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Athlete's Stand in the Way of Progress

Athletes are fun to watch and cheer on but as sports evolves into more of a business and entertainment product it is time to consider if we should replace them all.

Of course, I mean with robots or other objects that are completely soulless.

Look at it this way. The NHL is a very stagnate league, growth wise, while watching players zipping up and down the ice is sensational, watching them off ice is strenuous. Only the top, maybe, 5 stars in the league are “celebrities”. On the other hand, the NBA is one of the fastest growing professional sports leagues, it’s no secret that the entertainment the games and players bring is a main driver for their increasing value. NBA players are among the most recognizable and talked about sports figures in the world. Fans like entertainment and therefore will engage in a sport the more entertaining it is.

If sports are an entertainment product run by profit-motivated business’s and the more a sports fanbase grows the more valuable it is and the more money you can get from it. Shouldn’t we try to produce the most entertaining version possible. As a fan you get to watch a more entertaining product and as an owner you earn more money. Any other perspective doesn’t matter here because they are part of the product.

It’s not a completely unheard of for a sports league to change the rules to make themselves more interesting. Back in the late 90’s and early 00’s the NHL was going through their ‘dead puck’ era, a name borrowed from the MLB’s dead ball era when pitching and low scoring games ruled the sport. The NHL’s dead puck era, also known as the clutch and grab era, was a result of laissez-faire refereeing and drastic improvements in goaltending. The league's stars weren’t just the top scorers but also shutdown defensemen like Scott Stevens who stifled the opposition’s offence with grey area hits due to the laxed officiating. The NHL saw that their audience was losing interest and coming out of the 2004-05 lockout they made it known that the officials were going to call the game by the book.

The other dead puck era feature was goaltending. The league has attempted to curb goalies’ abilities several times like the trapezoid, shrinking equipment, and changing the shape of the crease. Most times however tinkering of any kind is met with stiff opposition from the goalies in the league via the players association. The most recent change was to their pants and chest protectors, they now have to be more fit to the goalie, and that was followed by outcries from the community about player safety and was implemented slowly. The goalies had gotten used to playing a certain way now they would have to change their game, possibly see their stats inflate, in turn lose money on their next contract. It’s not hard to see why they wouldn’t want rule changes that make the sport more entertaining. Contrast this with another sport where players are constantly dealing with rule changes.

Esports, the ever-booming industry that is bound to surpass all traditional sports leagues in revenue very soon. While it’s unfair to categorize all of ‘Esports’ as one sport/sports league due to the various differences in the types for the sake of simplification I’ll do it here. The setup of the sports within gaming are somewhat different from traditional sports leagues as the company that makes the game is in control of the rules. As with any new sports league the players themselves have little say in anything as there are no players unions. Rule changes occur all the time in these games to curb or promote certain strategies. This is done by changing probabilities of a particular item in a game or altering the attack damage of a weapon. Another simplification so let’s continue. It’s called ‘nerfing’ when the tools/weapon gets worse overall and ‘buffing’ when it is improved. This means the best strategies are always changing so the players must focus on adapting to the new rules and being good at the overall game instead of mastering one skill. This is contrasted by traditional sports where a decade of a league’s history can be characterized by the domination of one skill set like the dead puck and dead ball eras.

Rule changes in traditional sports are slow because in all 4 major North American sports leagues, for example, they are decided on by some combination of owners, players, and team management. Why would someone who’s built their team or playing style around the current set of rules want big change? It would mess with their plan. Esports has skirted this by keeping all the power in the hands of the companies whose only goal is to keep people watching. So, when a strategy gets used too heavily, they can simply type a different series of 0 and 1’s and completely alter the playing field. Simplification again but. The gradual and slow change in sports creates this cycle where a dominant strategy is found, the rules don’t change, this style of play trickles down and influences the next generation of players who built their game around the style of play, they then come into the league under this style further steering the sports in one direction. See the MLB’s best young players. That style of play wasn’t meant to be so boring to watch, everyone loves home runs, and they are the most valuable to your team, which bring us to.

Overcoaching and more broadly overanalyzing, which occurs the longer rules don’t change. The more game tape and data available to analyze the better chance a coach has at ironing out the kinks in a game plan. This is what we’ve seen in the MLB, home runs were found to be the most valuable event to your team as a hitter so you should try and hit them as much as possible. Even if you strike out in the long run if you’re a good hitter you are going create positive value. Now the sport has devolved into homer runs and strikeouts.

