Balance in sport


Now, how do I get down again...?

If you fall over a lot, you probably won’t be that good at sport. I fell over once on an all-weather hockey pitch and sliced a wound in my knee that needed to be re-bandaged every day for two weeks in hospital, so I was never going to turn pro! However, it’s not just physical balance that’s needed in sport. Club owners, fans and players alike need balance in the rules of the game and the relative strength of the teams. If that balance is upset, sport becomes ‘unfair’ and often boring.

Football is the world’s favourite sport partly because it achieves this balance. The rules are simple, and there seems to be a natural equilibrium between risk and reward. On the pitch, what drives owners, fans and players to distraction is anything that interrupts that balance. That normally takes the form of poor refereeing decisions, but administrators could solve the problem through use of TV replays, public ranking of officials’ performance and one simple change to the rules. Offside decisions cause more outrage and frustration than any other, but why is there an offside law in the first place? It is common to almost all team sports, but is it really necessary? Thousands of football games in the school playground manage without it, and hockey has shown the way by bravely scrapping the law altogether. Rugby is another sport that could benefit from deregulation. It has so many rules, it’s no surprise referees make so many mistakes, but the IRB doesn’t help itself by introducing such bizarre and counterproductive rules. If a player catches a perfect up-and-under and is immediately swamped by chasing opposition players, why does he win the scrum feed? If a player kicks the ball into touch within an inch of the try line, why does the line-out get pushed back five metres? Whatever happened to fair play or the balance of risk and reward…?!

Off the pitch, sporting bodies achieve balance in different ways. Surprisingly, you’ll find more of a free market on the Continent, where clubs such as European champions Barcelona are allowed to cement their dominance through individual TV rights deals, than you do in America, where the franchise system, the draft and the equal sharing of TV and even merchandising revenues gives a small town, ‘Moneyball’-inspired team such as the Oakland As the chance to beat even the great New York Yankees. What makes it easier for the Americans to carry out their little communist experiment is that their baseball and American football franchises don’t have to compete with anybody else. The rules clearly prevent any individual club from reaching its free market potential, but that might be a price worth paying when you don’t have to worry about relegation or losing to a bunch of foreigners! Agreements between clubs also tend to be a lot easier when you don’t have to deal with FIFA corruption or UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules.

There is always a conflict between shareholders and fans, because profits can always be spent on higher wages or transfer fees, and changing the rules is hard when you have the weight of history and inertia to deal with, but I hope I live to see the day when a little more balance and fairness is introduced to the games we love.

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