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HomeSportsWhat the Premier League can learn about VAR from other sports

What the Premier League can learn about VAR from other sports

The Premier League’s unhappy relationship with the Video Assistant Referee system is not showing any signs of improving.
Another week of controversial decisions, which saw Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta call the process a “disgrace” before his club reiterated those criticisms in a public statement and a row at Liverpool’s Europa League tie at Toulouse, has just added to the pressure on Professional Game Match Officials Limited, the body that runs refereeing at the elite level in England.
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Soccer is far from alone in using video technology to aid decision-making, so what could other sports teach the Premier League about using it more efficiently and less contentiously?
We asked Athletic experts for their insights.
NFL: The challenge system
The replay review process in NFL games involves the ultimate team-oriented system. NFL officials conduct reviews — which, in 2022, lasted on average two minutes and 19 seconds — but not without the support of replay officials stationed in New York at the NFL’s Art McNally GameDay Central (AMGC).
Head coaches can use two game challenges during games (if successful on both challenges, they receive a third). But in the final two minutes of each half, all challenges/play reviews are initiated only by the replay official.
Challenges add another dimension to a coach’s work. They require quick thinking and become a tactical device in their own right. There are even times when, in those final two minutes of play when they’re not allowed to challenge, they will call timeouts after a controversial play, hoping to give the replay official time to see the play again and then initiate a challenge from above.
The video review process in NFL games is well-practised (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
On the flip side, if you blow your timeouts in a challenge, you no longer have that timeout to use late in games to either stop the clock and regroup, or to challenge. It all adds to the drama.
The process itself has become pretty smooth. Once a challenge or play review is initiated, replay technicians at AMGC use technology to pinpoint the best camera angles for the game referee to review in consultation with replay officials.
An ‘instant replay field operator’ then brings a Microsoft Surface tablet to the referee so he can review the play while consulting with the replay official stationed in New York. The final decision on the review (whether it should be overturned, or whether the on-field call should be upheld either because the evidence supported it, or because it was not conclusive enough to overturn) is then made and the referee announces it.
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Mike Jones
GO DEEPER VAR survey results: More than 50% want to keep it but majority say game is worse off
Tennis: Automated decisions
For decades, instant replay challenge systems have been a part of the North American sports landscape. It has added plenty of drama, but then the pandemic rolled around and the many tennis tournaments, looking to limit the number of humans and infectious germs at an event, decided to dump the challenge system in favour of fully automated line calling. Why, after all, should the onus be on players to correct a line judge or an umpire when they are trying to focus on hitting a fuzzy yellow ball flying past them at high speeds?
The result has been a revelation. An end to players boorishly berating officials for errors. Less time between points. And the satisfaction of knowing that a system of cameras and computers that is correct to within tiny fractions of an inch has delivered the right call.
The limits of the challenge system were clear at Wimbledon this year, where top players, such as Andy Murray and Bianca Andreescu, neglected to challenge calls that were wrong on crucial, potentially match-determining points.
Hawk-Eye reviews have been part of tennis since 2006 (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)
The problem is that since the television broadcasts show whether the calls were correct on so many close shots, everyone quickly knows whether or not a ball was in — except for the people with the most to gain from the information. Every men’s ATP tournament will have fully electronic line calling beginning in 2025. Many of the tournaments on the Women’s Tennis Association already do, and more are likely to in the future.
“The question is not whether it’s 100 per cent right but whether it is better than a human, and it is definitely better than a human,” said Mark Ein, who owns and operates the Citi Open in Washington, D.C.
Most sports have the technology to know nearly in real-time whether a proper call has been made or missed on nearly every play. As much of tennis has proven, using that information as often as possible has plenty of benefits.
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Matthew Futterman
Rugby union: Clearer communication
Like football, rugby union features split-second decisions and high levels of physical force, and no two challenges look the same.
For a video referee, the potential for inconsistency is high. Yet they have always been more accepted in rugby — even when introducing controversial new high tackle laws or when making high-pressure calls in the sport’s biggest game.
Last month, in the World Cup final, cards were handed out to both captains — New Zealand’s Sam Cane and South Africa’s Siya Kolisi. Both were high tackles to the head. Cane was given a red — becoming the first player sent off in a Rugby World Cup final — while Kolisi escaped with a yellow, and 10 minutes in the sin bin.
Referee Wayne Barnes shows Cane a red card (Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
There was debate after the game but it did not dominate the narrative of South Africa’s tight 12-11 victory. Why? Viewers had clarity — they knew why the officials reached the decision they did.
In rugby, the lawmakers have made a framework for every major decision.
For a high tackle, referees must consider the degree of force, where it impacts the opponent, and the intent of the tackler to dip. With the conversation between the on-pitch referee and assistant referee broadcast live, it was explained that despite both being high-force shots to the head, Kolisi’s tackle had mitigation — he had dipped at the knees — while Cane remained bolt upright throughout.
Similar frameworks exist for tackles in the air, whether a ball was correctly touched down over the tryline, or what exactly constitutes a forward pass. It is not outside the realms of possibility that similar frameworks could exist in football — and the officials’ systematic working through of that process broadcast live for clarity and accountability.
Jacob Whitehead
NHL: Learn from our mistakes
The NHL can be useful for English soccer here, since replay implementation in North American ice hockey is a great example of what not to do.
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A few lessons:
Don’t sell the fans on the idea of “just get it right” if you’re not actually sure you can get it right. Few things are more frustrating than watching a lengthy review only to get a verdict you still disagree with. That’s especially true for anything with an element of subjectivity, like the NHL’s goalie interference reviews that still confuse so many fans.
Be sure to always explain what you’re going to review and why, and then explain the ruling. The NHL doesn’t do this with any level of detail, often leaving fans and broadcasters wondering what’s even being looked at.
Most importantly, think through the unintended consequences. In the NHL, they implemented replay review for offside calls, thinking it would be important to correct any obvious misses. Instead, we’ve had years of calls being overturned based on millimetres, the sort of plays that nobody ever complained about in the past. Teams now have employees monitoring game broadcasts to find any play that can overturn a goal, even if nobody even noticed it in real-time.
Sean McIndoe
Ice hockey: an example of what not to do when it comes to refereeing (Getty Images)
Cricket: Umpire’s call
Cricket’s version of VARs — the Decision Review System (DRS) — largely operates on a referral basis: if a team disagrees with a decision, they can refer it to an off-field umpire to watch the incident back and use various forms of technology to determine whether the on-field umpire’s decision was correct.
Built into this is the concept of ‘umpire’s call’, which basically means if the decision was extremely close, then it is not overturned, but stays with the on-field decision.
Football already has a version of this with its VARs, because if there is no conclusive evidence that a decision should be reversed, it isn’t. But the big difference is that for most of these cases in cricket, there is a measurable binary factor: for example, either the ball is hitting the stumps, or it isn’t.
Umpire’s call adds another dimension to TV reviews in cricket (Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images)
This isn’t true of many decisions in football: it’s in the referee’s judgement whether a tackle is dangerous or not.
Where this could be employed is with offside calls, which are (for the most part) binary. For example, there could be greater tolerance than is allowed for those extremely close offsides — it could be simply determined that the decision won’t be changed from whatever the on-field officials said. It could give more authority to the assistant referees, to lessen the sense that the game is being re-refereed.
The problem with that being, how do you judge what the tolerance is? Six inches? Half a yard? One of the few certainties of the VAR system becomes arbitrary. Would it improve things or just make them murkier? You could argue that you might as well just get rid of VARs entirely…
Nick Miller
(Top photos: Getty Images)

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