In hockey overcoaching is often expressed as tight defensive play. It is a lot easier to coach out mistakes than to teach skill. It’s also much cheaper to build a team like this which is great if you’re an owner unwilling to spend money in a salary cap league. As seen with the New York Islanders this past season good defensive play and a hot cheap goaltender can take you far. While these teams don’t have much long-term success because limiting luck isn’t a sustainable substitute for pure skill, they tend to take up quite a few playoff spots every year. Away from more entertaining teams, making exciting games more boring.

Great now that you agree there are several factors conspiring to lessen the entertainment in sports, we can begin to eliminate them.

The overcoaching in the NHL isn’t like the MLB’s where they're simply playing the most efficient form of the sport. It is more about the current structure than the nature of the game. Hockey is a game full of random elements, lack of control is something intrinsic to hockey, but that doesn’t stop coaches from imposing their will over games. The league has seen periods of offensive greatness like the 80’s but the ‘run and gun’ style is chaotic. They favour a ‘responsible’ style of play, one which they can control leading to dull overcoached hockey. Coaches would probably counter with “only one of us gets to coach to most skilled team so the rest of us have to try and beat the most skilled team.”

Well then, the solution is easy; get rid of coaches. They just slow down the entertainment anyway. Players do need someone to teach them some stuff, so they grow as athletes but remove them and tablets from the benches.

The larger structural problem is slow change. The barrier being bureaucracy. Too many cooks in the kitchen slowing progress down, I’m hungry and want to eat now not when everyone approves of the dish. Front office people can be fired instantly and usually only last a handful of years in one position. Players last in the leagues longer but only the best ones last over half a decade. Owners are the most immovable and provide us with the product. It would be nice to have progressive owners who want to move the game forward instead of trying to keep it in some long-gone glory era of their youths, but they have the money. Therefore, the most cuttable of the red tape are the front office and players. Esports has this model down pat. Who cares if there is some 5-year plan to greatness cooked up by a General Manager. It’s going to end with them creating a boring team or getting beaten by a boring team, learning the wrong lessons and adjusting their team to be more like the boring one. 30, 31, or 32 pebbles shouldn’t be able divert the babbling brook from our open mouths.

Before we get to the nasty business of getting rid of athletes from pro sports let’s fantasize about what we can gain from this.

What are some things you’ve always wanted to see in a sports game?

*insert your perfect idea here*

Oh really, huh never thought about that. Anything else?

*insert another idea here, keep them coming*

Wow, you really want to change the game so to speak.

*insert another one of your great ideas here*

Now that's thinking outside the box. I’m loving your creativity, but may I get a few suggestions of my own in. Thanks, you’re so kind. Now how about something like water polo style penalties in hockey. The penalized player would stand in the penalty circle until the ref signals them to come back in, at which point they’ll skate around their net and back over the red line to enter back into play. Does this make much sense for the sport of ice hockey, no not really but I think I’d be really cool and I want to see it happen. I mean after all the crazy things you proposed this seems pretty tame.

Here’s another one. Reverse NASCAR, they have to turn right instead of left. No, you’re right that’s insane. Soccer with an American football now I know you’re into that. Watch them all run around crazily. Which brings up another reason why we must remove athletes from sports, empathy.

I would simply feel just awful if an athlete’s livelihood was ruined by all these changes. It’s not fair to them that they aren’t entertaining enough. By removing actual humans from the competitions, we can feel better about making the sports more dangerous or violent. Like with American Football Soccer that I mentioned above, it would probably lead to more concussion however it would be way more fun to watch. We wouldn’t have to feel bad for putting other humans through tribulation for our entertainment.

We wouldn't even be getting rid of the amazing stories that brought us to sports in the first place, if you’ve ever watched marble races or wrestling you know that narratives are easy to construct.

Sports for a while now have been seen as a business, long gone is any cultural attachment. Baseball and American Football are very patriotic to the red, white, and blue but nothing about the actual gameplay is. Similarly, Ice Hockey and Canada. We can fundamentally change the game and it would just be a new era of the leagues. Once sports were played for the sake of competition, now at the top levels it’s to entertain. This isn’t a change in the course of history merely the next stage of evolution. In order to, accommodate our entertainment needs we must remove humans from sports. Nothing would be lost just rules and gameplay styles that don’t interest spectators. And gained a plethora of exciting variants on sports and new classics emerging from the old ones. We would be free to experiment without fear of human injury. We could watch nonhuman athletes reach new peaks as they are molded to perfection and optimization.

The future of sports is a human-less entertainment business made for fans to consume an ever-lasting spectacle.


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