Editor’s Note: Please welcome Spike Malangone and LacrosseRecruits.com to LAS! Spike will be covering recruiting, high school and college lacrosse, and a number of other aspects surrounding the game. Today he focuses on some potential unintended consequences that could come with the 2013 College Lacrosse Rule Changes…
“Dodge, Duck, Dip, Dive… and Dodge.” Those are the five D’s of Dodgeball. Ah, simplicity. If only Patches O’Houlihan was in charge of the NCAA Lacrosse Rules Committee.
Much has been written about the new, and rather complicated, rules in NCAA lacrosse that went into effect this season. There is a helpful rules video that explains them (give yourself 30 minutes – no seriously, the video is a half-hour – and bring a notebook) and many-a-report dissecting their roles in early scrimmages and games.
There has been less content, however, on the effects these rules will have on the game more generally, aside from the perfunctory “they were installed to speed the game up and that is good” commentary and the “what happened to physical play?” reaction, the inevitable and misguided response to an increased awareness of player safety (save your breath and get on board people, it’s happening in every sport).
While changes in any sport are necessary as it evolves, they should be enacted with the goal of increasing the quality of said sport evenly and within its own construct. With the recent changes in lacrosse, I am less convinced some of them were enacted with game quality in mind so much as they were to try and cater to viewers and “exciting” play, a.k.a goals, goals, and then, more goals.
But whatever you think of the changes, their implications may have two unintended consequences. First, there is a real risk of losing some of the sports’ identity and alienating a core fan base in the process. Second, outcomes of games are going to be decided with an unfair emphasis on judgment calls by officials.
When the University of Virginia rode the coattails of a zone defense to the 2011 NCAA Division I National Championship, the lacrosse world was flipped upside-down. A zone defense? At Virginia?!? But that tactic was supposed to be for teams who didn’t have the talent to run man-to-man! UVA certainly has talent. But they just won… and they have the players to run… ahhhhh… DEFCON 1!!!
Zone defenses, popular lacrosse pundits contended, were setting the game back and costing it viewers – and this was unacceptable. Thus, it became one of the lead arguments in a crusade to speed the game up so it could feature more scoring – you know, because that instantly leads to new fans and no one likes watching defense anyway (yeah, that logic is air-tight…).
The anti-zone charge and slow offensive pace of play led to calls for a revamp of the rules: stick modifications, a shot clock and other ways to make the fastest sport on two feet look more like the fastest sport on two feet, complete with artificial (i.e. created by nuanced speed-it-up rules) transition and more scoring. The movement assumed that defensive strategy (yes, including a slow-paced offense) was unacceptable and audiences want scoring, scoring and then, of course, more scoring.
Do you enjoy strategy and a 6-5 game as much as a free-for-all 21-20 finish? Thanks for coming, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Perhaps that it a little harsh, but allow me to explain where I’m coming from here. I will actually back up my statements with rationale. Crazy, I know.
After the Cavaliers’ title in 2011, the symptoms of offense-at-all-costs gripped many in the lacrosse world, the prevailing notion being that fans only want style, speed and scoring. Forget about the game’s identity that equally values offensive and defensive play on the field. If lacrosse changes to become more high-octane, then more people will flock to the game. Win-win, right?
Instead of looking at some factors that directly caused a slower pace (coaching, for example, or not attacking zone defenses properly) or trying to solve problems with less room for referee judgment (if you want a shot cock, then just add one), aim was taken at the rules. “Lacrosse needs more viewers, and there is nothing exciting about defense. Instead of finding ways to beat the slower pace, let’s change the rules so we artificially create transition and more goals!”
And yes, while fun to watch at times, the mistake is the notion that viewers are gained or lost in a zero-sum equation based on the more offense = more viewers formula. It is the same thought process that has been adopted by Major League Lacrosse. You be the judge if that has worked thus far.
Two large holes exist in this “more goals” theory. For one, there is no guarantee that more offense leads directly to more viewers. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, you may lose some of your own – say, a viewer that played defense and enjoys watching those strategies unfold as well, not necessarily just a bang-bang goal created by a quick restart (I’m speaking generally, I swear).
Consider this. Defense-first philosophies exist everywhere in sports that are attracting plenty of viewers. Let’s look at two collegiate examples that illustrate.
In D-IA football (I still refuse to call it the FBS), Alabama has won three of the last four BCS National Championships. They are an SEC team that predicates its success on – gasp – playing defense and running the ball. People still watched.
In DI men’s basketball, Kentucky won the National Championship in 2012 behind the number one defense in the county in both opponent field goal percentage and blocked shots. They were led by defensive player of the year Anthony Davis. And guess what? People still watched.
Yes, these are extreme examples featuring established properties (and championship games), but the point is that offense doesn’t necessarily correlate with more viewers in a tidy, direct ratio. Said another way, just because a game or team is predicated on the defensive side of things won’t scare people away on its own. Plenty of folks watch SEC football weekly. Those games are not offensive shootouts.
What these properties do have is an identity, and a loyal fan base that follows suit. Fans in SEC country swear by their defensive style. Fans of Oregon football tend to like their offensive system. But they are true to themselves. Lacrosse was always a game that blended offense, defense and exciting transition in a natural way. When you start messing with rules to create excitement artificially, you lose yourself and what got you to this point.
But alas, rules modifications have been made. While some are fine – even necessary – too many are aimed at changing some of the great things the sport had going for it.
