« An Addendum on New York Times Op-Eds and Columnists | Main | CFP Deadline: Seventh Junior Faculty Fed Courts Workshop »

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Economics of the Offside Rule

The recently begun World Cup allows us to think about soccer (or football, for those of you reading outside the United States) as a source of laws and rules, as opposed to our usual focus on baseball. Well, for all the complaints about the technicality and incomprehensibility of the Infield Fly Rule, it has absolutely nothing on Offside (Law 11 of Football's 17 Laws). I could not explain the rule in the space of this post, although I think I now sort-of  understand it thanks to the videos embedded after the jump.

Offside (note the singular: people get persnickety if you add an 's' at the end) is soccer's counterpart to the infield fly rule as being what marks you as someone who really knows and understands the game--you know baseball if you can explain the infield fly, you know soccer if you can explain Offside. But is Offside a limiting rule as I have defined that term--is it soccer's logical and policy counterpart to the infield fly? I am not sure.

Offside is an anti-"cherry-picking" rule, preventing teams from having one or more players hang around the goal and doing nothing but kicking long balls up the field pitch. It also prevents the defense from having to keep multiple defenders back by the goal to guard the cherry-picker. The result is to push the action up the field and keep more players involved on both ends. The underlying logic is aesthetics and the look of the game. The rulemakers did not want what one soccer web site called a "ping-pong match" of long kicks back and forth, as opposed to short passes and runs up and through the middle of the pitch. It also avoids what many would regard as "cheap" goals.

But Offside does not seem to be about extreme cost-benefit disparties, as is the IFR. I suppose it would give the offense an advantage--the cherry-picker could  get the ball in position to go one-on-one with the goalkeeper, a big advantage to the offense. Importantly, however, the opponent is not helpless. Absent Law 11, the defense simply counters the cherry-picker by moving a defender back to his area. The opponent also might be able to prevent the long pass to the cherry-picker or otherwise prevent the team from taking advantage of the loitering player. More importantly, the cherry-picker is not intentionally failing to perform the expected athletic skills. The infield fly rule aims at a play in which the infielder might otherwise intentionally not catch the ball (the thing he is expected to do). In being in offside position, a soccer player is trying to succeed as expected--he is trying to score a goal by getting into the best position for himself. (Note: I know little about soccer, so please correct me if I miss anything here).

Lastly, the complexity of the rule likely reflects an attempt to calibrate it and the game. As written, the rule allows for long balls, so long as the player was onside when the pass is made. And it only penalizes if the offside player is involved in the play (itself subject to a detailed definition). Again, check out the videos below if you want to learn.

In Esquire's Father's Day edition, there is an article about fathers and sports, with a sidebar giving the approximate ages that kids typically can do certain sports-related things (e.g., sustain a game of catch--8). The last entry: "Understand the Infield Fly Rule--34." I'm 46--what does that say about Offside?

Now for the videos:


Watch this one if you like PowerPoint:



Watch this one if you like British accents, bad graphics, and cheesy music.


Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 14, 2014 at 10:46 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


What I like about the tournament example is that there's a real sense in which the teams were still really competing in a very soccer-like way. (I've even seen teams play "offense scores on either goal" in practice.) Interestingly, the offside rule would have applied only in one direction, so Grenada had a slightly better chance of scoring with a long ball to their own goal.

On the admitted inelegance of the offside rule itself: I don't think the aesthetic need for this sort of rule is at all unique to soccer (think shot clock). It is analogous to Euclid's 5th postulate -- less elegant and fundamental than the other basic rules of the game, but necessary in order to specify the particular game (or geometry) that you want to play. When a children's game is taken to professional adult levels, you have to introduce technical formalities to preserve the essence of the game. For example, in Capture the Flag and Kick the Can, there are always either understood or elaborately negotiated rules for how close a team can be to their flag, or how close the "It" can be to the can. The offside rule is a very precise way of saying "No puppy-guarding the other side's goal."

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Jun 22, 2014 11:56:18 PM

It seems that to make soccer aesthetically satisfying to watch, its rules must be made aesthetically unsatisfying, and the player's must concentrate some of their attention on obeying unintuitive rules.

