One of the many things the 2018 FIFA World Cup will be remembered for is the role of VAR (video-assistant referee), which took centre stage in football’s most iconic festival for the first time.
While it’s difficult to even remember the seamless introduction of Hawkeye into cricket (2001) and tennis (2002), whereas motorsports generally rely on retrospective penalties to preserve the live entertainment factor, VAR has been a different story and the question we must ask is why?
Whether it’s the referees sat in their technical centre wearing their full official kits, players and coaches drawing imaginary television screens with their hands, or the contentious penalty award in the final between France and Croatia, VAR added as much as it took away from the fan experience. There, however, lies the problem.
The golden rule
The integration of technology in football can neither be confusing, time-consuming, nor reduce the game’s beautiful simplicity. ESPN evangelised this view before the World Cup, criticising the time it took for VAR decisions to be reviewed and made.
While the primary introduction of VAR, as was the case with Hawkeye into cricket and tennis, is to improve the standard of refereeing, officiating and umpiring, the golden rule is to never negatively affect the entertainment of the spectacle.
The natural comparison of VAR confusion is the introduction of goal-line technology in football (2014), also powered by Hawkeye. When the entire ball crosses the goal-line, sensors trigger a wristband worn by the referee, alerting him or her to the fact that the ball has crossed the line and, therefore, a goal has been scored.
This removes confusion, even saving referees’ time as they no longer have to consult with their assistants or field the opinions of half a dozen players screaming that the ball did or didn’t cross the line. So, while VAR led to goals as referees awarded penalties retrospectively for incidents which would have previously gone unpunished, its impact on the live drama did not go unnoticed.
Cricket and tennis are obvious examples of how technologies can be integrated successfully to improve officiating. The rules of these sports make them highly conducive to technological assistance though. Hawkeye is able to show definitively whether a ball has crossed a line, hit a pad or been caught before it hit the ground. Furthermore, the nature of these sports is that they are naturally ‘stop-start’ and fans anticipate a pause in play when the ball goes dead.
The integration of technology into NFL and rugby has been more complicated and spread over a longer period. NFL integrated instant replays into the officiating process as far back as 1999, having experimented somewhat unsuccessfully with it throughout the 1980s. In rugby, the Television Match Official (TMO) has caused high-profile controversy in international competitions such as the Six Nations and Super Rugby, but its use is still widely accepted.
Speed of play
An interesting comparison for football and VAR is with a sport which is based on continuous action at high speed: motorsport.
There are plenty of rules and regulations when it comes to F1® and MotoGP™ – but unless the safety of a driver is potentially compromised – you can’t just stop a race. Penalties are therefore handed out retrospectively and argued about in the fallout of the race.
This is vital to ensuring you deliver a consistent live experience for fans. Some fans may leave the race track not even knowing that a driver received a time penalty, but if they walk away feeling exhilarated by the action and want to engage with sport further, that’s the most important thing.
Of course, for motorsports the challenge is balancing the thrill of the live action with maintaining the safety of its drivers. Sebastian Vettel’s five-second time penalty for colliding with Valterri Bottas in the French Grand Prix attracted criticism from multiple parties.
While the rules are there to protect drivers and the integrity of the sport, motorsports such as F1® and MotoGP™ rely on their star drivers to push the boundaries of vehicle and track to engage fans. MotoGP™ riders, for example, start riding as early as five years old, which means the next generation of drivers who will entertain fans safely and professionally are in continuous development.
Listen to the crowd
A different approach is the one currently being deployed by F1®, which recently launched the first-ever crowd-sourcing competition in a global sport which will turn a fan’s idea from concept into reality.
The Tata Communications F1® Innovation Prize allows the sport to listen to real fans’ ideas about what data they would like to see during live broadcasts to create a better and more accessible viewing experience. This is an example of F1® and Tata Communications are putting the fans front and centre of the fundamental decision making that will evolve the sport.
With reference to the original discussion of VAR, it’s time that all sports found more centralised ways of listening to what the fans really want. With the integration of any new rules, technologies or format changes, there will always be friction if fans perceive that the quality or integrity of the spectacle is compromised in any way.
All sports tread this fine line between upholding the laws of the game while respecting its fundamental entertainment principles. For every purist who wants to see the letter of the law enforced at any cost, there is a casual fan who is not entertained.
Find out more about the F1® Innovation Prize here.