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US Open of Beach Volleyball and “Freeze Scoring”

WARNING! This article is very boring.

This article started with a single Facebook status

This weekend the 3rd Annual US Open of Beach Volleyball will be played in Manhattan Beach, CA. The US Open is run by Karch Kiraly, Billy Berger, and their friends who want to see the beach game return to its roots (i.e. fun crowds, fun-in-the-sun lifestyle, cool players) and open back up the beach culture that allegedly disappeared when American volleyball (AVP) went corporate back in the mid-1990s. All three of us KGers have played these “Corona Wide Open” events. Billy even won the inaugural Coed division and got his picture with Karch!

These guys are aiming to bring the “fun, old-school” vibe back and rid the volleyball world of VIP bleachers and uptight players who only want their money. They’re doing this by creating a bleacher-less center court stage, using an emcee who isn’t afraid to poke fun and talk a little trash at the amateurs, and adjusting the rules to create a hybrid of styles. It’s old-school antenna-less sideout-scoring and new-school short-court rally-scoring. Former pro Brian Lewis, in a mostly nonsensical rant at the Santa Monica Wide Open, commented that antennas aren’t used because they are in-organic (I have a bone to pick with him because he used my handmade spraypaint tee as a rug). What he probably meant to say is that there are no antennas because that’s old-school and not a particularly difficult rule-change for the players to deal with. The tournament still uses short courts, presumably because players in 2009 are so accustomed to the court size that enlarging it would cause an enormous uproar. So the rule changes are slight.

The main rule change is the use of “freeze-scoring”. Summed up as,
• Best 2 out of 3 games
• First two games are played to 21 points
• Third game is played to 15 points
• Teams changes sides every 7 points
• Rally Scoring until game point
• When one team reaches game point the score “freezes”, or switches to sideout-scoring
• Teams must win each game by serving and scoring a point

The purpose of this hybrid scoring system is to ensure each game ends with a team “earning” the final point. Additionally, it creates comebacks and excitement. But the premise here is that a volleyball match must start and end with the same rules, or, specifically, the same scoring system. This hybrid is akin to ping-pong rules for twelve-year olds. Of course it changes the dynamic of a match and allows comebacks. But is it good to adjust rules on the most important point of a game? Imagine if baseball did this. You must end the ball game with a strikeout. Or Basketball. No 3-pointers in the last 2 minutes. What would happen if a football could not end on a long pass and instead teams must “earn” a touchdown with a play under 20 yards? What sport changes its scoring based on the circumstances of the game? You may argue that penalty kicks in soccer does this, but that is done after the game has already ended in a tie.

The scoring change also does not account for the odds. In beach volleyball, there is a good and a bad side. When the wind is coming at you, it is typically considered the good side because you can hit serves harder, judge the ball better, and read the opposing team better. Statistically speaking, more points are scored on the good side than on the bad side. Imagine a scenario when the team on the bad side is winning 20-19. For evenly-matched teams, the team with 19 points is at an advantage to win the game because they can remain on the good side for the rest of the match. And if that team has a good jump-server, they can rip off a couple aces and win the game. That’s not right. A solution to this, which has been done in New Jersey on a guerilla-level, is to switch sides every 7 plays (instead of points). The problem of artificial and unfair comebacks is solved.

But that doesn’t mean “freeze scoring” is the way to go. If you are old-school then you like sideout-scoring. So why not use sideout-scoring? According to tournament emcee Peter Bigler, “I’d be for sideout scoring all the way, but for larger draws it can really extend the tournament as some games will last a long time.” One item that is being overlooked is that with a shorter court, more points are scored. That means sideout-scoring matches will not last as long as with the big court. A close sideout-game to 15 points seems comparable in length to a close 3-game rally-scoring game. Bigler’s response also begs the question, What did tournament directors do before rally scoring?

The US Open and the Corona Wide Open series could work. Most people like the heckling, the hammocks, and the fun atmosphere. It is a new concept designed to create more energy in beach volleyball. I worry that this “freeze scoring” gimmick will hurt the reputation and validity of the tournament series. The old-school thinks the new-school rules are broke. True or not, changing rules at game point is breaking it more.

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