New rule makes sports more competitive and fun to watch

Sports such as volleyball, badminton and squash can be made more competitive and thrilling to watch if the so-called ‘Catch-Up Rule’ is applied, according to researchers Steven Brams (New York University, US), Mehmet Ismail (UM), Marc Kilgour (Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada), and Walter Stromquist (Swarthmore College, US). Last year, Mehmet Ismail and Professor Steven Brams  applied the Catch-Up Rule to the football penalty shootouts. Read this news release.

Catch-up Rule
The Catch-Up Rule gives equally skilled players and teams the same probability of winning a game as under what the researchers call the present Standard Rule—while keeping scores closer throughout the competition and thereby increasing the drama and tension of a close game. The Catch-Up Rule gives the serve to the player who has lost the previous point—as opposed to the player who won the previous point, as is now done under the Standard Rule. This provides the loser of a previous point the opportunity to catch up, which makes the game more competitive and exciting to watch. To demonstrate the effects of the Catch-Up Rule in real life, they invite local and regional sports associations to experiment with trying it in a tournament.

Game Theory
The researchers mathematically show that the Catch-Up Rule not only gives the same probability of winning as the Standard Rule in best-of series (for example, a best-of-15 series, wherein the first player to win 8 points is victorious), but it also ensures that the scores of the players remain close throughout the game: A win-win situation for both players and spectators.

Occasionally, manipulation occurs in major sports tournaments, such as the badminton scandal during the London Olympics in 2012, when players deliberately lost to face an adversary they preferred in the next match. The Catch-Up Rule was also analysed from a game-theoretic point of view: Is it possible to strategize in a game played under this rule? The researchers found that players cannot benefit from deliberately losing a point under the Catch-Up Rule.

“Unlike most service sports, table tennis and tennis have service rules that fix who serves and for how long. The tennis tiebreaker is fair in the sense of precluding a player from winning simply because he or she has had more serves than an opponent, whereas the table tennis tiebreaker favors the first server,” the researchers say. Last year, Mehmet Ismail (UM) and Professor Steven Brams (NYU) applied the Catch-Up Rule to the football penalty shootouts and showed that the shootouts could be made fairer by switching the order in which the penalties are taken according to the Catch-Up Rule, which will appear in the paper ‘Making the Rules of Sports Fairer’ forthcoming in SIAM Review.

Van Basten
In service sports such as tennis, volleyball, badminton and squash, rules have changed over time, which suggests that the respective associations are open to innovation. Will sports associations be interested in applying the new rule? “We first discussed this with regard to our study on football penalty shootouts,” says Mehmet Ismail, “and we realized that especially in football, FIFA has been traditionally conservative towards implementing more modern rules. We never even tried to contact them. But now that Van Basten, who is reported to be progressive and open to innovation and new ideas, has been appointed as Chief Officer for Technical Development at FIFA, we hope the situation will change and FIFA will be more open to listening to our arguments.”

The researchers are well aware that it means quite a lot to make changes in sports that are played worldwide following the same rules. Therefore, they hope to find associations that are willing to implement the new rule in smaller tournaments at the local or regional level to test the results. There was an experiment in 2016 that supports the researchers’ claims, but more experiments will be necessary. Mehmet Ismail says: “We would be very interested in working with sports officials or coaches to see how the Catch-Up Rule works in practice. We therefore invite smaller associations in the area to contact us so that we can organize a tournament that plays according to the new rule. That will allow everyone to see the effects in real life.”

The paper ‘Catch-Up: A Rule that Makes Service Sports More Competitive’ is available to download here.

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