Improving the Game: Tech for the Win

Improving the Game: Tech for the Win

I’m a huge sports fan. It’s a full-fledged passion. So you can imagine my excitement when I didn’t have to miss a World Cup game with WatchESPN. Then I learned that FIFA was supporting goal-line technology in all 12 stadiums during the tournament. To me, this only made one of the best sporting events in the world much better. This view, however, has been hotly contested. With technology creeping deeper into every sport the debate on its role has only increased.

The most fiercely debated technology has been Instant Replay and the most common argument against it has been the resulting lulls in a game. Surprisingly, Instant Replay was actually used in the National Football League (NFL) from 1986 to 1991 but was dropped because of the delays it caused. But after a number of high-profile bad calls there was a push for its reintroduction in 1999 and today Instant Replay in the NFL is here to stay.

There have been many modifications to the rules around Instant Replay in every sport. The National Hockey League (NHL) has been using Instant Replay since 1991 (and refining the use ever since). The National Basketball Association (NBA) started using Instant Replay in 2002. Major League Baseball (MLB) was the last of the major American sports to adapt Instant Replay and just this year expanded from home run rulings only to other calls including fair/foul and even fan interference situations.

Improving the Game: Tech for the Win

Getting it right since 1991.

So while some aren’t pleased with the game delays caused by Instant Replay, we can anticipate seeing more of them. Personally, the delays don’t bother me at all. Isn’t it more important to make the correct call than saving a couple of minutes? When football and baseball games typically take over three hours, is another five minutes a deal breaker? And this isn’t just about the fans and game length. When players, coaches and the administration could lose their job by rulings that are often a matter of mere millimeters, don’t these calls deserve a second look? No one remembers if you don’t make the playoffs due to a blown call, it just goes down as a lost season.

Improving the Game: Tech for the Win

Phew!

Still, there are some obvious ways to improve the pace of Instant Replay. When the announcers have the call already figured out before officials pull it up on the monitor the flaws are apparent. The NFL is taking a step in the right direction this coming year with the NFL Officiating Command Center in New York to help speed up the process. The center will immediately start reviewing plays when challenged. The center will already have what to look for and the right angles queued up for the ground official to make the final ruling. This could be taken further by giving even more control to the command center, allowing them to make rulings on straight-forward calls and relay the decision to the ground official. The ground official would still make the final ruling for any close calls. But when there are some last plea challenges by coach this shouldn’t undermine the main referees.

Improving the Game: Tech for the Win

NFL Command Center. Things are getting real.

This recommendation would likely upset backers of the other main argument against technology — diluting the tradition of the game. The purist out there would love to keep all decisions in the hands of the referees/umpires. They see Instant Replay as taking away from their control of the game. They’ll go as far to say that if there’s replay just get rid of the referees. This seems like a drastic, knee jerk reaction. Instant Replay is for confirmation and assurance when there is uncertainty. There is human error in every job, but few jobs have millions of people criticizing every decision you make. If there is a technological solution to reduce human error, you bet a company will integrate it into their process to help their employees and mitigate any negative outcomes from error. Why should sports be any different?

Video Instant Replay still requires human judgement, and there have been (and will be) times where a call is still wrong even when Instant Replay is used. There are other forms of Instant Replay though that removes human judgement and provides a definitive answer. Goal-line technology during the World Cup is a perfect example. It uses 7 high-speed cameras for each goalmouth to determine if the ball fully passed the goal line. And within a second of the play the referee receives a notification on their watch.

Improving the Game: Tech for the Win

Gooooooooooaaaaaaal! Really.

Hawkeye in tennis is similar to this and was my first encounter with a definitive answer on a close call. Athletes question the accuracy, but I was amazed at the simulation shown with each official review but more importantly the quickness was astounding. The confirmation comes immediately with the processing of the technology, and elimination of human judgement. There’s no time needed in finding the best angle, zooming in, slowing it down or discussing with other officials. Impeding the pace of the game is not an issue when it comes to these definitive line-based systems.

Improving the Game: Tech for the Win

Don't mess with Hawkeye.

This type of technology deserves to be expanded further in all sports. It takes away human judgement calls and makes decisions conclusive and inarguable. The technology seems to be there. If a tennis ball going 150 miles per hour is detectable, couldn’t it be used to determine if a players feet are inbounds or if a football crossed the end zone line? Toes behind the 3-point line? Fair or foul ball down the left field line? Maybe even off-sides in both hockey and soccer? The NFL and MLB over all the other leagues have the capital to invest in this technology. And they are starting to. But leagues and fans should demand more of it.

In almost all other walks of life, most people are embracing the improvements technology brings to their day-to-day pursuits. Sports needs to keep up. The various athletic leagues have broken through the barrier in the past decade, they just need to keep up with available technology and push to implement it. When kids are growing up with technology embedded in everything, it’s only a matter of time before they not only want technology imbedded in their games, but they demand it.