Rugby sportsbiz VAR

Is VAR And Other “Advancements” Actually Doing More Harm Than Good?

November 1, 2023

In this week’s Member Insights piece, Richard Brinkman focusses on the use of tech on the field of play and whether sport has not taken things too far with things like VAR and the Bunker review in rugby. Are these “advancements” actually doing more harm than good?

I’m just going to call it – I am not convinced that Sport and Technology are a good mix.

Before too many hands are thrown in the air and “dinosaur” comments are thrown at screens I should clarify : I don’t mean that sport and tech are not happy bedfellows in the business of sport (quite the contrary) but that technology’s involvement on the field of play might, on balance, be becoming more problematic than it is advantageous.

There can be absolutely no doubt that technology has been a huge enabler to the sports industry in the last decade. In terms of facilitating the rapid amplification of messaging, of increasing the opportunity for followers to interact with their favourite stars, teams and/or sports, or in just creating so many more touchpoints and opportunities to see for sports, the technology sector has been a hugely positive driver of the “fan experience”.

This, of course, has opened up numerous commercial opportunities as well as additional learnings about potential and existing customer groups for sports businesses. Tech has also enabled the swift sharing of these learnings and the deployment of the subsequent decisions and actions that are taken as a result.

However, these decisions and actions rely on a good understanding of the additional information that technological advances are continually producing. This insight needs to take into account history, context and a multitude of other factors and so requires a high degree of sophisticated human interpretation to guide the quality of any decision made.

It is this grey area of human interaction and interpretation of the information that is proving so problematic for sport on the field of play.

Given that technology has been such a “game-changer” for sport off the field it is only natural that thinly stretched and resourced executives might look to technology to provide impetus, interest and clarity during game-play. Perhaps this could even further augment the enhancements to “fan experience” that have occurred this century?

Indeed, initial uses of tech within the action itself were largely successful. Hawkeye technology was quickly embedded into tennis and the ability for players to have limited opportunities to question dubious line-calls added to the entertainment spectacle. Similarly, use of the same tech to power the DRS system that enables captains to try to eliminate the umpiring “howler” over LBW or catch decisions in cricket has given a largely positive additional element to tactics and decision-making on the field, that in turn adds to the viewer experience.

The eventual adoption of similar technology into football and rugby to definitively rule whether the ball was grounded and over the line for a try or whether it completely crossed the line for a goal has also been helpful and, I believe, additive (not detrimental) to the enjoyment of the game.

However, all these instances rely on measuring one moving object (usually the ball) against one static object (usually a line). This delivers a definitive conclusion – all of the ball was beyond the line or it was not, the ball would have hit the stumps or it would not etc. This can then be applied to the umpiring/refereeing decision made on the field to ensure that the correct final decision is reached in a transparent and widely understood way.

The next logical step has been, of course, to then try and apply to technology to all debatable or potentially controversial decisions. The most obvious examples of this being VAR for offsides in football and TMOs (Television Match Officials) for “foul play” in rugby.

This seems to be where things become blurred. The technology in these instances is dealing with two moving objects doing something simultaneously in the context of everything else going on around them. Therefore, it needs human interpretation to judge which player was ahead of the other at the exact moment the ball was played, whether the tackle was dangerous or whether the arm merely rode up as a result of the actions of the tackled player etc. Human interpretation equals subjectivity. which equals a possibly valid contrary view, which equals controversy and potential confusion.

Having observed both VAR and TMOs in action for over two years now (with various iterations and apparent refinements along the way) my personal view is that both are, overall, detrimental to the game for both players and spectators. Recent high-profile examples both in the Premier League and at the Rugby World Cup have shown that neither system guarantees the correct or just outcome any more than the instinct of top-level referees.

Indeed, both can merely serve to enflame the injustices they are designed to eliminate whilst simultaneously undermining the position and confidence in the officials on the pitch. In addition, they artificially interrupt the flow and narrative of a game, slow down action and erode the ability of any kind of viewer to truly believe in what they have just seen.

There is very little that is as soul-destroying when watching (or I would imagine participating) in sport than to watch skilful attacking moves that result in tries/goals being “pulled back” for a minor infringement that has been spotted by the dispassionate observers “in the truck”.

The entertainment product is secondary to the “right” decision. This is fine as long as the market agrees with you – increasingly they seem confused, fed up and not listened to. The fact that those who pay the bills are as likely as not to be watching a contest where one team has fewer players than the other is deemed to be a price worth paying to transform player “behaviour” and maximise player welfare by minimising the chances of them getting hurt.

And yet, observers to the sport’s showpiece will have seen numerous incidents of the world’s best and most highly trained rugby players committing “illegal” tackles, making contact with the head and clearing opposition players from rucks in a manner deemed unacceptable. This is not because the players do not know the rules and ramifications, it is not because they are incompetent, it is not because they go out to deliberately commit foul play and hurt the opposition, it is not because they are unfit or not well trained. Rather, in 98% of cases it is because they are human and therefore prone to mistakes, and because the nature of the sport makes a degree of danger inevitable.

Wilfully violent play and egregiously bad conduct has thankfully all but disappeared from international and professional rugby. And yet, due to the influence of technology there have never been as many players spending time off the pitch.

Nor, has there ever been a time when so many pundits, coaches and players are left scratching their heads about the intricacies of VAR or the Bunker review system. The decisions made seem no less accepted and no more likely to be accurate or correct. Indeed, decisions made behind closed doors with a lack of immediate transparency or explanation have over history been shown to be deeply untrustworthy and undesirable.

In short, sport should be wary about trying to be too scientific over the imprecise and unpredictable nature of the games that it has guardianship of. Technology has a role but it should not be relied on to make sport perfect and eliminate all the wrinkles and characteristics that make each sport unique and appealing. After all, life and the people who live it are not perfect so why expect a game and the people who play and officiate it to be.

Sport is at its best when it holds a mirror up to life or acts as a metaphor to life. Dealing with injustices, poor decisions and taking the rough with the smooth is part of life. Its also part of sport as officiated by humans with all their quirks and foibles. Technology seemingly has its own imperfections whilst being advertised as infallible. I am not at all sure that a sport that gets every decision 100% accurate and contains no errors is what anyone wants or needs. I would implore governing bodies to do a good deal more thinking and testing than currently appears to happen before imposing more “objective” and “dispassionate” technology onto their sport. Not all tech is good tech!

Rugby sportsbiz VAR