but, ironically, by cutting “dead time”, it would become longer than the 55-minute average actual playing time in a top-flight European game today. Maybe the millennials have a point.

Sports have always tinkered with their rules. But the basic tenets were guarded as zealously as religions with changes heralded by white smoke. Yes, the trainer may come on but only after the last rites had been given. Or so it seemed.

But now they are tripping over each other in their haste to alter the fundamentals. The slightest drop in viewing figures sees advertisers fleeing faster than rats off a sinking ship. So today’s undignified scramble to downsize looks very much like panic. Sports have heard the siren — and shuddered.

The most recent attempt to rearrange the deck chairs — and keep a share of the broadcasting dollar — came at the Next Gen tennis tournament in Milan early this month. Here, the full horrors or delights, depending on taste, of this new-fangled version were on display.

The court itself looked weird as there were no tramlines. There were no line judges either — adjudication was all electronic. John McEnroe’s infamous “You cannot be serious!” rant would have fallen on deaf ears.

“The purpose,” according to Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) president Chris Kermode, “was to see if the faster format can make tennis more appealing to a younger audience.” Ominously, the average tennis watcher is over 60 while the game’s Big Four of Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are all past 30.

The overall verdict — and this was a millennial view as all the players were under 21 — was positive although the serve clock, when deployed at the US Open, left the old hands aghast.

The first-to-four-games scoring system is designed to reduce the number of lower octane games at the start of sets, and made for a more intense spectacle. Sets flew by in barely 10 minutes.

Sudden-death deuce added a few revs but some saw shortening as a dumbing down as it gave the lesser players a better chance. But the most contentious innovation was towel racks that were designed to prevent players from frequently halting play, not to mention treating ball kids as personal slaves.

At least there were no more final sets like at Wimbledon in 2010 when it took 11 hours and three days before Nicolas Mahut finally threw in the towel against John Isner. The score was 68-70. Wimbledon has now agreed to bring in the tie-break at a wham-bam 12-12.

Explained Kermode, whose brainchild this is, “What is a concern is how we engage 20-somethings in the sport, and I just feel like we have to look ahead at what the sport could — and I stress could — look like. The challenge will be how you keep tennis as successful as it is now while adapting it for the next generation but not ruining it.”

Few sports are as steeped in history and tradition and it is still one of the most widely played and broadcast, too, with an industry value of US$6.06 billion last year. To fans and stakeholders, Kermode says, “The assurance that I want to give everybody is we will only be doing things if we think it is better. And that’s why this is a test.” Making it less cluttered may be one way to keep the love in tennis.

His approach is in marked contrast to football, which foisted its work-in-progress video assistant refereeing (VAR) system on to the last World Cup. But that overshadowed its more considered attempts at future-proofing. If VAR is destined to make games last even longer, proponents of cutting the “dead time” say this only makes the need for such changes even greater.

A raft of suggestions has already come from the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which is the guardian of the rules. Headliners include players being allowed to take a free-kick while the ball is moving, a player passing a free-kick to himself, a clock that stops every time the ball is out of play and no substitutions after 90 minutes.

Also crying out to be changed is when a substituted player leaves the field — at the nearest point rather than making the obligatory trudge to get the manager’s fist-pump/hug/glare depending on performance. Television need not be deprived of this eyeball-grabbing moment as it can still happen once he has circumnavigated the field.

Points could be docked from teams whose players mob the referee whose watch will be linked to a stadium clock that tells the crowd exactly how much time is left. Former Premier League referee David Elleray, who is technical director of IFAB, says the proposals amount to “a quiet revolution aimed at getting football even better”.

Golf has a bigger problem: the rather fundamental one of whether it really suits modern life. Golf is not easy, and if it is not easy, it’s not fun. Its rules might be written in parchment by a long lost civilisation while it was once described by none other than Tiger Woods as “a game for white men dressed like black pimps”.

According to the US’ National Golf Foundation, the game has lost six million players in the last 11 years and many are millennials. Surveys have always shown that the amount of time 18 holes of golf takes is among the main reasons for the decline.

To counter this, some courses are offering quicker options or even pay-by-the-hole pricing. The European Tour’s Golf Sixes last year, using the dreaded shot clock, proved popular with players and fans, and established itself as the blueprint for the sport’s version of cricket’s Twenty20 format. But the feeling is that compared with other sports, golf has been asleep at the buggy wheel.

Nitro athletics is the name given to a form of the sport jazzed up by mixing genders in relays and shortening distances. It was trialled in Australia last year and hailed “a raging success” by Melbourne’s Herald Sun and IAAF president Sebastian Coe. But the presence of Usain Bolt made objective assessment impossible.

It is all a very long way from timeless cricket tests and low-scoring basketball games. In Durban in 1939, after nine days of play spread over 12 — they had weekends off — England still needed another 42 runs to beat South Africa but had to abandon the chase because the boat home was leaving the next morning. There wasn’t another for three months.

But now, cricket, which George Orwell maintained was “not a 20th century game”, has gone from soporific to psychedelic with its fireworks, powerful lights, pink balls, cameras in the stump and microphones on the pitch. The short versions are barely recognisable from Orwell’s time, although tests are struggling on, popular only in England and Australia.

Elsewhere, it is only the biff-bang-wallop Twenty20 Big Bash/Blast/Beano incarnations that are over in a couple of hours that get huge crowds. None more so than in India where it has gone from the game of maharajahs to become a mass-participation US$5.3 billion industry.

That’s 26% growth in a year and Facebook offered US$600 million for the digital rights for the Indian Premier League (IPL) for five years. That pushed the price for all-global rights to the US$2.55 billion that Rupert Murdoch’s Star India paid and into English Premier League territory.

If the shot clock is unpopular with some, it may have saved basketball.

Prior to its introduction, so leisurely were NBA games that scoring was more like rugby. The lowest ever tally was when the Fort Wayne Pistons edged the Minneapolis Lakers 19-18 in 1950. Now, the average game sees about 200 points while the average franchise weighs in at US$1.65 billion.

Such figures make eyes water, but making other sports more like the NBA or IPL is surely an over-reactive sop to modernity and its discontents, rather than a strong assertion of the individual sport’s experience. The measured approaches of IFAB and the ATP are surely the way to go for if the sport loses its soul, it loses everything. And it really will be a turn-off.


Bob Holmes is a long-time sports writer specialising in football

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