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.




Photo of author

Author: Brian Goff

Published on:

Published in:

PGA; golf

5 thoughts on “Taxing Slow Play”

  1. I like the suggestion a lot, especially focusing the penalty on earnings, rather than on a tournament-specific penalty. It would be interesting to see whether non-PGA-sanctioned events (including the Masters) might be early-adopters of such a proposal. For starters, what penalties, if any, are imposed for slow play in the British Open? (This is from the R&A, the sanctioning body for the British Open: “Two-ball rounds should take no more than 3 hours 10 minutes; three-balls should take no more than 3 hours 30 minutes, and four-balls no more than 3 hours 50 minutes.” For foursomes, that’s 230 minutes for 18 holes, or about 13 minutes per hole. For pairs, 190 milutes, or about 11 minutes per hole. Of course, that’s for club play, not for professional play.)

    Major bridge tournaments face a similar problem (slow play), in a context in which assignment of responsibility is harder (four players at a table) and without the ability to penalize earnings, because most tournaments give prizes in “Master Points” rather than in cash. (It is also very difficult to find any clear discussion of slow play penalties. The American Contract Bridge League site indicates that directors have the authority to penalize slow play; it’s less clear what the range of penalties can be.)

  2. Brian, this is an interesting post. I see your proposed solution as an effort to resolve a market imperfection, where the market is the market for fan viewing time. I don’t see the existence of this imperfection, however.

    In particular, you focus on the players’ actions, say the demand for fan viewing time, but you don’t consider the supply of fan viewing time. In short, I think you let fans off too easily. At the outset you say their time is valuable, but then leave them out of the solution. Don’t fans who sit and watch the slow play implicitly reveal that the value of their time is in fact quite low? If their time was so valuable in an alternative use, would they not stop watching the game to do the more valuable activity?

    My hunch, based on my own sport viewing, is that many viewers are doing other things for much of the broadcast, precisely because of slow play and numerous advertisements. Perhaps that doesn’t apply to watchers of golf, which I am not. I wonder if the notion that men sit with the remote control flipping from show to show is not precisely the sort of reaction that one would expect from slow play. Many times I have heard my wife say, “I thought you were watching the game,” when she sees me in front of the tv watching a movie. My response is always, “I am but…”, it’s a time-out, between quarters, they are reviewing a play, it’s between innings, they are bringing in a relief pitcher, and so on. If I was watching golf I expect I would respond with Phil and his caddy are discussing the best approach, studying the cut of the green, testing the wind, or some other similar rejoinder.

    Of course, fans in attendance are more of a captive audience, though they can also leave the event in the middle and will if the value of their time in alternative uses rises above the value of their time watching the event. They can also go off to the restroom, concession stands, or these days talk or surf the internet on their cell phones during the inactivity in the game or match.

    So, the bottom line for me is that I don’t see what the market imperfection is that warrants the introduction of this incentive scheme.

  3. Complaints about excessively slow play have been made in other sports, and there has been an equal disinterest in addressing them. Many potential fans see baseball as too slow and action-less to be of interest. Every time there is a 5 hour game, there are calls for pitch timers and limiting actions intended to stall for a pitcher warming up (excessive pick-off attempts). Basketball is no better. Every year the rules committee considers making intentionally fouling at the end of the game to preserve the clock an intentional foul, but every year it gets shot down.

    I believe that these issues will be addressed eventually. This lost time certainly does represent a cost to the viewer. The only problem is that the MLB, PGA and NCAA/NBA do not view it as such. I know plenty of people who dont watch baseball because it is too slow. I skipped the last 3 minutes of several NCAA tourney games because there was a small chance of a comeback but a large chance of excessive stoppages and commercials. For many fans, there is an implicit calculation of the cost of watching the event (usually time) to the benefit they receive (enjoyment). I realize the leagues themselves may forever be naive. But the advertisers are not. Eventually they will help the leagues realize that making the sports less costly to watch may be a worthwhile way to increase the number of fans, or at the very least, get them to sit through their endless stream of commercials.

Comments are closed.