Use + Remix

Technology to assist football referees was introduced to ensure lineball decisions were correct. But at what cost to the game of chance?

Referee Nestor Pitana awards a penalty to France against Croatia in 2018 after watching a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) replay. : Ben Sutherland CC BY 2.0 Referee Nestor Pitana awards a penalty to France against Croatia in 2018 after watching a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) replay. : Ben Sutherland CC BY 2.0

Technology to assist football referees was introduced to ensure lineball decisions were correct. But at what cost to the game of chance?

Why do we watch football, the ‘beautiful game’? As the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar demonstrated, it was for the fairytales (Lionel Messi capping his career with a win) the sublime skills of the world’s best players (Messi, Mbappe, Modric), wondrous goals (Richarlison’s scissor kick), dramatic finishes (so many) and the chance of an underdog upsetting a favourite (Morocco, Japan, Saudi Arabia).

Sport thrives on this last ingredient, the magic of David beating Goliath. In football, one thing is certain: a little bit of uncertainty about the outcome can go a long way.

Which leads us to VAR — the video assistant referee. The Argentina-France decider was billed as one of the greatest finals, but the match was halted six times as officials deliberated over TV screens on the sideline. Six times, millions around the world waited as a game of skill and chance became hostage to pixels and certainty.
The French, who lost, were unhappy. They were not alone. Social media blew up over one penalty decision. Introduced to apparently eliminate controversial decisions, VAR has managed to shine the spotlight on even more controversies.

Football fans, like all sports fans, cherish spontaneity. The chance to literally jump for joy when their team scores. But the VAR system adds stops in game play. When the tech takes over, as the on-field referee — wired up to communicate with a team of other officials in a room watching the action on myriad screens and from multiple camera angles — spends what seems like hours (in reality only minutes) checking a screen for an offside, a foul or similar. 

The difference between a goal being allowed or disallowed and, therefore, the outcome of a big match, comes down to mere millimetres invisible to the naked eye.

Many football fans think football already has enough stops — for free kicks, corners, injuries and blatant time-wasting. VAR just adds to these delays. It’s not too far-fetched to foresee European football becoming more stop-start like sports such as American football or handball where stops (or time-outs) are the norm. 

The main rationale for the introduction of VAR was fairness. Why should a bad, cowardly, or maybe even corrupt referee be granted the power of life and death, as Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly might have said. 

In sports economics there is a name for this, it is called uncertainty of outcome. This is a simple concept meaning that if we think we know the result beforehand, we will probably not spend time watching the match. Or in economic terms, the value of a sport event increases with the uncertainty of the outcome of the event.

Of course, this uncertainty cannot be too high. Complete randomness of the outcome means a lottery. Hence uncertainty must be balanced: too high (too unpredictable) or too low (same teams win all the time) and an event’s value will not be maximised. VAR puts that balance at risk.

European football has been in a competitive decline for years and it’s accelerating. Wealth disparity is one of the biggest issues. But the introduction of VAR threatens to hasten that decline by reducing the uncertainty of the outcome and giving already-dominant teams another advantage. It works like this: If the number of penalty kicks increases due to slow motion replays made available to the referee, this would surely favour the better teams which are more likely to be attacking their opponent’s goal more often, leading to more fouls and potentially more penalty kicks (and goals).

Penalties are converted around 75 percent of the time. Surely, weaker teams should utilise all legal means to improve their results: buying and selling the right players, hiring the best coaches, signing the best sponsor deals and so on. However, if shirt pulling or other fouls on attacking players become more visible to the referee via VAR, the weaker teams will lose a 100-year advantage of the referee only having one set of eyes. In short, the better teams get better, and the not-so-good teams get worse.

The uncertainty of outcome in England’s Division One (which became the Premier League) over the last 50 years has steadily declined, meaning matches are becoming more predictable. VAR will only hasten this development. As to what happens next, the signs are already there: just four or five teams have a realistic chance of winning the Premier League each year. These clubs are also the richest. It’s a trend being replicated across Europe.

The danger is interest will wane in uncompetitive leagues. Who will want to keep paying to watch games (either live or  via pay-for-view television) if the same teams keep winning? Ultimately, fewer fans means less revenue.

While VAR is not the only culprit in this, it is a sign of the playing field becoming less even. Which is ironic, given it was introduced to make things fairer. Getting rid of it could be one step in giving weaker teams more of a chance to square the ledger and bring back the uncertainty that makes football magic.

Kjetil Haugen is Professor of Logistics at Molde University College, Norway. He has a PhD in ComputerScience and an Msc. In Management Science from the Norwegian Institute of Technology. After initially doing research in Computer Science  he moved into Sports Economics/Science. He has been published in the Journal of Sports Economics, Sports Economics Review, European Sport Management Quarterly and Sports Economic Review.

Knut P. Heen is an associate professor at Molde University College, Norway. He holds a PhD in Business Economics from NHH Norwegian School of Economics and an MSc in Applied Geophysics from Norwegian University of Science and Technology. He has published on football related issues in Mathematics for applications, Sports , and European Journal of Sport Studies.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

Editors Note: In the story “Game changer: sport tech” sent at: 30/01/2023 09:57.

This is a corrected repeat.

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