Why is there so much falling in top-level figure skating?

by on February 16, 2010 at 1:48 pm in Sports | Permalink

Chris Hartman poses this question.  He favors higher penalties for errors and thus safer routines.  I would think that the optimum (in a lot of other sports, too) has shifted in the other direction.  In the old days, everyone watched on TV and suffered through a lot of error-ridden performances.  The average quality of performance mattered more.  These days the very best performances are reproduced on YouTube and other venues.  That indicates we should seek a higher variance of performance quality, since we can keep and reproduce the very best for most of the relevant viewers.

What sports rule changes does this imply?

1 i am dead to the world February 16, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Maybe we should email the judges about this new idea and get that “set up.” Apparently that’s pretty easy. Does anyone have a Paypal account? A few francs should expedite things.

2 Jonathan Falk February 16, 2010 at 2:14 pm

I don’t mind skaters falling… “the agony of defeat” is at least as exciting as “the thrill of victory.” My problem in figure skating is that you aren’t absolutely eliminated with a fall, as you are in, say, every alpine event. Since top skaters aren’t eliminated even if they fall, you really put pressure on the lower tier of skaters. It would be much more interesting to see the best play it safe(r) while the lower tier really try to do something they can’t do consistently… And if the best in the world want to go for broke… well, they have to succeed to win.

3 Tony February 16, 2010 at 2:37 pm

The NFL has made various rule changes over the past decade or so that fall pretty much in line with this hypo. The illegal contact penalties on defensive backs being top among them. In the NBA, the defensive three second rule comes to mind. These aren’t really increasing variance in performance quality but are definitely increasing Sportscenter Top 10 and Youtube clip quality.

4 tom February 16, 2010 at 2:46 pm

1. open pits on the ice for the skaters to dodge

2. fire rings to jump through

3. competitors on the ice at the same time

4. something with swords

4. costumes optional

5 Andrew February 16, 2010 at 3:43 pm

I’m going to go out on a limb and say it is due to the ice.

6 marcela February 16, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Actually, we might see less falling. The new judging system based on the accumulated scoring creates incentives for less risk. You can see that in the olympic “transatlantic divide”. The Europeans go for quads, which are the most difficult thing you can do in skating. On the other hand, Americans exploit the new system and try to accumulate points for less demanding elements, such as spins, step sequences or transitions. American and Canadian competitors announed they would not even try to do the quad during the olympic competition. If we want to create incentives for doing more difficult jumps, we should increase the number of points for the quad.

7 Economists Do It With Models February 16, 2010 at 3:51 pm

I’m a figure skater, and I can go at least part of the way towards answering this question objectively. You may have noticed in the last few years that figure skating judging has moved from the old 6.0 scale and ordinal rankings to a new, more strictly-defined points system. In the new system, each element has a point value, and points can be added to or subtracted from that on the margin based on quality of execution.

This new system came about partially as a result of the judging controversy in the pairs event in the 2002 Olympics, where the French judge admitted to trading a first place mark for a Russian pair for a first place mark for the French pair in ice dancing. (One of the changes was to make judging anonymous.) That said, the system also encourages more risk-taking and difficult elements, both of the impressive jumps variety and in more subtle choreography and such. Part of the rationale is that if everyone skates cleanly and has roughly the same degree of difficulty, the choice of a winner largely comes down to the personal preferences of the judges, which is problematic. On the other hand, if you have skaters trying to execute more risky programs, the top scores more clearly go to the skaters that perform best on that particular day. Not surprisingly, the new scoring system has resulted in more variation in competition outcomes, which is a good thing for the sport. In other words, Olympic figure skating has become more of a competition (as it should be) than merely a coronation.

It’s important to remember that, despite the fact that figure skating is pretty, it is a sport, or at least as much of a sport that a judged event can be. Nobody seems surprised when competitors fall in other sports, so why should figure skating be any different?

