## Thoughts on FIVB’s 7 sets to 15 proposal

As you may have heard, the FIVB is planning to experiment at the upcoming U23 World Championship (August for the men, September for the women) with a new match format. This was reported by Volleywood based on this article. Flo Volleyball also reported on it. The proposal is to play best-of-7 set matches, with all sets going to 15 points.

Not surprisingly, the news triggered a lot of opinion.

Mark Lebedew was very blunt in his response. He thinks it’s a stupid idea. That was his immediate response on Twitter, but he followed up with a more reasoned blog post. In it he talks about match time concerns.

I would love to see some stats on match times. Mark (and others) seem to think the expressed problem is matches lasting too long. Personally, I think match length variability is the real issue. You can have anything from a 3-set blowout lasting maybe an hour up to a 5-set battle going longer than 2 hours.

###### What’s the set breakdown for match length?

I went through all matches played in 2016 by Lone Star Conference (LSC) teams* to look at the breakdown. It added up to 236 matches, and here’s the outcome split.

3 sets: 122 (51.6%)
4 sets: 69 (29.2%)
5 sets: 45 (19.1%)

It occurred to me that conference matches might be more competitive than non-conference ones, so I broke them out. Here’s the split for just the conference matches, of which there were 118 (including the conference tournament).

3 sets: 67 (56.8%)
4 sets: 28 (23.7%)
5 sets: 23 (19.5%)

It’s interesting to observe that 5-set matches are basically the same. There is, however, a higher proportion of 3-set matches between conference foes. I can’t help but think that is a function of how coaches schedule non-conference matches.

###### Match time length

If we assume each 25-point set takes about 25 minutes to play, and a 15-point set is about 15 minutes, we get an indication of approximately how long matches take. That is about 75 minutes, 100 minutes, and 115 minutes respectively for 3, 4, and 5-set matches. Obviously, that’s a rough guide.How long a match goes is a function of how competitive it is, and whether it’s consistently competitive (tight sets rather than trading off lopsided scores).

Everyone talks about the 2-hour TV time block as being the sweet spot to make volleyball attractive to broadcasters. If every match lasted four sets things would work out pretty well for that. The problem is less than a third of matches, based on the numbers above, actually hit that mark. Roughly half fall well short, and about 20% potentially run too long.

This is why I say variability is probably the biggest issue.

And I’m not just talking about that in terms of TV. It also impacts the on-site spectator experience – and the one for players and coaches as well. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s a real drag to travel hours for a match and have it last an hour. It’s very easy to wonder why you bother to make the trip.

###### Where does FIVB idea take us?

I don’t see going to a best-of-7 set format altering things much in terms of time variability. Yes, it most likely keeps matches under 2 hours if we continue to assume 15-minutes per set. Unfortunately, you still have the problem of a match only lasting an hour. That would be the case for a 4-setter.

This might be fine in the case of a big tournament like World Championships where teams play multiple matches and there are lots of them happening each day. As a stand-alone, though, all it would seem to do is solve the problem of matches running more than 2 hours. I personally don’t see that as being a major TV issue, as I’ve written about before.

###### More upsets?

There’s another side to this that I am really curious to see. That’s whether the 15-point sets lead to more set upsets. Generally speaking, the more points you play the more likely it is for the better team to win (same with playing more sets). Playing shorter sets means you have a greater influence of simple randomness. That could let to more instances of the weaker team winning sets than is currently the case. Presumably, the best-of-7 format would offset this, but I’ll be curious to see how it plays out.

###### Different mentality?

Also, there is the question of playing and coaching mentality. Is it different when only playing to 15 points? Making the high percentage play is probably the right strategy when you play a large number of points. When you play fewer points, though, there’s less time for the percentages to work out. How does that influence strategy and decision-making?

Also, what kind of impact does having to repeatedly get mentally up for the next game have on players? To an extent, with the longer sets players can play themselves into the action. They don’t have to worry too much about things not going well early. With the more sprint nature of shorter sets, though, that cushion goes away.

The bottom line is we have to see this new match structure in action to really gauge its implications.

Follow-up: John Kessel wrote the following about this format proposal. It matches much of what I noted above.

There are three things going on in these experiments.** 1. lengthening average matches. Currently world wide in best 3 of 5, 61% of the matches end 3-0, leaving fans going home “early” and TV having some 50 minutes of time left to “fill”; Junior play being best 2 of 3 means they fit in an hour time slot. By going to 4 of 7, and shortening the sets, then more upsets/longer matches still in the 2 hour window are more likely, see #2.. The move to rally meant shorter matches, but more upsets – and that is true statistically – refer to Finite Markov Chains for more on why this happens in all sports. The chance for upsets to occur means smaller nations/more nations might upset the top teams, and, as seen in soccer/futbal, that is a good thing to grow the game world wide.

