Or soccer, if you so prefer.
So what is the issue here? If you are a football fan, you know it all too well. But if you are not, here is some background:
The International Football Association Board (Ifab) has ordered referees around the world to clamp down on time-wasting and add on the exact time taken for goal celebrations, substitutions, injuries, red cards, penalties and VAR checks. Referees would previously add 30 seconds for each goal or substitution.https://www.theguardian.com/football/2023/aug/10/added-time-howard-webb-no-backing-down-referees-ifab
An average of 16 minutes and 34 seconds was added to matches on the opening weekend of the EFL season, with 29 bookings for time-wasting compared with two on the final day of last season. Any player who stands in front of a free-kick to prevent it being taken quickly or kicks the ball away to delay a restart, for example, will be cautioned.
… and you’d think that’s a good thing, right? Even the most casual fan of football is all too aware of the fact that there is a lot of time-wasting that goes on. So anything that helps eradicate it is a good thing, surely?
Well, turns out there’s two ways to “deal” with time-wasting. One, do it hockey style. Field hockey uses a stop-clock, and the clock is, well, stopped when play is stopped. The countdown timer is reactivated when play begins, and we “count down” the amount of time that needs to be played.
The second method, which is the one that football currently favors, is to not use a stopwatch, but rather to count the number of minutes that play has been stopped for, and add those minutes as “extra” time.
So why the second method, and not the first?
Why is this happening? As ever, follow the money. The drive to increase active “game time” (itself a vapid, ill-defined concept) comes directly from Fifa. And Fifa is essentiality a TV rights distributions agency, its entire model based around increasing screen revenues. What we have here is the laws of the game being employed as a tool to doctor the perceived TV entertainment value of the product; as expressed via a massively overengineered notion of what the referee’s role should be, clumsily grasped value judgments of what entertainment looks like, and how this sport, our own shared treasure, should feel and look.https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2023/aug/17/time-wasting-in-football-is-ugly-maddening-and-absolutely-vital
If you found it difficult to untangle the simple message in that paragraph, here is the quick takeaway: longer games means more advertising opportunities. But it also means more goal-scoring opportunities, which means more entertainment… which means, well, more advertising opportunities.
Is that a cynical hypothesis, or is this backed up by data?
In the 49 games played so far, the average match duration is now 101 minutes and 40 seconds, an increase of three minutes and 36 seconds on last season. This means Premier League games are lasting even longer than matches at last year’s men’s World Cup, where world governing body FIFA pressed the need to give fans better value for money in terms of action.https://theathletic.com/4886737/2023/09/21/premier-league-time-wasting/
Even more dramatic is the uplift in effective playing time — the amount of time the ball is in play — with that increasing by four minutes and 25 seconds to 59 minutes and 30 seconds.
These extra minutes have produced more goals, with 151 being scored already this season, 3.1 per game. And 22 of those goals have come in added time, compared to only five at this point of the season last year.
So who’s complaining? We have more people watching more goals being scored, and therefore advertising revenue has gone up. Seems like a good thing all round. No?
Ah, but TANSTAAFL.
The move has not been greeted by everyone, though, with several prominent managers and players pointing out this would lead to more fatigue, injuries and potential burnout. European football’s governing body UEFA has refused to implement the new guidelines, opting instead to tell their match officials to keep the game moving.https://theathletic.com/4886737/2023/09/21/premier-league-time-wasting/
So what should we be optimizing for?
- Should players be optimizing for not doing time wasting? What if they see their opponents doing it? How does the game theoretic solution then work out? How does it work out under the stopwatch rule? How does it work out under the added-time rule?
- Should the organizers be optimizing for players’ well-being? Or for advertising revenue?
- Should player recruitment change to account for the fact that matches will last longer? Should the number of substitutions be increased to account for longer matches? But will that not affect smaller clubs disproportionately?
If you are a fan of the sport, thinking through all this (and more) gives you a way to understand how one decision can impact so many others. Learn to transfer this type of interconnected thinking into other domains.
If you are a fan of economics or public policy, use the tools of your trade to think through the “best” solution. But realize that no solution is perfect, and that somebody, somewhere, will end up complaining. Maybe the players will play for too long, maybe you’ll stymie revenue growth, maybe coaches will come up with strategies to “work around” this problem.
And if you are a fan of both football and economics/public policy tell me what I’m missing!