Thursday, 17 June 2010

Formats and Fouls

So, the America’s Cup has begun a new era in the stewardship of Larry Ellison, Russell Coutts and BMW Oracle. And the hope for those involved in professional sailboat racing is for a brave new world of media friendly sport – in which television will play an integral part.

For the dedicated fan, the cognoscenti, this may well mean wall-to-wall television coverage, every minute of every race, regardless of its importance or relevance. But personally, I think we need to look at making the majority of the racing we put on tv a little bit more special.

There’s lots that could be done to improve the coverage – Formula 1’s model of a statistical, onboard-audio-and-camera-fest is the obvious one, but I think we need to look at something more fundamental first.

The thought comes out of the latest Louis Vuitton Trophy regatta in Sardinia. The point was raised in a recent Scuttlebutt that there was just too much of it – that two weeks racing, with the days sometimes extending from 10 in the morning to late in the evening was just too much. I wouldn’t disagree, but I think that the more important conclusion is that too little of the racing was meaningful.  

The second biggest sporting event on the planet is underway in South Africa, FIFA’s World Cup. It starts with a group stage, where the 32 teams are split into groups of four – everyone plays everyone else, before the top two in each group go forward, and the bottom two go home. It’s generally reckoned that you need to win one and draw one of those first three games to proceed to the last sixteen – at which point the competition changes to a win-or-go-home format.

The consequence is that from the sixth or seventh day of a month long, once-every-four-years competition, spectators are seeing do-or-die games. And that’s what most spectators want - sport that counts. In contrast, how long was it before some must-win action developed in La Maddelena? It was well into the second week. 

Matters weren’t helped when Bertrand Pace and his Aleph team spectacularly crashed into Azzura, and suddenly they had to do all the racing planned for four boats with just two. Combine this with a venue where there was either too much wind, or too little until a late afternoon seabreeze - and it felt like nothing much ever happened until late in the day, both metaphorically and literally.

I suspect that the problem is giving the teams, the sailors, too much say in the proceedings. Ask the participants and they will, naturally, want to guarantee themselves as much sailing - and their sponsors as much coverage - as they can get. The result is formats with endless round robins and repecharges. But spectators want completely the opposite – lots of meaningful matches, where people go home if they aren’t good enough.

The idea of not asking the sailors about the format is probably a non-starter, when the event organiser for the Louis Vuitton Trophy is the WSTA (World Sailing Team Association) - owned and run by the teams. But if the LVT was managed by Formula 1 supremo, Bernie Ecclestone, I suspect we’d already be looking at a format without the full round robin. Perhaps splitting the fleet into smaller groups for round robins, or even going straight to head-to-head matches. It would cut down the amount of sailing they have to get through with a limited number of boats, and it would make each individual match much more meaningful and exciting.

The problem would be getting teams to turn up for a regatta with all the travel, salary and other costs, when they might get sent home after a couple of days. To do that, you need to be offering something of great value as a prize – and that means cash, big money...or prestige… say, the America’s Cup for instance.

So much for formats – next up is a more technical point, but one that’s worth exploring. I think it’s time to look at options for an off-the-water, video umpire. A recent test was run at the Korea Match Cup, a World Match Racing Tour event (disclosure of interest - I've been blogging for them). In this test, the on-the-water umpires raised a flag and requested a second opinion from a third umpire in the tv booth. He would then look at the replays, and give an opinion on a number of issues – mainly contact seen by the onboard cameras and perhaps missed by the on-the-water umps – and then radio his opinion back to the guys on the water. They could take it or leave it.

It’s a good start, and nice to see the Tour innovating, but for the really big events like the America’s Cup the technology exists to go much further. The latest position fixing equipment will place both ends of the boats and the marks to within millimetres, at very fast update rates. So why not use that to help decide overlaps, buoy room at mark roundings, alterations in course and so on? It’s potentially a lot more accurate than the current system which relies heavily on the umpires being in the right place all the time – and that right place can change very fast, and will only change faster when the boats get bigger and quicker as seems to be the plan.

It’s possible that off-the-water umpires using a virtual positioning system could be used for every call – but it might add even more drama to do what they’ve done in many other sports, and give the competitors the opportunity to call on the video umpire on just a couple of occasions per race. The initial penalty, or otherwise, could still be made from the on-water umpires, and then if one of the teams didn’t like the decision, they could use one of two or three challenges.

The difference between sailing and the other sports I’ve cited is that the game continues while the video umpire deliberates. But it often takes a while for on-the-water umpires to respond to a protest flag, and the sailors are quite capable of sailing on while the decision is made. Any penalty is rarely dealt with by the sailors before the next mark or the finish. One additional rule would help deal with this - disallowing references to the video umpire from any point after the two lengths circle of the final mark.

It might work, it might not, but I think it’s definitely worth trying...

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