Saturday, August 13, 2016

Replay Wrong

There's no easy way to title a post about "instant replay" in sports. It always comes out as wonky as the actual application of it in sports. Step back and think about replay for a minute.  The intention of it is noble, of course. Getting calls correct. But the reality of what it has become is far different than that.

Major League Soccer, along with a handful of other leagues across the world (Bundesliga being the big one) have been selected to test out / prototype Video Assistant Referees (VAR).

Just like other leagues in the United States, the pressure and stakes to get calls right have increased right along side of the increase in money. The NFL leads the way as far as integrating technology with sport. It started off with coaches headsets years ago and now has found its way into just about everything, from players checking plays on tablets during games to chips inside of the football.

Other major sports in the US have followed the leader here. NBA, NHL, MLB, college football and basketball have all implemented some form of tech. All of them in their own way and all of them using replay. It's to the point now where it is just part of the way thing are.

I've never been in on the benefits of instant replay being used to change official calls. And, I realize just as I type that, how ridiculous it sounds. But that illustrates how ingrained the practice is in modern sport.

No doubt that MLS (/USL) feels the same way. They want to be out in front of video replay for officials because the see it as progressive. They want to be seen as a nimble, fast-moving, cutting edge league. The always have. Even in the early days when they had clocks that counted down and no ties and extra subs and a team named the Mutiny with an actual mutant as a logo. It's kinda their deal.

Last night was the first live test during a (mostly) pro match. The video above is about as nutty as you could have done things, but whatever. It's here. And, sadly, it's probably not going away.

The reasons I have against this sort of thing don't have to do with getting calls right or wrong. And they don't even have much to do with the stop in action (though, I do despise it). No. It has to do with what replay has become.

It's about the TV product. It's a stop in action to pull in short attention spans. It's extra ad time. It's maximizing what little sporting action there is during a NFL game and reusing it over and over and over and then plastering ads all over it.

These days it's become so little about getting it right and so much about just another thing to make money off of.


Basketball, along side soccer, is a sport I played up through college. I was good at it and enjoyed it, but watching the game stopped around the time I stopped playing. Stepping back from it I discovered that it just wasn't enjoyable to watch. Major college games and the NBA had (have) become unwatchable disasters that rarely flow for more than a minute or so.

A year or so ago I found myself down in Chillicothe, Ohio watching a small college basketball game in a gym about the size of most middle or high school. My wife's brother is the head coach. As I settled in on the hard wooden bleachers, something happened. Something changed. It was fun. I found myself working out what teams were trying to run, where players positioned themselves, when they looked for openings, how well the picked the spots.

About half way through I asked myself what the heck was going on?! At first, I couldn't figure it out but as the second half got under way I had it figured out. Fewer stops. No TV timeouts and no endless replay checks to get calls correct. The game had a flow. It had a feel. It wasn't just a series of one or two-minute snippets of action. By the end I felt I had experienced something instead of just consuming it.

Later in the year the annual "March Madness" college basketball tournament got going I found myself struggling to watch. So many stoppages. So many refs walking to the sideline to check calls. It was terrible viewing.


Soccer, on the other hand, is completely different. Even at the highest levels. Every game flows and the only stoppages in the clock are at half-time and full-time. You can see the gears turning in player's heads. You can feel the weight of the action because it never stops.

And the best thing about it?

It's the same version sport being played in the poorest of poor areas in the world all the way to the highest of levels. On a fundamental level there was a massive difference between what I watched at OU Chillicothe and a UNC basketball game. Not soccer. You could go outside right now and watch a match that has the same rules as being played in England, at the highest level, today.

That's the beauty of the sport. It's what has made it the most popular in the world. What happens when you introduce something like replay is separate the game from the people. It becomes something else. The game that is played in the premier leagues around the world will now be different.

It's a tough thing to explain, but once you break that connection you've fundamentally changed the sport. Will soccer still be popular? Of course it will. Just as the NFL, NBA and other leagues are. But that's just it. It'll will become just what those leagues are. And in that, we will have all lost a big part of the beauty of the sport. Just another thing to consume.

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