Like a love affair, if a sport isn’t improving, it’s dying, especially in an age when there has never been more competition for diminishing attention spans. Sports’ rulebooks have always been mutable things, intermittently updated to move the sport forward, but not too far forward – you can leave your core audience behind. The best rule changes should simplify and not complicate – the competitors are perfectly capable of complicating matters themselves. Lastly, rule changes should work at all levels of a sport, not just for the elite.
So what rule changes do sports need today and do they meet the three criteria above?
Football – the distance defenders must retreat from a free-kick to be increased to twelve yards (eleven metres). This change would give full value to free-kicks just outside the box and encourage the return of the free-kick specialist (preferably temperamental and feuding with whoever is available). Prosaically, the extra two yards in the rulebook would guarantee the full ten yards on the pitch, as opposed to the nine or so granted to attacking sides by most referees too reluctant to stop the charging defender or the creeping wall.
Football – No automatic red card for the “professional foul” if a penalty is awarded. This is simply a re-interpretation of the current rule – a defender fouling an attacker in the box does not deny a goal-scoring opportunity, but creates one through the award of the penalty. The punishment would fit the crime and the fans would have the eleven vs eleven match they have the right to expect.
Football – the fourth official to keep time, stopping the clock for all breaks in play (at his sole discretion and not including time when the ball is off the field in the normal course of the game, eg preparing for a goal-kick). The fourth official to blow the whistle at half-time and full-time himself. 90 minutes football should mean exactly that, not 88 minutes football and 2 minutes sorting out substitutions or getting the physio on and off the field. In the often crucial and frenetic closing passages of play, the referee could concentrate fully on the play, not be glancing at two watches every ten seconds. When there is no fourth official, timekeeping reverts to the referee.
Cricket – “Bad light stops play” to be modified to “Dangerous light stops play”. Just one playing condition to apply worldwide. Floodlights must be used if available. The judgement of light to rest solely with the umpires and the deciding criterion to be danger, taking account of the protective equipment worn by batsmen. This is the de facto situation in the recreational game, so the change would apply through all levels of cricket.
Cricket – The match referee to decide on each session’s reasonable number of overs (with 15 the norm adjusted for genuine hold-ups in play) and penalise the fielding side one run for each ball not delivered, updating the extras on the scoreboard before the start of the next session. Everyone would know where they stand, as would spectators, who would get value for money. Outside the professional game, there are often local conditions for failure to bowl the required overs in the stated time – such conditions would remain.
Formula 1 – Pit stops for tyre changes to be allowed only if the tyre is “burst”. No re-fuelling allowed during the race. Managing tyre wear is a driving skill (as is fully accepted in motorcycle racing). Fans want to see overtaking on the track, not in the pits. Pit stops should be exceptional, not the product of computers modelling telemetry data. If a discarded tyre is assessed as functional in the parc ferme after the race, the driver is re-classified as DNF.
Boxing – Judges’ scores to be displayed on a scoreboard updated at the end of each round. The audience and the boxers would know where they stand, making fights more interesting and tactics towards the end of the fight more considered.
Tennis – Allow just one serve. The game would become more varied with the big serve a tactic instead of the norm. The serve earns too many cheap points, especially at junior level.