Governance of associations

Sports are peculiar institutions.  The rules of the games have to come from somewhere and big network externalities encourage everyone to follow them. But the competitive/collaborative associations of profit-making enterprises (teams), players, and leagues have to improvise their governance, often across international legal jurisdictions, and it doesn’t always work right.

Rules sometimes change, for good or ill.  Tennis players used to be obliged to wear white; now anything goes.  Technology keeps motor racing and sailing rules in flux.  Baseball tried to increase scoring and home runs for fan appeal by (ill-conceived) ideas like lowering the pitcher’s mound and the designated hitter, and (better) ideas like speeding up the game by limiting mound visits.  The three-point field goal changed basketball so historical statistics are hard to compare to today’s, but the game is no worse for it, in my inexpert view actually better.  Games with tradition properly have a big flywheel on rule changes, but (i) making the games more fun to watch, (ii) player safety, and, importantly, (iii) high correlation between playing better and winning, are legitimate grounds for tuneups and innovation. [On (ii); college football was substantially revamped a century ago because players were getting killed, and the implications of what we’re learning about concussion risk in football and soccer are still unfolding.]

Now, soccer (outside the US, football). For people who might want to watch the World Cup matches, here is a quick guide, soccer for dummies:  twenty players kick a ball down a large field with lots of passing and possession changes, and many one-to-one duels; eventually one player kicks the ball over, or to the side of the goal (or doesn’t), and everyone runs the other way. Repeat this sequence to the point of stupefaction…except that once during the game (typically) the ball goes in one of the nets.  If it’s not a complete mismatch, this occurs when some cosmic roulette ball lands on a secret number, and has nothing to do with the quality of play overall.

Today, Russia 1-1 Spain, wins by one penalty kick. Croatia 1-1 Denmark, ditto. Four hours of actual play could not establish any team’s superiority on the day by scoring, and all the marbles went to coin-flips (do I jump  left or right? Could we just play scissors/paper/rock instead?) each between 0.9% of each team.

The World Cup results to now are full of 1-0 games and ties. There’s even a famous song (1919) about a 1-0 game .  What we have here is an athletically and strategically excellent, pure, simple, game, played and loved by millions–ruined for serious competition (including medium-to-high-level amateur play) by not enough scoring, a deficiency that could be easily remedied by adding about a yard (maybe two) to the width of the goal.

Fixing this can’t be a matter of evolution or coaching, and confronts a minor installed-base problem (all the physical goals all over the world needing to be replaced or modified) plus the aforementioned flywheel (“we’ve always done it this way, all our skills are based on the current goal, etc.”).  It also requires a functional governance structure, and what that would be for a game played from tot to geezer levels, in dozens of countries, with a multi-billion-dollar pro business is very hard to see.  The Swedes switched from left-side to right-side driving, but Sweden is a country with one government. Maybe the fix could start with US colleges, which at least have an NCAA; maybe one of the European leagues could take the plunge. It doesn’t put existing soccer skills at risk of obsolescence, and it would sure improve the game; how you play for an hour and a half ought to have something to do with whether you win. [minor edits and corrections 1/VII/18]


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

12 thoughts on “Governance of associations”

  1. For not unrelated reasons, I like the designated hitter. I do not enjoy watching a pitcher flail hopelessly at three straight pitches, and I don't like a team being penalized because they get two hits in a row from the 7th and 8th place batters rather than the 1st and 2nd.

    I also don't like pitchers, unaccustomed to running bases, injure themselves doing so. (see Wang, Chien-ming).

    Purists might prefer simply skipping the ninth spot in the order entirely, which would be fine.

  2. Entirely agree that scoring is too difficult in soccer, as it is too easy in basketball. Rugby offers a good compromise. The 2018 Six Nations tournament (between England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales) had 15 matches with a mean of 48.5 points, range 18 to 75. Of the three scoring actions, tries and kicked goals count 3, try conversions 2. Guessing 2.75 as the mean, you get 16.5 scoring actions per match, plenty to be entertaining, not so many as to become boring through surfeit. Baseball also seems to have a decent scoring rate.

    These results seem accidental. The governing bodies of sports do not seem to see it as part of their job to tweak the rules to get into an entertaining scoring zone. Cricket was saved from extinction as a professional sport by the initiative of the Secretary of the Kerala Cricket Club in 1951, who invented the limited-over variety that is now the game's financial mainstay. FIFA is enormously rich from World Cup TV rights, which is why it is corrupt. They could easily finance experiments with Mike's goal size, or relaxing the offside rule that favours defence. They won't; from their corporate POV, they have a winning formula.

  3. There are probably other rule changes, like changing various exclusion zones, that might lead to more scoring without so much change in the physical infrastructure. Or just add weights to the goalkeeper?

