Unfortunately, I was not able to travel from San Francisco to Champaign-Urbana to see the meet, so I asked a few gymnastics fans to write their reactions. This post was written by Ono No Komachi, a long-time men's gymnastics fan and a consistent contributor to the MAG gymternet. Enjoy!
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Why do people watch sports?
In an effort to increase the fan base of men’s NCAA gymnastics, Justin Spring and Daniel Ribeiro of The University of Illinois, asked themselves just that question. The results of their discussions lead to an experiment that took place at the Illinois versus Minnesota dual meet on Saturday, March 8th, 2013.
As a person with an interest in the future as well as the present of men’s college gymnastics, I traveled to Illinois to see the experiment. What follows are my impressions of the strengths and weaknesses of the match point format, questions about some of the assumptions behind it, and suggestions on how to turn the weaknesses into strengths.
The major strength of the new format is the elimination of much of the chaos and confusion of these meets by having one competitor compete at a time. I greatly enjoyed being able to see all the routines.
The head to head competition format provides spectators the ability to watch athletes directly face opponents, something that is missing from the traditional format but present in most other sports. I enjoyed trying to guess which routine would be the winner of each match.
The match point format also provides the opportunity for teams to use strategy based on reacting to what the opponent does, another element present in most sports but absent from the traditional format.
Being able to directly face one’s opponent and react to what the opposing team did may also make the meets more fun for the participants as well as the audience, and that aspect may help attract boys to the sport.
The meet was close to 3 & ½ hours long. This didn’t bother me at all. However, it will certainly be an issue for many people. I know many of the friends I have taken to meets would not have come if they knew the event would be this long.
The idea behind allowing coaches to make strategic changes to the lineups as the event unfolds appears to be to involve the audience in the meet by having them “think along” with the coaches. From the talk I heard from the spectators around me, this idea does have appeal. However, unless one is familiar with the past performances of all the athletes, their choices could look little different than a random lineup.
My major problem was the lack of availability of traditional scoring. The idea appears to be that the audience doesn’t understand F.I.G. scoring but does understand a team getting one point versus zero. I’m not sure how valid this assumption is, as someone with no understanding of the rules of gymnastics probably would have no more idea why one team got the point over the other than he or she would understand why one man got 13.3 and another got 14.6. All one needs to understand F.I.G. scoring form a sporting standpoint is the ability to determine if one number is larger than another.
I’m far from having a judge’s knowledge of the MAG code, in fact very far, yet for me the F.I.G. scores paint a bright picture of what happened during a meet. Removing them turned a picture with many colors into a monochrome one with many of the interesting details removed.
Although it wasn’t done in this case, I’m not a fan of stopping the meets once a specified score is reached. If meets are run in “Olympic Order”, this could bias the results in favor of teams who are strong on FX, PH, and SR. Even the changing the order of events becomes part of the strategy, I have issues with any system that reduces participation opportunities (including 5 up 5 count).* At least with 5 up 5 count, if a guy is good enough, he can make the lineup. With “abbreviated” match play, guys may end up not competing because of sheer bad luck.
To keep meets a reasonable length, it may be necessary to run two events simultaneously. If a man is being used in both events, one could be momentarily stopped while he competes on the other.
Show F.I.G. scoring to the audience. The “match point” format could still be used. One way to do this is to add an extra point to the F.I.G. score of the man who wins a particular match. This should lessen the probability of having a team with fewer points under traditional scoring win the meet. This format could also be a good tool to help those who wish to learn more about the traditional scoring. It is easier to get a general feel for which guy is better as opposed to calculating the exact score in one’s head, and each match would give fans immediate feedback on how well he or she was able to predict the result.
To help audiences follow along with coaches’ strategy in choosing lineups, it could be helpful to give fans information about the past performance of the gymnasts. This would allow them to follow along and also give some recognition to all the men on the team, as any one of them could be key to winning the meet.
The most important thing about this experiment was the willingness of the Illini to attempt to take control of their own destiny, as opposed to passively accepting the fate of certain death to which many have already consigned their sport.
Even if nothing comes of this experiment, the Illini have given the sport men’s college gymnastics hope and optimism – two things it sorely needs. For that and the willingness to take risks, they should be commended. Those things may not save the men’s NCAA, but without them it is truly lost.
*Editor's note: During the first part of the NCAA season, 6 gymnasts compete, and 5 scores count. After March 1, the team format switches to a 5-up-5-count format.
Here are some related links:
- An Illinois student's perspective on the meet
- GymCastic's interview with Justin Spring
- Post-meet interview with Justin Spring