Normally, I don’t like talking about events that take place on the field, but today I’m going to make an exception. On Wednesday night, a World Cup qualifying soccer match was decided by one person who made a mistake that was easily identifiable by a simple video replay. However, because the sport was dependent on an archaic system of in-game governance that was developed decades if not centuries ago, the result of the game and any number of future events has been permanently altered.
This same situation has happened in multiple major sporting events over the past few months, including several prominent errors in the MLB playoffs, but for the most part, the governing bodies for these organizations prefer to stand by and depend on their “traditional” means for making all in-game decisions. This system may have made sense was professional sports was more of a casual pastime, but now it is a multi-billion dollar global industry, and each one of these incorrect decisions can have serious repercussions. A team that misses the next round of playoffs because of a bad call loses out on millions in ticket revenue. A player that is invalidly judged by an official’s decision can lose the chance at significant endorsement money. An entire league can suffer (or benefit) because of an officiating decision that impacts what teams are playing and the television ratings that come with those teams.
Meanwhile, sports organizations have embraced technology in almost every other form, from evaluating the players statistically to refining their business processes. Clearly everyone recognizes the importance of technology as sports have evolved, but yet for some reason, they refuse to let the technology onto the field in the form of instant replay. Would any other industry operate in this manner? Can you imagine if Walmart decided that they needed to use a more “traditional” way to run their checkout lines and made the staff type in each number, because “that’s how they’ve always done it.” The errors that would occur would ultimately have a significant impact on their business, ruining their other technological advantages that they’ve developed in their inventory management processes.
I understand that trying to add instant replay into sports is a complicated process with many potential pitfalls. This is why I give a lot of credit to the NFL for their work in this area. They acknowledged the problem, created a replay system, and constantly work to refine it based on the needs of the sport. I would hope that more sports, like soccer and baseball for example, eventually decide to follow the NFL’s lead and develop their own comparable systems. Putting aside the game for a moment, there is simply too much money riding on what happens on the field for everyone to overlook these issues.