Taxing Slow Play
Time is valuable even for sports fans. The Masters is one of my favorite sports events (even if run by an all-male club) but watching a player stand, talk to his caddy, walk around, test the wind, and go through a pre-shot routine only motivates me to do something else and just use my DVR. I like Phil Mickelson, but today, on hole 11 and hole 16, he and “Bones” talked about his shot for 2-3 minutes before Mickelson spent another minute sizing up the shot. Why do so many sports organizations and associations treat fan time as worth zero?
Internal politics along with objectives/tradeoffs that differ for organization and player in specific circumstances combine for these kinds of perverse outcomes (see Less is More for discussion with MLB). In baseball as well as NBA attempts at reducing complaints over fouls, players possess more ability to break down seeming hard lines by the league than many might think. Incentive plans that directly change outcomes generate a lot of media, fan, and player outcry and result in softening or abandonment of incentives. The NFL has struggled with these issues in limiting excessively violent play with its commissioner finally using a sledge hammer on the Saints to try to punish them and incentivize the rest of the league. Of course, the political issues were diminished in the coaching suspensions because players and the NFLPA were not involved.
What keeps the PGA Tour from stronger steps on an issue frequently mentioned over the years by players and former players? The Tour currently uses an impotent faux-incentive that puts an entire group “on the clock” when the group falls too far behind the group in front of them, placing as much pressure on players who may have had little to do with the group’s slow play. Further, this system only promotes keeping up with other slow players, not playing faster. Behind the scenes, the Tour keeps cumulative track of slow play by individuals, but uses this info for little more than gentle reminders.
Here’s my suggestion for a slow play tax: 1) institute a 1-minute rule — once a player reaches the vicinity of his ball and it is his turn, the player has one minute to player his shot inclusive of club selection, pre-shot routine …, 2) permit 5 (or some threshold) “tax free” violations of this rule per player per tournament; 3) violations in excess of the threshold are taxed by loss of tournament earnings at a rate that is substantial and increases with each additional violation; 4) the lost earnings reduce money list standing.
The plan incentivizes faster player without any shot penalty — an action certain to bring huge criticism from media and players; it allows for special circumstances by granting tax free credits; it imposes meaningful penalties. It is relatively easy to track, especially in view of the huge amount of data already collected. Is it perfect? No. Incentives plans rarely are. There’s a wealth problem even with an increasing penalty scale. Highly successful players with large earnings will not be as incentivized. Players will likely try to “game” the plan by using gray areas such as “what’s in the vicinity?” That’s where a strong stance by the Tour can counter such “salami tactics.” The Masters runs its own affair and would be free not to adopt the system. While true, it might be that promoting the habit of faster play week-to-week would help even in tournaments out of the PGA Tour’s direct control.
Will it happen? Doubtful. Leagues and associations have only modestly addressed time issues, implicitly treating fan time value not as zero but close.