Technology has had a profound impact on the way we play, analyze, and regulate sport. The 21st century has ushered in this new age where knowledge is power in the world of sports. Instant replay has been used by referees in baseball, American football, and tennis to ensure they make the correct calls. Last Friday, Major League Soccer (MLS) commissioner Don Garber told Sports Illustrated that they would be interested in allowing FIFA to test instant replay in MLS as early as 2015. Garber told Sports Illustrated,
I don’t know what their plans are to experiment with that, but I believe the time has come for there to be a mechanism so that games are not determined by [referee calls] that are not right.
The first use of this sort of technology in soccer was the introduction of goal-line technology (GLT) in the 2014 FIFA World Cup as well as the Barclays’ Premier League (BPL) in England. MLS initially looked to put GLT on trial last year but found it was too expensive.
There are several companies which could provide such services to MLS. The obvious but perhaps most expensive one would be GoalControl, the German based company that provided GLT for the FIFA World Cup in 2014. Their reputation and involvement in soccer makes them a leading candidate for this undertaking. Hawkeye, the British based company that uses ball tracking technology in tennis, could also throw their hat into the ring to allow referees to review certain plays. Harris Company was the first company to install high-definition instant replay cameras and monitors in NFL stadiums when instant replay was officially used in games starting in 1999. Various other companies could also provide these same services, including a company such as DVSport. This company currently provides instant replay technology to myriad college and professional sports. Since video replay is an important part of many other American professional sports, choosing a provider would be relatively easy and cheap since competition between replay companies would drive down price.
If instant replay is used to assist referees in game-changing decisions, such as penalty kicks, offsides, and red card fouls, this could open up advertising opportunities for MLS. The game does not lend itself to the same sorts of advertising that American sports fans are familiar with, such as commercial breaks.
Companies could look to become the official sponsor of the video replay while other MLS sponsors might use the stoppage in play as an additional opportunity for broadcasters to plug their product. This could increase the value of the sponsorship deal and bring more money to MLS or other leagues around the world.
America’s crowded sports landscape makes MLS a hard sell to the casual sports fans. Some cite players embellishing fouls to earn penalties as a reason that soccer does not appeal to American sports fans, especially fans whose favorite sport already uses replay. Video replay could potentially prevent players from flopping and attract more casual fans to MLS. Indeed, basketball already has penalties for players who ‘flop’ during contact. The use of replay in sports inherently increases the drama of sports, as fans enjoy making their own judgment while awaiting the ref to make their decision.
If MLS becomes the only league to institute video replay in soccer, the league would draw attention from soccer fans and other leagues around the world. This would raise the profile of the league even outside of the United States, something MLS has struggled to do considering the high profile of European leagues such as Spain’s La Liga or England’s BPL.
The financial cost of setting up replay in MLS stadiums may very well be worth the investment if advertising revenue and viewership increase. There is a calculated risk for MLS to test out video replay. If the public, MLS, and FIFA agree that it detracts from the game, MLS may appear as a second-rate league to fans and players around the world. The unpopularity of video replay could leave fans with the impression video replay is merely an Americanization of a game that has satisfied the public for over one hundred years.
The testing of video replay in MLS could potentially open up Pandora’s Box for more instant replay, a scenario that most traditionalist soccer fans fear. No sport that has instituted instant replay has ever rescinded it later. As seen in other American sports, a consequence of the introduction of instant replay is an expansion of the types of plays which can be reviewed. The same could be said for video replay in soccer. For most sports, video replay ensures the referee does not negatively impact the game and thus enhances the sport. Soccer is generally uninterrupted and reliant on referee interpretation on fouls. Soccer is a game of continuous action. There are no huddles, times between pitches to a batter, or endless free throws to enable an official to go to a monitor to review a play. Video replay would unnecessarily slow down the game, which is considered sin by many traditionalists.
Before FIFA President Sepp Blatter leads the charge to change the international rules to allow for instant replay, he should consider the impact it might have outside of the sport. Once Pandora’s Box is opened, there might be no “upon further review”…