Tradition Vs. Evolution: Should Authorities Leave Sports Rules Alone?

Sports evolve over time. 2023, for instance, marks fifty years of having a designated hitter in MLB American League lineups. While that rule change is highly significant, sports authorities make minor changes all the time. They might not always filter down to the youth level, but often, they do.

The problem, however, is that not all changes are universally popular, both with fans and teams. For instance, the jury is still out on the pitch clock adopted by MLB and various other leagues in the United States and globally. It has an impact – shorter games, more runs and stolen bases – but some fans believe it affects the “purity” of the game. A New York Times op-ed suggested the clock had caused baseball to “lose its poetry”.

The point here is not to debate the pitch clock or designated hitter, but generally the tinkering of the rules in sports. In most cases, you would argue that rule changes become accepted over time, even if that is to the detriment of the purist ‘art’ of the game. Sure, there might be some pushback on the pitch clock now, but it’ll likely be accepted as the status quo in a decade.

Authorities don’t like to revert once a new rule has come in

Yet, the problem perhaps lies in revoking a new rule if it is proving to be unpopular. A good example of this is the use of VAR (video assistant referee) in soccer. At the moment, we might go as far as saying that VAR is universally loathed. There is a growing movement to scrap the technology, but, as hinted above, it’s very rare for authorities to go back on a rule change once it’s been implemented.

Most rule changes are aimed at making games more exciting. Or at least, what authorities perceive as more exciting. Often, this is more aimed at television audiences rather than fans at the games, which can lead to issues. For instance, in certain soccer leagues, and during the 2022 FIFA World Cup, they brought in new rules to calculate how much injury time was added at the end of games. At a stroke, the amount of time added went up from an average of a few minutes to 10-15 minutes in some cases. This could impact everything from fans’ post-game travel fans to those engaging in fantasy sports or live betting on the outcome of a match.

Rules may take some of the purity of a sport away from fans

Getting back to baseball and the pitch clock, as well as related rules like limited pickoff attempts, you can cast your mind back to 2004 and the ALCS Game 4 between the Red Sox and Yankees. It’s the bottom of the 9th inning, and the Sox, who are down by a run, have Dave Roberts on 1st base as a pinch runner. What follows is one of the most tense few minutes in sports history as Roberts attempts to steal a base with the great Mariano Rivera on the mound for the Yankees. It was a wonderful advert for baseball as a sport, and it’s not quite clear it would have happened with the new rule changes.

Again, the idea is not to criticize the pitch clock in itself – perhaps baseball games do go on a bit long. But authorities must be careful not to tinker so much as to change the fabric of the game. Baseball, at its best, is tense. In the same manner, soccer – which has become more stop-start since the introduction of VAR – is supposed to be free-flowing. For disparate reasons, new rule changes have taken away some of those characteristics that made fans fall in love with the game in the first place.

Baseball is fine at the moment, and it’s not as if we are going to see a fan revolt. But each change takes away from the purity of the game, even if those changes are welcome. The fear, however, is that continuous changes pander to television audiences, as well as auxiliary stakeholders, such as advertisers, and that may come to the detriment of the key participants – fans and players.

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