I'm not one to judge, not being a fan, but why is it more satisfying to have a game with a lot of running up and down field than one with players clustered at both ends and kicking the ball up and down field instead? If it's somehow helpful to have the players exhausted, maybe it would work better to make them run a few miles before the match instead.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Jun 21, 2014 12:31:50 AM

Astriker's athletic goal is to be in the best position to score when his team has the ball. Being behind the next-to-last defender may be that best position. This is not to say that they should eliminate offside. Just that the rule does not rest on the same logic as the infield fly rule.

Jennifer's example is a bit outside this project, but it demonstrates an equally interesting issue--the extent to which rules governing the overall league/tournament/competition impose perverse incentives on individual games and players within individual games and how game rules should deal with that. There are other examples--2012 Olympic badminton (teams were trying to lose in round-robin because lower seeding gave them more favorable match-ups) or teams tanking in the NBA either for better draft position or for more-favorable playoff match-ups.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jun 18, 2014 1:05:42 AM

There are a few more complications. One is that a player is not in an offside position if she is behind the ball, even if she is past the next-to-last defender. Another is that the question is not merely whether the ball has been passed to the person in an offside position; it is whether the person in an offside position has affected play. (Even if the pass is nowhere near the person, she could affect play by, for example, blocking the keeper's view of play or making it necessary for the keeper to adjust for a possible pass to her.)

I agree that the offside player is not doing what she is supposed to do athletically. Interesting etymological note: The term "offside" comes from the idea that a player hanging out by the goal is "off her side" (i.e., off her team) because her behavior is unsporting.

I'm not sure if this fits into Howard's project, but an interesting example of perverse effect of rules (tournament rules rather than actual game rules) is the Barbados-Grenada game in the 1994 Caribbean Cup. "[D]uring the game's last five minutes, the fans were treated to the incredible sight of Grenada trying to score in either goal while Barbados defended both ends of the pitch." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1994_Caribbean_Cup#Anomaly

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Jun 17, 2014 11:42:31 PM

I'm afraid I don't understand the alleged complexity of the offside rule or Professor Wasserman's professed inability to articulate it concisely. "Offside" is called if the ball is passed to an offensive player who, at the moment of the pass being sent, was so far forward that there were not two or more defending players between himself and the goal line. That is all.

As has been observed, the offside rule exists essentially to prevent offensive players "camping out" very close to the goal. (We know this is exactly what was done.) While this could be countered organically, by simply assigning additional defenders to mind them, soccer has made an essentially aesthetic choice that it wants both the ball and the great mass of the players to run up and down the pitch rather than to lob the ball back and forth. In other words, a soccer match is supposed to develop as a single field battle, not as two sieges (one around each goal).

Viewed in that light, it's hard to say that the offside attacker is really doing what he's supposed to do athletically. True, he is supposed to position himself so as to receive a pass and score a goal, but he's also supposed to work for that goal by running a lot--soccer is mostly running, after all. And he's supposed to be sensitive to the defense. So the rules force him to run and pay attention by making him vulnerable to an offside trap.

It's true that "offside" is sometimes called mistakenly, breaking up exciting offensive action. This is because of human factors. The linesman has to monitor two things at the same time: whether the offensive player is in an offside position, and whether the ball has been passed to him. These two things may be happening very far apart such that it is simply impossible for the linesman to see both things at once--and note that there are few landmarks on a soccer pitch. So the linesman is basically guessing whether the offensive player was offside when the ball was passed. He will sometimes get it wrong. On the other hand, it's trivially easy for the broadcast crew, and even the fans in the stands, to get the call right and detect the error.

Posted by: Sykes Five | Jun 17, 2014 11:37:12 AM

In terms of complexity, basically the 4(1 1/2) exemption as a sports rule, so I guess it's not surprising that 30% of offside penalties are said to be wrong or at least subject to intense dispute. (And I doubt this general state of lawlessness on the field is entirely unrelated to the hooliganism to which soccer seems uniquely prone.)

Also totally unnecessary. The infield fly rule addresses a situation in which the fielder (by acting in an otherwise absurd fashion) can convert a single to a double play no matter what the runner does. Here, the offside rule just shifts the burden from the defender to the forward. Instead of the defender having to guard the forward, the forward has to avoid certain activities that, "in the opinion of the referee" constitute an offside offense.

This is a sport that could not better represent the nations obsessed with it. And easy to see why it's popularity is on the rise in America.

Posted by: Think Like a 1L | Jun 15, 2014 9:32:13 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.