Soccer rules as a market design problem

Michael Giberson

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.


9 thoughts on “Soccer rules as a market design problem

  1. Perfect. I am in favor of any rule change that would discourage or penalize the ridiculous diving seen at all levels of soccer. How about a yellow card if a player runs down field within five minutes of rolling around on the ground like his leg is broken in 18 places?

  2. I think soccer is a crashing bore. Tie Tie Tie. Who cares? Not me. So what if it is the most popular sport in the world? It just shows that the world is swathed in benighted ignorance. No news there. As for rule changes in soccer. That is easy.Turn it into real football.

  3. Another option: a switch to what in Italian is called “tempo effettivo”, literally “effective time”. A study was done a short while back that showed most football games only see on average 40 minutes of actual play. So cut the two halves down to 30 minutes with the clock stopped when play stops. Remove a lot of time wasting.

  4. Well, the point change would be welcome, but hard to actually set into practice, though it is logical. Along this line, I think that draws should also be devalued to the same level of a loss, as to encourage more offensive play.

    I doubt the time penalty is a good idea, because fouls in soccer are more dangerous than most fouls in Hockey or Basketball. If you get a red card, you usually fouled in a way that could cause SERIOUS injuries. Sadly, this Championship saw an abysimal performance on this subject. Most refrees were too hard and over-reacted with a red card. Also, I think refrees should consult all parties before drawing cards, because you can’t take back wrong decisions.

    For me the introduction of video proofs would already make for a good start and as the NHL has shown faulty play can be verified within seconds. Sadly, the old geezers in the FIFA don’t wanna follow that course, because it would “diminish the human component” ^^ Whatever that means (unfair play I believe).

  5. @Fat Man: Well, this is what we call hyper-active children. People like you would also ridicule Chess, because “nothing” happens for a long long time, but yet, this game can be very interesting to someone who has the brains (and the stomach) to dwelve into the subject matter.

    It is a bit like the difference between Ice-Hockey and Baseball, ice hockey is a game of speed and quick reactions, baseball is a tactical game, where there is a more measured pacing.

    So, just because you don’t get slow sports, doesn’t mean that the majority of the people around the world are ignorant idiots…

  6. Obviously Richard Epstein doesn’t know soccer.

    PK’s are given for fouls inside the 18 because these are deemed to be fouls that denied a much more likely scoring opportunity than those outside of the box. After all, that’s what the 18 is for.

    As for the reds and yellows – change this rule and you remove (or, at least, greatly reduce) the incentive to avoid them. As Max mentioned, straight red offenses are generally very dangerous tackles with a high likelihood of injury to the victim. Second-offense red cards are fairly distributed as no one likes a repeat offender.

    Epstein compares soccer to hockey, so let’s take a closer look: There is a much, much higher number of 2:00 penalties in a hockey game than both yellows and reds combined in a soccer match (which is, by regulation, 30 minutes longer!). Yet we need to make soccer more like hockey?

    If we’re going to discuss changing such fundamental aspects of the rulebook, let’s at least think beyond stage one.

  7. I think that video replay should only be used to see if the ball crosses the line. Debating if all the shoving in the box constitutes a foul would take forever. The benefit of checking to make sure it crosses the line means the game is rarely stopped, and frees up the refs to look at the play an not if the ball when in. Refs also take into consideration that minor fouls are often not called if it’s in the box(with high degree of variance) and red cards deserved to be kicked out. They are either serious fouling to cause possibly career ending injuries or stops obvious goal chances. I don’t think the foul for cards are a problem. But a penalty kick getting only half a point has the perverse effect of causing players to foul MORE in the box. If somebody has a very high chance of scoring, above 50% your telling them to foul. And if they are only out for a short period of time it’s even more likely. And the chance of scoring isn’t near certain, I think around 75% give of take 10%. Soccer also gets a bad rap for diving, but it happens in every sport. A lot even in Hockey.

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