December 25, 2007

Scoring Change for Indoor and Beach Volleyball

A number of years ago, American volleyball went through a drastic change - we switched to a new scoring format. This is scoring change is no longer new and we are far enough out from the switch to take an experienced view of the impact.

When I say American volleyball it is because this change affected indoor men's and women's volleyball, along with men's and women's beach volleyball which adopted the rally score system. Some could argue that American beach volleyball went through the most drastic change with the implementation of a new scoring format, new match format and a different size court.

If we narrow our focus to college indoor volleyball and the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) beach tour, a few general conclusions begin to emerge from our multi-year use of these new formats.

With regards to college indoor volleyball, the scoring change has been bad for women's volleyball and good for men's volleyball. Let's start with the positive - Men's volleyball was suffering from too much of a good thing: Power. By that, there is so much power in men's volleyball and the attackers are registering such high kill percentages that the old format of sideout scoring leads to match lengths being too long and hitters taking too many swings. Rallies where the ball travels back and forth across the net are almost non-existent in men's college volleyball - it is honestly one great kill, followed by another great kill and then you get an occasional great block or unreal jump serve - the physicality of the men's game while played on an 8 foot net with players who fly, is surreal. The switch to rally score has allowed the men's game to operate within a tighter time frame, while limiting the significant amount of swings that hitters must take match after match. I enjoy watching men's volleyball more with rally score then I did with sideout scoring.

The women's college volleyball game presents the flip side of the coin - rally score has not helped women's volleyball. If a statistician was to plot the growth history of women's indoor volleyball (by attendance or matches on television) before the change to rally score, and then project that growth into the future, I would be stunned if it was less than what women's volleyball has experienced since the change to rally score. The average fan may well say they like the sport more with rally score, but that same fan would like soccer better if they shortened the field and reduced each team by 4 players - does this change make soccer better? Women's college volleyball has less power and the hitters do not attack at such a high percentage, thus points were being scored plenty fast in the side-out format. The average length of matches was relatively predictable and when a match took a long time, it meant that this match was closely contested. We have brought a drastic change in our sport that eliminates comebacks and penalizes aggressive play, all in the name of controlling the length of matches and placing more matches on television. By the attendance numbers and matches I watch pm television, it was a bad bargain (I can't even say "we" because the coaches and conferences voted against the change).

Good change for men - Bad change for women.

With beach volleyball, I would like to take the liberty of including the new court size in my monologue. Women's pro beach volleyball has tremendously benefited from the change in formats and I believe that this is evident in the stellar popularity of May and Walsh. With the old sideout format and the big court, the women's beach games would drag on forever and generally be bit a bit boring. Because the court was big (by comparison to today's court) the players could cut and shoot almost every ball and the defender could not chase down these shots because there was just too much space to cover - the block was relatively ineffective because the attacker could avoid the blocker and still have space to hit/shoot the ball. Teams would just sideout forever and a day, thus matches would drag on for a long, long time. Now, with the smaller court, the hitters are impacted by the block more and the defenders don't have to cover as much space. This has resulted in more physical type plays (blocks, hard hits), while also encouraging more rallies because defenders can dig the hard driven ball and still chase many shots down. To me, women's beach volleyball is significantly more fun to watch now, then with the older rules.

The pro beach men's game has really suffered with the change to the new format. It has moved completely away from a game that combined power and finesse to a game that is just a sandy version of indoor volleyball. The change to rally score, combined with the short court has put a premium on two things - hitting and blocking. Each serve is a free ball, the sets are perfect (thanks to FIVB setting rules) and the hitter and blocker just go after each other - rallies are an endangered species. Because the court is small, cut shots are ineffective. Traditionally, the really tall players were liabilities as partners because they would get lit up on jump serves, but now with the small court, who can't pass a free ball? The rally format to 21 (first two games, then 15 in the third) gets stale when the sideout percentage is so high that two 'real' point make the difference in the game - not too exciting when you figure it out. When I watch beach volleyball, I am just seeing high ball attack after high ball attack going against a great block - if I wanted to watch this, I would watch indoor volleyball. I believe I am not the only one who feels this way, because the number of men's pro beach matches on television is nothing compared to a few years ago.

Men's beach bad and Women's beach good.

I find it interesting to view these four sports (indoor women and men, beach women and men) and how the BIG change has played out. I can understand the revamped AVP Tour making the change because by definition the focus of the Tour is professional - to make money; they need to do what they feel is best to ensure the survival of their livelihood and after the debacle of the AVP in the late 90's, the Tour had no grounds to stand upon to resist outside change.

College volleyball is another situation - our livelihood does not depend upon sponsorship or tournament prize money. I am and will be forever disappointed in the change to rally score for the two basic reasons that comebacks are statistically eliminated and every mistake is penalized. I accept the change in men's volleyball because of the overt physicality of the game (match time and player health). I do not support the change for women's volleyball - it has made no discernible positive impact upon the sport, but rather made us look like a profession willing to desperately grab for any shiny new hope for the elevation to legitimacy.

Wow, that was deep!