Leave the rules alone! (February 17, 2017)

Sports and technology are slowly, yet continually hashing out the problems in their attempts to marry the two entities, but some feel that is dampening the games. Longer replays, more “flashing lights” distracting from the games themselves, technology generally sapping away society’s capability to focus on a single thing for more…

I’m sorry, did you say something?

I kid, but many sports leagues and officials in board rooms are concerned about the pace of play in sports and the games’ ability to retain attention on every level, from those sitting in the arena or stadium for a single contest to drawing eyes, ears, and minds toward their sport for an entire season. Major League Baseball and college basketball are currently focusing their energies on modifying a portion of their respective games to keep eyes on the product for as long as possible – or, in the case of college hoops, eyes on contests not being held in March or early April. The links above provide all the details, so I won’t hit every note of the musical. If you desire to skim this article, the following are the crux of the changes (somewhat abbreviated):

MLB wants to test putting a runner on second base to start each extra inning starting in the tenth, a change that will be tested in the World Baseball Classic and potentially lower levels of baseball.

The NCAA wishes to use the NIT as its guinea pig once more, this time to radically change how personal fouls are tabulated. Four fouls would result in a double bonus instead of the current seven, but a team’s foul count (not the fouls on players themselves, but the overall count) will reset halfway through a half; 20:00 to 10:00 would count as one segment of play, while the game hitting 9:59 remaining will reset the foul count for a team to zero. If the game reaches overtime, the foul count to put the opponent on the line is three. The foul rules stay the same.

Essentially, the NCAA is copying the FIBA and NBA’s foul rules and trying to apply them to the college game’s two-half structure.

(Sidebar: Remember when the NIT was the premier post-season tournament and relevant beyond an experimental lab for NCAA officials? Pepperidge Farm remembers.)

 

There is but one issue with this “problem-solving” approach in both sports: What problem does this rule change solve? Baseball is forever seeking the attention of younger generations, both for the profitability of new viewers who can spend on the product and cultivating the future lifeblood of the sport. MLB likewise strives to avoid any similarities in its everyday play to the infamous 2002 All-Star Game or the occasional 20-inning marathons that see their fifth outfielder pitching for three innings, throwing nothing but meatballs down the middle. Speeding up the game is the desired effect, but the causes the league seeks to implement vary: Pitch clocks, shorts commercial breaks between half-innings (we wish), limited number of mound visits, the recent proposal of a time limit for a manager to request a review. Some of those are decent suggestions, even if the miss the forest for the trees. The runner at second to start an inning feels too drastic a change to the history of baseball and the way it works. I appreciate the brainstorming and wouldn’t mind this being used in the lower minors as a way to keep young kids fresh and to keep fans interested in the smaller market games, but it’s too much for the major leagues.

College basketball is trying to change the basics of the game for the sake of emulating the professional game worldwide, another method of turning college basketball into the “training grounds for the pros.” The addition of the three-point line (albeit not uniformly until the late 1980s) helped players adjust for the professional ranks. A shot clock – and then an abbreviated version (after a recent test in the NIT) – helped move the pace of the game along and eliminate many of the tactics used by coaches to keep games slow and low-scoring, as well as prepare players for the NBA/ABA/FIBA style of play. The effort to call travels accurately are a step for which the NCAA should be credited, despite it being a lesson players drop immediately upon entering the NBA. These are worthwhile additions or addendums to meaningfully benefit the sport, but are shrouded in the overall goal of major college basketball – train up candidates to enter the NBA’s talent pool. This foul resetting idea is shoehorning a quasi-quarter template atop the two twenty-minute halves by which men’s college basketball distinguishes itself from the professional leagues. Women’s college basketball at the NCAA level changed its structure from halves to quarters last season while adopting the FIBA rules for fouls, so it should not come as a surprise to most that the men’s game is similarly adapting its rule set to match both its female counterpart but the next level of competition.

The assumed reasoning for making such changes in a sport – to refresh the contests and draw attendees, viewers, and listeners – don’t apply to the foul rule adjustments for the NCAA. If your league’s play closely emulates the highest league of play in the world with the greatest athletes in a given sports, your fans are more likely to watch the highest level of competition. The NCAA draws fans through the deep ties that bind fan bases to their respective universities, the chances to see such a wide spectrum of play styles and athletes that are not exhibited on the professional level of the game, the sheer number of contests that take place within a season across the country, and the storylines and narratives that naturally occur with the sport. Unfortunately for the NCAA, those narratives are not fully developed until the bracket is filled in February and March. The contests held before that portion of the calendar are seen as cannon-fodder – required, yet uninteresting, details that later craft the picture everyone wants to see during the tournament games that otherwise appeal only to the most dedicated of the sport’s fan base or the scouts looking for the next professional star. The unique draw of the college game can be lost on some who do not live and die by their favorite’s schools exploits on the court, but changing your rule set to match that of the next level only prepares your athletes to play on that next level. It does nothing to draw new fans to the game, but strips the same unique features that makes this league’s play stand out. This isn’t the American Basketball Association of the 1970s, trying to use the new three-point line and fantastics dunks to bring eyes to the product that were instead on the NBA. These rules changes homogenize the product and, at worst, can further push fans into watching the pros; why watch a team on which maybe one or two names will become known at the next level when a fan can simply wait until the next season when that hot commodity arrives?

As they say in Austin, Texas: “Keep college basketball weird.” Matching someone else typically puts the attention one so craves on the person being matched. Be unique and own it as a reason for paying attention to you.

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Cody Sandusky is the host of the Home Stretch – Monday through Friday at 5:00pm on SEMO ESPN – and play-by-play broadcaster for Notre Dame sports.

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