Hadn’t actually thought of the rules of professional sports leagues as a market design issue before, but Richard Epstein’s column in Forbes proposing rule changes for soccer suggests the idea. Epstein suggests a couple of changes, drawing on basketball and hockey for inspiration:
- First, he says goals scored in the run of play be granted two points, like a basketball shot, while penalty kicks remain worth a single point.
- Second, yellow card and red card infractions should be penalized with time in a hockey-like penalty box.
With soccer the most popular sport in the world, it isn’t immediately obvious that it is in need of reform. Why tamper with all that success? Yet, Epstein has some good points. Sometimes a minor foul in the 18-yard box results in a game-winning penalty kick, while a much more serious foul just outside the box leads to a mere free kick. A red card near the beginning of a match is a much harsher penalty than a red card near the end of the match.
One argument for reform is fairness-based: penalties should be proportionate to the foul committed. A better line of argument (at least to my way of thinking) comes from market design thinking: what incentives do the rules create, and does the resulting behavior add to or detract from the game? Consider a striker heading to goal and making slight contact with a defender in the 18-yard box: does the striker take a dive in hopes of gaining the all-but-certain penalty kick goal or shake it off and take a shot in the run of play? Epstein’s rule change would offer an incentive to the striker to choose athleticism over a theatrical dive, surely an improvement.
Epstein’s proposals may not be the best, but they are worth exploring. I join him in calling for experiments on the topic! Let’s see if the rule changes would bring about desirable changes in performance.