8 Andromeda February 16, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Why are there so many people who wipe out in skiing, or snowboard cross, or speed skating? Why does every other athlete at this level seem to have a dramatic injury story? Why do basketball players take so many shots they miss? Because they’re operating at the limits of human potential, and that’s what makes it fun to watch.

9 eddie February 16, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Tom gets the gold medal.

10 Matthew February 16, 2010 at 5:07 pm

The more people who fall down, the more people will watch the sport. If figure skating is going to be taken as a serious sport, people need to get injured. And the risk for figure skating is a much lower injury then some sports out there. No one has died or received brain damage for not landing a quad. And to the person who said that it would be more interesting to watch the best play it safe, you are asking for a lower quality of tricks and throws. I would much rather see the best in the world have to pull off risky moves.

11 michael February 16, 2010 at 6:34 pm

The only thing that will change the risk preferences of a skater (aside from their own skills relative to competitors) is his or her educated guess on the whims of the judges. Those whims, after all, determine the winner. The formulas are window dressing.

12 jason February 16, 2010 at 7:56 pm

My feelings are a mix between Dan H and Matthew. Not all competitive entertainment can be explained in purely economic terms. The skaters have a competitive drive that makes them want to out-do their competition, and the spectators also have a “rubber-necking” tendency to love disasters as well as tremendous achievements. These feed off each other, and the analysis is perhaps more suited for behavioral psychology rather than economics.

13 Tom West February 16, 2010 at 10:23 pm

I have to *strongly* disagree with any claim that skating audiences love disasters. Having watched a number of competitions both on TV and live, I find that skating audiences tend to *hate* falls. Audiences in general want to see esthetically pleasing and exciting performances, along with athletes who are thrilled with their performance. Falls wreck that on all counts.

Audiences (in general) want everybody to have a good night.

One of the things that is charming about skating is that the only time I have ever heard audiences boo is at judge’s marks. They are not enormously partisan, and the audience enthusiasm for a wonderful performance is near universal, regardless of nationality.

14 Cyrus February 16, 2010 at 11:17 pm

One problem with the hypothesis: eyeballs watching the event pay more in ad revenues than eyeballs watching the highlight reel. The organizers of the event have an incentive to ensure that the highlight reel does not become a substitute for the event.

15 TomG February 17, 2010 at 6:01 am

Tom West is right on the mark – the audience’s aggregate (sorry for using that word on this marginally-inclined site 😉 desire very much the opposite of those going to see a stock car race, monster truck show, or ultimate fighter death cage event. The thrill comes in seeing as perfect a performance as is possible to behold, and groans are heard even from the announcers when Jeremy (last eve) doesn’t strive to attempt his routine’s predetermined jumps – not from wanting to see him fail, but for never knowing if he could’ve pulled it off and stay in the fight for gold.
Cheers, TomG

16 kranky kritter February 17, 2010 at 9:49 pm

I share the attraction to the whole agony of defeat thing. I can appreciate that many of the regla fans really just want a back-patting festival, but that frankly bores me. Folks do see to wnat different things. Some want art and ballet, I want competition and risk-reward.

The comments by the skater above were IMO really insightful. As he suggests., the more the opportunities for the best to performers to objectively separate themselves from the rest, the better.

BTW, hockey? I’d love to see the first goal count for one and every subsequent goal count for two, so that there’d BE no ties after 0-0. Once a goal was scored, one team would be required to play with urgency… .

17 ryan February 18, 2010 at 12:46 am

addendum: a setup like this would get more people watching the live event (since there are so many more crashes) as well as getting tons more people watching replays of the best online (since the feat of getting gold at every split would be so rare, and the run would be so cool to watch). that’s two birds with one stone, if you ask me.

18 GillianMoore January 18, 2011 at 11:26 am

I would raise another important issue here: do you know how many undiscovered talents give up because they do not have the money to go on? Maybe we should talk about that too… Today, sport more about money and advertising and less about the quality of sport display…

hockey pool

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