## 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.

## Player rotation and substitution limits

If a team wants to use ten players in its regular rotation that means substitutions for three positions. Would this cause a problem bumping into the substitution limit for a set?

What I am thinking about is six hitters, one setter, one libero, two DS’s and one of the hitters setting when she is on the back row. That is ten total players with only one playing all the way around.

We’re talking about a modified 6-2 system here. One of the two setters plays all the way around while the other is replaced by a hitter in the front row. Presumably, the libero replaces the middles in the back row and defensive specialists replace the outside hitters. Of course it could be the other way around. It’s doesn’t really matter, though.

Quick note: This type of approach is not possible under FIVB rules because of the substitution limits (6 total, one in/out per player).

This adds up to a total of 6 substitutions per trip through the rotation. The emailer coaches high school volleyball. His state follows NFHS rules, which allow 12 subs per set (some states use NCAA rules, which currently allow 15). That means he will be out of subs after two times around.

So here is the big question. How many times around do teams go in typical high school matches? If it’s more than two then it’s a problem.

There is one way to stretch things out a little. You can start the back-row-only setter in Position 2. Alternatively, you can start the hitter who plays front row for the back-row-only setter in Position 5 and have the other setter set from the front row for that rotation. This is especially useful when you are in receive to start the set. Either one saves you one sub at the outset.

That only gets you a little further. If you only need an extra couple rotations, though, it could work.

Anyone in this kind of position must look hard at their options. If running out of subs is a real risk, maybe you have to allow one or more of your hitters to go all the way around for part of the set. An option to consider is to rotate the DS’s. One of them plays across the back row the first time, while the second does so the second time.

## What if you received after winning a rally instead of serving?

In an article on Volleyballmag.com, Russ Rose of Penn State responds to a question about changes he would make to the sport. The very first thing the legendary coach said was he would return to sideout scoring. That’s the old system where you can only score when you serve.

Rose is realistic, though. He doesn’t see a change from the current system happening. Even still, it brings up something to think about.

Under sideout scoring a team was rewarded for winning a rally with an opportunity to score a point on the next rally. Losing a rally meant you had no chance to win the next point because you didn’t serve.

In other words, a team gained an advantage by winning a rally. That’s above and beyond the point they scored if they served to start the rally in the first place.

These days, once you reach a certain level it is no longer an advantage to win a rally. Obviously, I mean aside from the point earned. You gain the serve. That’s actually a liability once sideout rates go above 50%.

I can think of two ways this changes things.

###### Longer runs of points

The first way is you get more strings of points by teams. Think of it in terms of flipping around the idea of being stuck in a rotation. That’s when you give up points in a row because you can’t pass and execute your offense well enough. Under this variation, though, the runs happen because your serve receive offense is effective.

It’s simple odds. Consider two teams who sideout at a rate of 60%. Under the current system, the odds of the team winning a second rally after winning a first one is only 40% (100% – 60% chance the other team sides out). If, however, winning a rally earns you the right to receive, your odds of winning that second rally go up to 60%.

As a result, you’ll increase the frequency of teams winning multiple points in a row. That means less times when teams just alternate scoring by repeatedly siding out. I don’t know if that would be a good thing or a bad thing.

Under the current system, the worst a poor server can do is lose you one point. If they miss their serve or serve so ineffectively that the other team can easily sideout, they just lose that rally. If you flip things around, though, poor serving would be a killer. Instead of earning strings of points when a very good server is back at the line, they would lose points in a row when a poor server is back there.

I’m not sure this would have much impact on serving strategy or aggressiveness. Teams would still try to put the receiving side under as much passing pressure as possible. I think it would more be a question of making sure less effective servers develop better skills.

Anything else?

I’m not sure how much the rest of the game would change, to be honest. I’d be interested to hear what others think would happen, especially in terms of coaching focus. My feeling, though, is that coaches would probably have a similar balance between offensive and defensive work as they do now.

## Technical timeouts and family entertainment

The other day the FIVB announced that technical timeouts will not be used during Olympic competition. For those who aren’t aware, Article 15.4 of the official FIVB rules state:

“In sets 1-4, two 60-second Technical Time-outs take place after the leading team reaches the 8th and 16th point.”

This is a rule that is used for all FIVB competitions (World League, Grand Prix, World Championships, etc.). Many leagues, however, don’t use technical timeouts. They aren’t used in Sweden or Denmark. The are used in England’s National League, but aren’t used in BUCS, the university competition.

I think the rule was probably put in place for TV to have a couple of fixed break points for advertising. With the introduction of video challenges, though, there are more stoppages in play now.

It will be interesting to see how matches flow in the Olympics and how coaches make timeout decisions (regardless of whether they are actually effective). I know from experience that when you think about timeout timing you do consider the timing of the next technical timeout.

Some of the reporting about eliminating the technical timeouts is to shorten set length, again for TV purposes. I wrote about the idea of trying to adapt the sport for television. To summarize, I’m not a huge fan of that idea. You don’t see other sports do that, do you?

Yes, many sports change the rules to make the game more exciting and entertaining. They do not, however, change the basic structure of the sport.This latter thing is what the FIVB seems to want to do in periodically looking at what I talked about here.

Interestingly, in the FIVB press release about dropping the technical timeouts there is a quote. It’s part of the standard “about” verbiage at the bottom.

The FIVB is committed to making volleyball the number one family sport entertainment in the world

I find this “commitment” very interesting. I’d be interested in knowing how they judge “family sport entertainment”. Is it from a participation perspective? Is it from a spectator perspective?

I hope they have a clear definition.

The FIVB seems to always be at it. They have often experimented with changing the set structure to try to get a volleyball match to more predictably fit in to the 2 hour time slot television supposedly favors. Those around at the time will recall something similar attempted early in the rally score era. Obviously, it didn’t go very far as we’re still doing best of 5 matches these days. Technical timeouts is another consideration.

A question I have is whether it’s really worth trying to fit into that 2-hour time slot. Will volleyball suddenly be that much more attractive to broadcasters if the matches were of a consistent length?

I don’t know the answer to that. Evidence from other sports, though, suggests it doesn’t matter as much as some might think. Tennis is essentially the same type of scoring structure as volleyball. Baseball certainly can be all over the place in terms of game lengths.

I think if you’re going to confine volleyball to a certain preferred time length for matches you probably need to put it on the clock in some fashion. That said, I don’t think timed games is the way to go. The nice thing about the point goal set-up of the sport is that lopsided games get cut-off fairly quickly. When you’re on the clock things can get out of hand, and as a result become quite boring. I experienced this while in England. A team I coached won a 20-minute timed set by something like 55-10.

Actually, in order to keep underdog teams in those sorts of match-ups fighting to the end they gave credit for not getting totally blown out. A team got 3 points for a win (maybe it was only 2). If the losing team was within 25% of the winning team’s score, they would earn a point. That made for much more interesting play when it came down toward the end of those games as the losing teams were fighting to get/stay above that threshold.

But that’s a side note.

The thought that occurred to me is if we don’t want those kinds of very one-sided situations, but want to retain a time clock we need to think in different terms. I had the idea of teams playing a series of mini sets – say to something like 8 points. The team winning the most sets within the allotted time wins the match.

The reason I say mini sets is because there is more opportunity for upsets, which keeps things interesting. There are a lot of things in terms of line-ups and subs that would have to be worked out, though.

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