Anyone in my fantasy football league will readily tell you that I’m never satisfied with the status quo. Every summer at our annual owners meeting (we take our league rather seriously), I present a point-by-point list of twenty or so league changes I’d like to see implemented for the coming season. Because we use a website that allows us to customize just about every facet of the game, I often view our league as my own personal laboratory to tinker with things to create the best possible game experience.
This fascination with game design naturally spilled over into real sports, and I’m not alone. I find more and more frequently that when people talk sports, they talk about everything but the sport itself. Almost no casual (or even relatively serious) fans have substantial discussions on Justin Verlander’s devastating curveball against lefties or Andrew Luck’s recognition of zone blitz schemes, but you’ll hear hours of conversation (and endless columns) on the Redskins’ nickname controversy, the addition of a second MLB wild card, or the NFL overtime rules. Like it or not, the modern sports discussion is shifting from what happens on the field during games to virtually everything around it, and that’s what this site is trying to capture.
Lower The Mound will be my platform to present changes I’d like to see in modern sports. The topics will have a sharp statistical focus (bell curve alert!) and mostly focus on the four major North American sports (NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB), but the coverage range will likely expand with time. Anything and everything is up for discussion, ranging from basic rules of the game (such as MLB lowering the pitcher’s mound in 1969), to standings procedures, schedule design, and league financial structure.
First I want to set a few guidelines: These ideas all have to be somewhat realistic, and by “somewhat realistic,” I mostly mean, “won’t cost the leagues millions of dollars” and “won’t cause massive class-action lawsuits.” So no, there can’t be any “eliminate TV timeouts” or “allow broadcasters to curse on air” ideas—wait, actually hold that thought on that last one. Every Tuesday, there will be a new original idea post, and throughout the rest of the week, there might be occasional shorter posts responding to new ideas proposed by other writers. Other fun related sections such as “how to cheat at sports” (one of my favorite topics to mull over) could likely appear.
A big model for everything will be the NFL. Over the last decade, it’s hard not to notice how the NFL has revolutionized the sports-watching culture of America, taking numerous slots for the annual highest rated shows and completely monopolizing viewership for three nights a week in the fall. Like most other Americans, I’ve also been swept up in the national NFL hysteria, so while it’s certainly my favorite major sport, there won’t be as many posts about it here, as I personally think that compared to other leagues, there are very few major errors with what I’m inclined to say is a relatively flawless league (other than the whole widespread debilitating brain trauma thing.)
The most finely crafted “game” setups in American culture today are not found in massive stadiums or nationally televised broadcasts, but rather in your living room in the form of board games. The principles that make great board games—a good balance of parity while still ensuring the best players succeed a high percentage of the time (what I call the fairness-excitement spectrum—more on that later), a length of time that doesn’t drag on too long, and an even starting playing field for all competitors—are all-too-often missing from the realm of sports.
Of course, bringing about change in professional sports isn’t as easy as shifting Madden from “pro” to “all-pro.” Leagues are run by dozens of owners and hundreds of corporate bureaucrats, and if history has told us anything, they are extremely adverse to taking risks or trying anything new. In fact, the boldest move any pro sport has made over the last decade might be… NASCAR implementing a playoff? (If NASCAR is your most progressive sports league, it might be time for some more changes.)
And in their defense, it’s a fair question to ask why should they change? Pro sports are a multi-trillion—yes, trillion with a “T”—dollar industry. Why shouldn’t they be happy? Because as Don Draper told the dominant Dow Chemical, happiness is simply “a moment before you need more happiness.” Just look at how unsatisfied NFL owners are with only taking in a paltry (tax-exempt) $10 billion in annual revenue. There’s always room for growth, and it doesn’t have to just be in the form of financial gains in the owners’ wallets. There’s certainly a lot of room for improvement that benefit the players, fans, and game itself.
Fans themselves usually aren’t particularly open to change either. I’ve found that a lot of the things that suck about sports are simply in place due to the hallowed grandeur of “tradition.” “Oh, we can’t change that. We’ve always done it that way,” is a common refrain from fans when new ideas are suggested.
This isn’t to say that tradition is entirely meaningless. It certainly has some (somewhat) quantifiable value for the sake of historical records, familiarity, and branding. But it’s certainly not an end-all, be-all dealbreaker, and many leagues have made great strides since “breaking tradition” with their past m.o. (Anyone still wish there were no three-point line or free agency? Ok, Dan Gilbert probably wishes there weren’t free agency.)
While the media likes to paint pro sports owners as greedy fat cats with no care for the fans, in the grand scheme of things, this narrative is mostly false. Sure, in some instances owners certainly do slight the fans for some extra dough, but in the big picture, fan experience and owner profits are highly positively correlated. It’s simply bad business to produce a product your customers don’t enjoy (or in the NFL’s case, are scarily addicted to). So in proposing these ideas for how to improve sports, I try to take the perspective of a McKinsey consultant, primarily having the sports’ best (i.e. financial) interests in mind, with a better fan experience simply being a side effect.
Anyways, thanks for being a part of this early stage, and I hope you stick around. Exciting things are on the way!