The Objectives of Sports Rule Changes?
In recent days and weeks there have been a few high-profile discussions regarding sports federations making significant changes to the rules of their sport. These sports rule changes have the ultimate goal of making the sport more attractive to fans. Many fans will be open to good rule changes, while others will be resistant to change regardless of how good the changes are. Many rule changes have contributed to the growth of a sport, while others are less effective. Rule changes can be considered to be the ‘product’ section of the marketing mix and good rule changes can contribute to a stronger sports brand. In this post I discuss why sports federations make sports rule changes, highlight changes they have made in the past and examine changes that are currently under consideration.
Why Make Sports Rule Changes?
The ultimate goal of sports rule changes is to keep fans coming to the games. Sports is part of the wider leisure market and sports organisations compete for consumers’ (fans) time with other forms of leisure. Therefore, sports organisations must ensure that their product (the sport) remains attractive enough that they maintain the consumers’ interest. Below are a few key factors that will determine whether fans continue to attend games.
Fan Interest in Play
One way of maintaining fans’ interest is to adapt the rules of the game to ensure that it is always exciting. There are many ways to do this. Two of the most common ones are:
- Speed up the game:
- This is considered to be more attractive to fans as there will be more action events on the field of play and so more reasons to cheer.
- Speeding up the game can also increase the skill level required as players are more likely to make mistakes under pressure.
- More points:
- More points in a game gives the fans more opportunities to celebrate their team’s successes.
Integrity Through Fair Play
Another way to keep fans coming to the games is to maintain the integrity of the sport through fair play. If fans perceive the sport to not be on a level playing field, whether due to the referee or the rules, it will quickly lose its credibility and if fans perceive players to be taking advantage of weaknesses in the rules it will also be detrimental to the game. Just consider the recent Barcelona vs PSG UEFA Champions League result, whether you agree with the referee’s decisions or not, there was a huge backlash from fans due to perception of poor refereeing. Therefore, sports organisations will often make sports rule changes to ensure the integrity of the sport and a level playing field among participants.
Safety is also a key concern in many sports. Most of us like to see some aggression in sport, however, I hope sincerely hope that none of us enjoy seeing participants getting seriously hurt. At various points in their history, this has become a serious issue for a number of sports, perhaps most notably in motor sports, mixed martial arts (MMA) and American Football (NFL). The difficulty in sports that are inherently dangerous is to find the right balance between participant safety and fan excitement through sports rule changes.
Major Sports Rule Changes in the Past
It is difficult to imagine nowadays, but prior to this, once a team was in the lead, they would hold onto the ball and endlessly pass it just to keep possession of the ball. In 1950, Fort Wayne Pistons beat the Minneapolis Lakers 19-18 in the lowest scoring game in NBA history! It was clear that the NBA had to speed up the game and increase the number of points scored. There were various attempts to improve the situation and finally in 1954 the NBA introduced the shot clock, which all basketball fans can attest to is an important part of the game to this day.
One Day Cricket
Up until the 1970s, Test cricket was the only form of cricket – for everyone from a non-cricket nation, this is the five-day version that can still end in a draw. In the late 1970s, media mogul Kerry Packer created World Series Cricket, a rival to the established international cricket series. This form of cricket became known as ‘One Day cricket’ because it was limited to 50 overs per team and could be played in one day. Players became professionals overnight so they were very receptive to the idea. Players wear coloured uniforms (test cricket uses white uniforms), matches can be played during the day or at night and a variety of on-pitch microphones and cameras improved TV broadcasts. These rule changes clearly improved the fan experience and the duration of the game.
In 2003, the ECB (The England and Wales Cricket Board) created another new version of cricket called Twenty20 (T20) cricket. T20 cricket is more fan-friendly than its predecessors because each team has only 20 overs to bat and matches last less than three hours. The success of T20 cricket is most visible in the explosion of the IPL (Indian Premier League) which is now worth an estimated US$4.5 billion. It has also brought in many new innovations aimed at improving the fan experience including LED wickets and players having microphones and able to provide commentary during the game.
FIA probably implements more regular rule changes in Formula 1 than any other sports federation. Motor sports are so reliant on the equipment used (cars/bikes) and how quickly engine advances are made that the rules are constantly tweaked to ensure that the races are as fair as possible.
