Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Match-Play Reviewed: The Long-Time Gym Fan's Perspective

For quite some time, the gymnastics world has been buzzing about Justin Spring's match-play meet format. Will it work? Will people like it? Will it over-simplify the complexity of men's gymnastics? 

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!


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.

Problem areas

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.

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  2. The gymnastics part of the competition only took 2 hours and 40 minutes. After the coin toss and and march out the first two minute one touch actually started at around 7:10pm. The last Illinois high bar routine ended at 9:51pm. 2 hours and 40 minutes is still way too long for a gymnastics competition though. I will say however, the Big Ten Network was responsible for holding the judges sometimes 30 seconds before and after every athlete selection, routine and point score

  3. I actually did not time the meet, I just took what other people's word for what the time was, which I probably should not have done, and for that I apologize.

    That said, people who wanted to get a decent seat probably got there by around 6 30pm, and some may have stayed for awards. This maybe where the impression of "longness" came from.

    I attended the Stanford Cal meet that was aired on the PAC-12 network, and that meet was also slowed somewhat by the TV crew. However, this allowing me to see more of the individual gymnastics more than made up for the little extra added time.

    I'm assuming the goal is to get more men's gymnastics on T.V., so the length of time of a televised meet should be taken into account.

    It was the first run, so I would assume that even with a T.V. crew there future editions would become shorter as people adjust to the format.

  4. I don't like this approach because it really requires pairing gymnasts on the same event with the same judges. Even when all 10 gymnasts are paired on the same apparatus, the strategy of matching gymnasts to gymnasts is too focused on individuals (requiring knowledge of individuals on the other team, to a large extent). I'd like to see it more focused on the team.

    One variation I could get on board with is awarding points by apparatus — if your team wins the apparatus, you get a point. (For rare ties, both teams would earn the point.) That could lead to 3-3 ties (or super rarely, 4-4 ties). But here's an idea that lights two candles with the same match: to encourage all-around competition, the team with the guy who won the all-around wins the tie-breaker... Or maybe require two all-arounders with 3-up, 3-count for the team-apparatus points.