* – The LSC is one of the stronger conferences in NCAA Division II women’s volleyball. In 2016 its top two teams finished the year in the Top-25 of the AVCA coaches poll.

** – The other “experiments” he is including are disallowing players to land in front of the service and attack (3m) lines on jump serves and back row attacks respectively.

## They won’t watch if it’s not enjoyable

A little while back, Mark Lebedew authored the post Selling Volleyball in which he basically took the volleyball community to task for the sport not being in a better situation with regards to its popularity worldwide.

To quote:

It is a widely agreed upon truism among volleyball people that volleyball deserves more respect and deserves wider media coverage. I am not one of those volleyball people.  I think volleyball has the respect and coverage it deserves.

Mark’s main point is that volleyball suffers from pretty shoddy coverage because we in the community allow it to happen. Specifically, the governing bodies who provide the broadcast feeds don’t seem to give much attention to the quality of the product they are putting out there.

Oh, sure. The FIVB has done all sorts of things over the years to try to make the game more spectator and/or TV friendly. And they continue to look at more things they can do, as per my recent post on the subject.

The on-court product, however, is only one aspect of things.

###### Poor TV production

The elements around the actual play are also very important. Mark has taken some of the commentators to task for being poorly prepared and/or educated (#volleyballdrinkinggame), and producers for failing to show highlights of excellent plays. The fact that we see this sort of thing speaks to a failure on the part of FIVB, CEV, etc. in allowing that sort of thing to be the case.

I will add a complaint of my own. Let us hear the noise of the crowd!

A volleyball match broadcast where by far the loudest thing we hear is the voice of the commentator is DULL! Granted, for some matches there isn’t much of a crowd. When there is, though, the volume of the in-arena sound should at least match that of the commentator.

Let us experience at least some of the energy the spectators are putting out.

###### Poor in-arena atmosphere

I mentioned above the fact that some matches are poorly attended. This is going to happen in tournaments when the host country, or at least one of the bigger favorites – isn’t playing. Hard to do much about that.

I’ve watched matches where there have been good-sized crowds with hardly any energy, though. That’s really uninspiring.

I remember a couple years ago switching between watching matches from the Montreux Masters tournament on the women’s side and FIVB World League (I believe) on the men’s side. The energy coming through the screen for the Montreux matches was excellent, and I don’t think there was even a commentator. Great in-arena noise. And I’m not just talking about the crowd. The on-sight production was good. Lots of music and complimentary audio between plays.

In contrast, the men’s matches were depressing. I think they were in Argentina, but I could be wrong. The only sound you heard was the the ball contact. There wasn’t any kind of music that you could hear, no commentary, and if there was any real energy coming from the crowd you couldn’t tell. It was hard to watch, especially after having just watched the Montreux coverage.

As Mark suggests in his article, if you want prospective viewers to take your sport seriously, you need to take seriously the quality of the product you’re asking them to consume. It’s not enough just to stream matches. Not if you want your audience to be more than just the diehard volleyball folks.

###### Getting a bigger crowd

I have some thoughts on ways to improve volleyball match attendance which I’ll save for another discussion. Suffice it to say, however, that you’re more likely to attract and retain spectators in the seats if you provide a good product. Good volleyball is certainly part of that, and for sure winners get bigger crowds.

There’s more to it than that, though. Some of what makes for a good TV broadcast also makes for a good in-arena experience.

## Some things to make volleyball better

There’s an article on Volleyball Country in which a contributor talks about three things he thinks would make volleyball better. This is from a spectator’s perspective They are:

• Emotions
• Live statistics
• Better video challenge

The other two are fairly straightforward. In terms of emotion, the author’s idea is to allow players to basically taunt the opposition. For example, a blocker would be able to scream in the face of a hitter they just roofed.

Maybe he doesn’t remember, but that sort of thing used to be allowed – at least in men’s volleyball. On the women’s side the rules of conduct were more strict in my remembering. I recall always thinking it was stupid that a girl would get a yellow card, or at least a warning, for something that boys did all the time. These days male and female players basically operate by what I remember were the expectations for girls when I was involved in high school volleyball in the late 80s.

Personally, I’m fine with things the way they are. I think there’s plenty of emotion in the sport. The author specifically mentioned football as an example of a sport with a lot of emotion, but the NFL banned taunting years ago.

For me, there’s a real difference in watching men’s volleyball live vs. watching it on TV. I much prefer the former because you experience the emotion, the athleticism, the power and speed, etc. in a way which has yet to really translate through the broadcast medium. I think women’s volleyball, with it’s generally longer rallies and lesser reliance on physicality, is a better TV/streaming watching experience.

Of course, the quality of the broadcast is a central factor, which speaks to the live stats and video replay improvement desires.

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