First, let’s cover the good stuff. Gone are sideline horns (subs are now on the fly), which will speed the game within its own confines and decrease specialization. Stick modifications that made it impossible for the ball to come out of a stick have also left the building (the thought being it is easier for a defense to get the ball on the ground). These are great. You aren’t changing the game’s substance but still moving things along.
Now, the not so good. The old stall warning was replaced in favor of a new hybrid shot clock system, placing a ton of undo pressure and influence on the officials (we’ll get there). Restarts have been sped up. One example: An offensive team retaining possession in the attacking zone on a whistle can use one pass to ANYONE, ANYWHERE outside the box and get a restart. Be ready defense, because before you know where the ball is the offense will be celebrating a goal. These changes seem to have been made with the intention to create quick goals. Forget beating a defense when you can gimmick your way to a few cheap ones.
It just feels too forced, aimed not at improving the quality of the game so much as making it more marketable via offense. That is where you lose me. Making knee-jerk changes for the wrong reasons – namely, to attract more people vs. improving the quality of the game within its structure – is misguided. The MLL has done this. And while it certainly has a decent fan base, take an anecdotal poll of former lacrosse players. I bet many don’t watch it, at least not when compared to the college game.
I think part of the reason is that the game is almost unrecognizable from the one they played in high school or college. Changing things to make them more marketable while alienating some of your own base has not proven to be a sound strategy. When goals are not hard to come by, they lose their value. I credit the league for at least taking a leap – having a real shot clock vs. a subjective one, for example – but I think it lost some lacrosse identity and with it some fans of the game as they played it.
To be clear, I am not contending all of these changes are bad on their merits. I am not a complete traditionalist without an eye for updating the game. On the contrary, some of them I really like. A sport needs to be willing to evolve. Look how far football has come from the flying wedge of the 1920’s. Change is fine. Change is good. Change is necessary in order to be successful.
But change at the expense of a large part of your game (defense) that also risks alienating a certain sect of your base (fans of it) in what seems to be a way just to create more “excitement?” Not for me. By losing part of your own identity, you may just be losing more than you are gaining. Every good property, sport and team has an identity. Straying from that is a dangerous proposition.
But no matter. Let’s say you like offense and would rather watch a 20-19 game. I get that. There is nothing wrong with it. While I don’t agree, hey, that’s what makes the world go ‘round. But there is another aspect of these changes that may also impact the game in an unintended way, one far more serious than the ramblings of a former DIII player longing for the glory days.
Watching two college games last weekend (Albany-Syracuse and Jacksonville-Ohio State), yes, the pace was slightly faster and there was less dead time with subs on sideline horns. This was a welcome sight. Specialization (d-middies, etc.) seems to have become less important, another solid move in the direction of the all-around player.
But in trying to make the game more viewer-friendly and aiming subtle changes at the wrong areas, these new rules may have taken the game out of the hands of the players and put them directly where no one wants them: the hands of the officials.
Lacrosse was a complicated enough game for the men in stripes, and some of these changes have only compounded this fact. What happens when a Final Four game this season is decided because an official with a slower “timer on” call (or one too fast) did nothing (or everything) to aid a defense (or offense) in the final few minutes of a game?
Ultimately, changes like the “timer on” (a.ka. hybrid shot-clock) rule have made calls subjective. While this new rule features the same concept as the stall warning of years past, the offense could still effectively play keep-away without a timed deadline in those instances. Was this always great to watch? No, but the teams on the field – not nuanced rules – were deciding the games.
This gets especially troubling as the game enters the final couple of minutes. Formerly, there was no real judgment: Under two minutes, keep the ball in the box. It was imperfect, but it was still Team A vs. Team B, albeit in a more confined space.
Now, once that clock is on, the offense is at a supreme disadvantage and will be hard-pressed for anything but a rushed shot after 30 seconds. The game is being directly affected by the whims of an official, because the players are not just playing each other anymore. An official is deciding how much time a team has to possess the ball. It’s now Team A vs. Team B and the clock – because an official said so.
Look at the opposite side of the same coin. If a stall is not called and under 30 seconds remain, the offense can run wherever they want and the game basically game over. Something that changed some lacrosse identity in the name of giving it more excitement may actually ruin last-second finishes when a team can sit on their victory all over the field because there was no “timer on” call.
That rule alone is so pressure-packed (notably as the game goes on) because the result is now more definite. It is akin to the NFL when pass interference is called in the end-zone. It is arguably the most maligned call in the sport (non-player safety related) because it is a judgment call. The outcomes of games are being taken out of the hands of the players and being moved unfairly to those of the official. That is not good.
A friend once introduced me to a phrase I now love: “If you are going to be a bear, be a grizzly.” If a shot clock was the true goal, then just have a bloody shot clock. Don’t wade in the shallow end. All you have done is taken the game out of the players’ hands. While I wouldn’t agree with it, at least the clock would be a uniform being and the same for all.
Similar instances may occur with the newer, quicker restarts. By moving quickly, teams may be able to influence officials for quick whistles who get caught in split-second decisions. Confusion is going to be blamed for some wins and losses this year. Take that to the bank. And that is not good, either.
It’s simply not fair to the officials (whose jobs are hard enough) or the players (who have practiced and played their hearts out) to put such an undo emphasis on these calls.
So, while some of these rules changes are welcome – and evolving a sport is always necessary – fans should realize that there maybe more than meets the eye with some of them.
Yes, the game may be higher scoring. Yes, the game may be a bit faster to watch. But at what cost?
Spike Malangone is the News Director at LacrosseRecruits.com.
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