The Bubble’s Best TV Innovation Deserves a Longer Look
When Major League Soccer began airing video review discussions in real time, it gave fans a rare glimpse inside its games’ biggest calls. More sports should try it.
By Andrew Keh
One thing that always got on Howard Webb’s nerves back when he was refereeing Premier League soccer games was the way fans and commentators would speculate on how he had arrived at some decision on the field.
Why did he make that call? What had he seen? Too often they were wrong.
The problem, he said last week, was that these people had no access to his thinking, and that he rarely had a way to explain himself. The circumstances were ripe for misinterpretation. It bothered him. It still does.
All this helps explain why Webb, the Englishman who now oversees refereeing in Major League Soccer, has joined the chorus of support for an innovation from the league and its television partners this summer: Earlier this month, during a televised game between Portland Timbers and F.C. Cincinnati, fans were able to watch and listen along as the match referee conferred with a video review official about whether a goal he had just awarded should be disallowed.
Their conversation, about a straightforward offside call, felt at once prosaic and radical.
Webb said it was the first time any league had provided such an intimate window into a video-review decision to fans in real time — a small but significant moment in the evolution of video review in sports.
“I think what fans don’t like is a lack of understanding of how a decision is reached, and then they sort of form their own conclusions,” said Webb, who in three decades as a professional referee officiated hundreds of matches, including both the World Cup and Champions League finals.
He’s not alone in hoping this new era of transparency catches on outside M.L.S.
The use, and misuse, of video replay has been a major story line in global sports in recent years, awarding (or negating) home runs in Major League Baseball, touchdowns in the N.F.L. and goals in hockey.
In soccer it has introduced fans to the job of the video-assistant referee, to the advanced geometry of computer-generated offside lines, and to heated debates about the relative scoring position of an armpit, or a backside. A separate but related discussion, about whether it’s really wise to rely on officials located hundreds of yards (or hundreds of miles) away, may never end.
Mostly, though, the rise of video review has left some of sports’ most important decisions shrouded in mystery.
“The irony of all this is when V.A.R. came in the one thing I heard from fans was that this will remove all the controversy, and we aren’t going to have any arguments about referees’ decisions,” said Derek Rae, a television commentator whose work includes international broadcasts of Germany’s Bundesliga. “Well, the reality is we’re having just as many debates.”
The debates are not just philosophical, either; in England, Bournemouth fans are still fuming about a blown call in a game involving two other teams that may have cost their team its place in the Premier League, a price that will be paid not just in pride but in the loss of tens of millions of dollars in revenue.
The agreement between M.L.S. and its referees to broadcast officials’ V.A.R. discussions for the world to hear runs only through their current tournament, which ends with a Portland-Orlando City final on Tuesday night. But given its success, and fans’ near-universal praise of it, there is a feeling from both sides that these real-time peeks behind the curtain will continue when the league resumes play in home markets later this week.
“We’re going to meet with them and try to push them in seeing the value of this moving forward,” M.L.S. Commissioner Don Garber said last week.
Amid the various headaches, anxieties, and fears produced while trying to play sports during a pandemic, could this bit of broadcast innovation prove to be one of the few bright spots of this strange sports moment? Is it even possible to close a window to a view this good once it has been opened?
Rae said fans seemed to have been “left behind a little bit” as V.A.R. integrated into leagues around the world. He pointed out that rugby and cricket broadcasts had long let viewers listen to referees’ conversations, and Australia’s A-League also released footage of soccer referees and V.A.R. officials working their way through calls last year — though that happened after games, not during them.
For Webb and Rae, it is small changes like having referees go to the video monitor to participate in every review (a protocol implemented in countries like Germany and the United States, but not in England) that have enhanced the officials’ ability to ultimately sell a call to players on the field. Letting fans listen in at home as they reach that decision is producing a similar persuasive effect.
As for trying it now, when most fans have no choice but to watch their favorite teams at home and when referees’ are spared their most caustic in-person critiques, “I think it’s a good time to experiment with these things,” Rae said.
Garber said it had always been his aim to integrate more ways for fans at home to experience M.L.S. games through audio and video innovations, even if they sometimes ran counter to worldwide broadcast conventions.
The league’s unusual summertime tournament and its restricted environment at Disney World helpfully provided something of a laboratory environment to test a few of those ideas.
“While it’s been 25 years, we still view ourselves as a start-up,” Garber said, adding that he prefers to “ask for forgiveness as opposed to approval” from FIFA and the other global governing bodies. Elements of soccer, after all, have always existed in grayish areas of subjectivity.
“I’ve always found it a head scratcher that you could watch a game on television and have an on-air broadcaster say, “For me, that’s a foul; For me, that’s a card,” Garber said. “I don’t understand what that even means.”
Match officials, he said, “are as much a part of the fan experience as anything else that takes place during a game.” And even as he acknowledged that they should have the room to exercise discretion at times, Garber said their decisions should never been seen as mysterious.
Webb is a convert. He was watching the game between Portland and Cincinnati at his hotel inside the M.L.S. bubble when he heard the television commentator announce that there was going to be a cut to the discussion from inside the V.A.R. booth. In the moment, Webb suddenly found himself getting nervous: Please let the technology work. Please let the officials do their jobs.
They did, leaving Webb optimistic that referees now had one less way to be misunderstood, as long as they remember that the action, not the referee, is the show.
“If referees become too much center stage, celebrity status, that’s in my opinion not a good place to be,” Webb said. “But if this humanizes them and makes people see them as the professionals they are, that they care about the game and work hard to have a positive influence, then that’s a good thing.”
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