The second part of the equation is safety. Formula 1 had a lot of bad publicity over the years which peaked with the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994. Since then, they have been far more cautious when it comes to the safety of its drivers. The results speak for themselves because since Ayrton Senna, there has been only one death, that of Jules Bianchi in 2015, which is significantly lower than the preceding decades.
Current Potential Sports Rule Changes
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has been pushing for baseball rule changes that will speed up the game for some time. The players are notably against any rule changes in baseball. However, many of Manfred’s peers agree with him, with David Samson, President of the Miami Marlins stating:
“Pace of game is critical; We know that from our fans and TV partners. We have to recognize the reality of life today, which is that attention spans are going down and choices are going up. Whatever business you’re in, you have to adjust.”
When considering rule change, this is the type of reasoning that should be happening at board level. The key question they asked themselves is “what is right for our fans?“. However, given this rhetoric, many people doubt that the rule changes that were actually implemented in 2017 will significantly speed up the game.
Fans have criticised Formula 1 for being too predictable in recent years with Mercedes winning the last three constructor’s championships.
“Not only that, the balance between man and machine was tilted too far in favour of the latter. In short, the pinnacle of motorsport had become too easy for the drivers, the cars too easy to drive.”
As I mentioned earlier, Formula 1 changes are an annual occurrence, but there is a feeling that the rule changes this year will have a more significant impact. With major rule changes regarding the designs of the cars allowing for more downforce and more speed, it will be tougher on the drivers. Lap times will improve by three to five seconds and there will be less reliance on the cars, thus giving the power back to the driver. The faster speeds are likely to make it more exciting for fans and by giving power back to the drivers, FIA is levelling the playing field, which should also make it more exciting for fans.
Following FIFA Director General for Technical Development Marco Basten’s announcement in January regarding potential rule changes to football, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), who is responsible for the rules of football, discussed some of these major rule changes. Setting aside whether you agree with the changes or not, some of these rule changes have a clear purpose while others are perhaps a little less clear.
It is difficult to argue that football needs to be more exciting as it is the most popular game around the world and it is still growing in popularity. Nevertheless, some of the rule changes are about addressing particular instances where they could bring a greater fan experience. Removing ‘lost’ time (i.e. time wasted by the teams) to make the last ten minutes of a game flow better is clearly targeting something that fans see as a problematic element of the game.
A few of the rule changes are trying to improve the integrity of the game. Consider Video Assistant Referees (VARs) proposals which are present in most major sports worldwide but are notably missing from football. Also, IFAB is considering allowing only captains to speak to the referee as a potential solution to the problem of having players surround and influence the referee.
Then, the proposal for a cap on the number of games a player can play is clearly targeting player safety.
On the other hand, some of the potential rule changes have less clear goals. Take for example replacing penalty shoot outs with the ‘take-on’ challenge or introducing ‘orange’ cards. One could argue that these target excitement or fair play, but without further information, it is less clear what IFAB is hoping to achieve with such changes.
The NFL has also been looking at rule changes to speed up the game, but even more importantly to improve player safety. The NFL received negative publicity regarding player safety, especially related to concussions (Hollywood even made a film about it), so such pointed rule changes are no surprise. It is also arguably a fight to secure the future with the sport with many fearing that mothers will not allow their children to play the sport in the future if they deem it to be too dangerous.
How to make Sports Rule Changes?
Sports rule changes can have a major impact on your sport. There must be good reasons for making rule changes otherwise you may alienate fans. Therefore:
- The first step is to ensure that there is a clear reason for a rule change.
- Next, it is vital that you are clear on the objectives of each rule change.
- Thirdly, develop proposals that achieve your objectives.
- Analyse and discuss in detail each proposed rule change to ensure that you are confident that they will achieve your objectives.
- Communicate the reasons and the objectives for all rules changes effectively. People will naturally be resistant to change so it is important to be clear in your communication of the reasons, the objectives and the final decision on rule changes.
Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts about sports rule changes. Please comment below to let me know your thoughts on good or bad sports rule changes!
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Women’s Football Marketing Coordinator at UEFA
Ivan is a sports marketer with extensive Blue Chip FMCG experience and an MA in International Sports Management. He was born in Croatia, grew up in Sydney, Australia and has spent four years working and studying in Croatia, Ireland, the UK, Italy and Switzerland.