  4. I'll agree to disagree on the three-pointer. At the very least, the line should be moved back. You rarely see strategic half-court play anymore, nor a center who knows how to play back to the basket (the last was Olajuwon, though Shag did it well occasionally), nor a rebounder who can make a decent outlet pass (Olajuwon, Ewing, and Rodman were the last). And it is tiresome to see the repetition of a pick or two, kick the ball out to the gunner, who drops the trey. The elegance is sadly absent. Back door plays have practically disappeared, except during Princeton's or Harvard's first round elimination by the top seed in the NCAA Tourney. What bugs me the most is dudes on a 3-and-1 break stopping and popping from 3-point land rather than making the correct dish to the man on the wing for a flying tomahawk dunk. Statistically the trey will work out better, if you hit 40 percent of them. But I miss the big men — Wilt and Russ, Big Red and Willis, Moses and Artis, Walton and Hayes, Lanier and Unseld, The Admiral and Patrick, Parish and Kareem battling it out in the paint, and the point guards and clever forwards figuring out just how to feed them, then the spins, the blockouts, the drop steps, the Kevin McHale "torture chamber". Firing up 60 treys a game between the two teams is thin gruel, mate.

    In baseball, I like both — the intricate decision-making by a manager in a 1-1- game at the end of the 7th, his starter still pitching fantastically, but coming to bat… you pinch hit, or keep him in as an easy out, but ready to mow 'em down in the 8th? But also, in the AL, extending the career of likeable sluggers who can no longer pull their weight in right-field, and are a bit slow for first base duty…..David Ortiz is the most obvious example. And then in the World Series, how the strategy changes depending upon whose at home? Love it both ways!

    Re futbol, your Yankee-centrism is showing, but yeah, too many games at the highest levels decided by shoot-outs. I'm all for either playing OTs and OTs until everybody drops, as they would in the NBA finals, or else raising the goals by 18 inches and widening them by two feet, so that there were more 5-3 games, where the better team usually wins.

    My final comment is re the pathetic wussyism of rich white fat guys in golf, and rich thin white guys in tennis. It is HARD to hit a curveball, it is not easy for a big man to sink a free throw, it is hard for a quarterback to call a play as the opposing team in a stadium full of people trying to scream loud enough so he can't hear. Yet they somehow persevere. Whereas in golf and tennis, the rich preppie pussy sports, everyone has to shush shush shush, or poor little Priscilla might lose her concentration, hitting something he tosses himself, or puts on the tee himself, not coming at him at 98 miles per hours, nor 5000 Duke students waving wiggly things in front of him? Pathetic. Grow a pair, you prep school sissies!

  5. Average goals per game is 2.7, so for every 1-0, there’s a 2-2.

    Scarcity increases value, which you can see on the faces of the scorers. Basketball players just look bored most of the time.

    It’s not about the goal count. It’s about the battle, and even a 0-0 can be a fascinating battle to be continued another day.

    1. I think Mike's point is that scoreless draws should be nearly impossible, and score draws rare. Draws lead, in knockout competitions, to the travesty of the penalty shootout.

      Rugby matches are strongly contested battles too. There have been scandals when ears have been bitten off in scrums. The two-point score for try conversions adds an asymmetry that further reduces the already low chances of a draw. To tie, both teams would have to score an equal number of tries (disregarding the drop-kicked goals), and an equal success rate in conversions. The goal kick is taken from a point on the pitch orthogonal to the location of the try on the goal line, and its difficulty varies with the lateral distance from the goalposts.

      1. With a little effort, overtime-only rules could be devised for soccer football that would promote scoring while maintaining much more of the spirit of the game than a penalty shootout does. I would suggest two alternative concepts. One is a series of "innings" where each team begins with a designated dangerous set piece, and play continues until it scores or the defense gains decisive control. Alternatively each team designates one player — and if necessary more over time — who cannot play farther back than two yards from the center line. That would weaken defenses, invite breakouts and essentially force a wide open game. And in either case, of course, golden goal/sudden death.

      2. An additional point is that structurally tight scoring margins amplify the importance of fine refereeing decisions, counter to Mike's third criterion. In soccer, the fans of the losing team often leave the stadium not thinking "we were outplayed" but "we were robbed". This is very unlikely in rugby and baseball. Introducing video evidence helps reduce the problem but does not eliminate it. In tennis, the in/out line call is now often automated, and the same goes for LBW decisions in cricket. But decisions on fouls in soccer, especially penalties, are still judgement calls on video.

  6. I don't think that the difficulty of scoring leads to unexciting games ("ruined for serious competition") but it does raise the stakes of calls by the ref in situations with lots of ambiguity. (The stakes could be changed by tying the penalty more closely to the match the pre-penalty probability of scoring.) So I also like the idea of larger goals, so that a call or two (or non-call) cannot effectively decide a match (as is often the case now).

  7. Presumably you're an American who typically doesn't understand football (not soccer please). It is the very difficulty involved in scoring that makes the game what it is. In order to score a team will often have to work through many different tactical options i.e. Drawing out opponents from the defence by passing the ball sideways and making incisive forward balls to change the defensive positions. In the English premier league there are often games where four or more goals are scored and these are often regarded as low not high quality games because both teams have failed to apply the appropriate defensive tactics. It is the very dearth of goals that make a goal so valuable, the joy that accompanies a goal so valued and why Americans don't understand the game, because they are not able to distinguish between quality and quantity.

    1. Leaving the snark aside, what you are saying is that it is a tactically complex game which can only be appreciated by those familiar with its complexities.

      That's much easier if you grow up with a sport, watching it and playing it, even informally, when young. For those of us of a certain age that never happened. I, for one, was too busy learning about the hit-and-run play to worry about (sorry) soccer.

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