On September 12, 2019, the most extensive and impactful instant replay system in American pro sports turns 20.
Yep, it’s been two decades since the NFL introduced the coach’s challenge in a competitive game. Other sports and leagues have since followed. And the reach of replay in football has grown. It has crossed sacred boundaries, none more controversial than the one separating objectivity and subjectivity – the one pass interference reviews will bridge.
But the challenge has presided over everything. And its brilliance remains underappreciated.
You see, the goal of instant replay in sport is, as NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay recently told Yahoo Sports, “to get the obvious error on the big play right.” Various leagues introduce various mechanisms to define “obvious” and “big.” For the former, there’s language like “indisputable.” For the latter, there are cutoffs like the last two minutes of regulation, or categories such as goals.
But the brilliance of the challenge system is that it allows football’s participants to define those terms themselves. It is self-regulatory. Unexploitable. It has made the NFL better. And no other American team sport has come close to replicating its genius.
With that in mind, we set out to compare and contrast the replay systems employed by eight different leagues and sports. We quickly realized the NFL actually wasn’t No. 1. But for many reasons, it towers over most of its peers.
Words and ranks by Henry Bushnell, unless otherwise noted.
The system: Hawk-Eye technology makes tennis pretty darn close to error-free. Players can challenge an in/out call up to three times per set. When they do, the tech upholds or overturns the call within seconds – as clear visuals are broadcast to the audience.
The pros: It’s the most unobtrusive and accurate review system in sports. It’s a clear No. 1.
The cons: Hawk-Eye comes with a very slim error margin (3.6 millimeters). So it’s not perfect. But ...
Yahoo Sports’ verdict: It’s otherwise pretty darn flawless.
What we’d change: Nothing.
The system: The list of reviewable plays has gotten pretty lengthy: Catches, fumbles, ball spots, plus a bunch of offshoots and others. In 2019, pass interference will join the club. Those calls are automatically reviewed if they contribute to a scoring play or turnover. Otherwise, coaches get two challenges per game to trigger second looks. Win both, and they get a third. Lose one, and they lose a timeout. Everything in the final two minutes of a half is also subject to booth review.
The pros: The reviewable play types are mostly factual, even if evidence sometimes isn’t conclusive, so the outcomes of reviews are often logical and uncontroversial. And the list covers most game-altering mistakes. So the NFL’s system serves its purpose: it corrects those mistakes without going overkill. The past four seasons have featured a mere 1.5 reviews per game.
The cons: Occasionally there’ll be a string of lengthy, disruptive reviews or mystifying upon-further-review decisions. But they’re more rare than you realize. The main worry is over pass interference. As former Colts exec and competition committee member Bill Polian recently told Yahoo Sports: “Once we stray from correcting the obvious and egregious errors, and get into correcting judgement calls, we’re going down a really slippery slope.”
Yahoo Sports’ verdict: We’ve seen an NFL world without replay, and too many correctable mistakes decided games. The sport is too fast for officials to catch everything. The system might not be perfect, but it generally does work. Limiting challenges means the game isn’t constantly interrupted. The NFL could make a mess out of the pass interference piece of replay, but overall what the league has in place has been pretty good. — Frank Schwab
What we’d change: Years ago, Bill Belichick argued that everything should be reviewable. It wouldn’t slow the game down, because coaches wouldn’t get more challenges. But coaches could challenge any part of a play they wanted. That makes sense. If coaches want to burn a challenge to see if the snap got off before the play clock ran out, they should be able to. Then we wouldn’t have confusing situations in which a call is obviously wrong but it’s not on the list of things a coach can challenge. — Frank Schwab
The system: Just about everything except balls and strikes is reviewable via a challenge system. Coaches get one, and a second if their first is successful, and a third if their second is successful, and so on. (One becomes two in the playoffs.) Beginning in the seventh inning, umps can also initiate reviews of questionable calls from the field. The actual reviewing is done by officials in New York, but under-review plays are shown on big screens in stadiums.
The pros: Outside of balls and strikes, there are few, if any, judgement calls in baseball. Everything is factual. So subjecting subjective calls to double-subjectivity isn’t an issue. And the challenge system protects against excessive interruptions – unless umpires have an awful day, in which case replay is serving its purpose.
The cons: Even some factual calls are so “bang-bang” that they’re debatable on replay. The lack of clarity leads to painfully long reviews that slow down an already-slow sport. Replay has also stripped some of the unwritten leeway from baseball’s rules and forced umps to interpret them literally – sometimes to the perceived detriment of the game.
Yahoo Sports’ verdict: For as much as baseball fans clutched their pearls and whined about the game changing yet again, the addition of video replay to MLB has by and large been effective. With new tweaks each year, the process has generally gotten smoother, and what was once a baseball bogeyman is now a familiar part of the game.
A testament to the success of replay in baseball is that a number of fans would actually prefer ball and strike calls get turned over to robotic umps. Perhaps that's more a commentary on how little baseball fans value umpires. Nonetheless, aside from a few smaller complaints, baseball's replay system does what it's intended to do – get the call right. — Mike Oz
What we’d change: The main gripe with MLB replay is how it can slow down a game. And while that's usually the trade-off for getting the call right, sometimes it just drags when you're sitting there watching umpires huddle for upward of two minutes. Credit to MLB, the average time has trended downward since video review was introduced, but getting the call right quicker is the thing that could push MLB's review system higher up these ranks. — Mike Oz
4. College football
The system: Reviewable play categories align pretty closely with the NFL’s. So do evidence thresholds. The major difference in college is that almost all reviews come from upstairs. Coaches also have one challenge as a last resort, but a replay official runs the show.
The pros: The vast majority of consequential mistakes get corrected. Targeting calls – hits to the head of defenseless players; the penalty results in an ejection – are also reviewable, a welcome departure from NFL rules that both polices player safety and protects against wrongful convictions, if you will. Its implementation was shaky in Year 1, but should improve with time.
The cons: Too. Damn. Many. Reviews. (Which is one of many reasons games are Too. Damn. Long.) The college system, like the first iteration of NFL replay from 1986-91, is completely unchecked. Any call that might be wrong, and that could “have a direct, competitive impact on the game,” gets reviewed. And the lone arbiter of what constitutes “a direct, competitive impact,” or “reasonable evidence to believe” a call was wrong, is the replay official. That’s problematic.
Yahoo Sports’ verdict: College's replay system gets a passing grade, though it doesn't deserve an A yet. The change to the way targeting is reviewed – calls on the field now have to be confirmed and can't simply "stand" – should reap benefits down the road. The move for conferences to centralize replay centers has also been a good one and, it can be argued, leads to more consistency with conclusions and initiation. — Nick Bromberg
What we’d change: Since reviews at any point in the game can be initiated by replay officials, games can have too many stoppages. While the NFL's coach's challenge system isn't perfect, it limits the number of replay reviews that happen outside the final two minutes of a half. Asking replay officials to be more judicious is a slippery slope. Would the NFL's challenge parameters speed up games? — Nick Bromberg
The system: Prior to 2019-20, the only reviewable play was a goal – which can be disallowed by officials in a “war room” at NHL headquarters if A) the puck did not completely cross the goal line before time expired, or B) it was redirected in by a hand, skate, high stick or referee. Coaches also got one challenge to contest goaltender interference (calls and no-calls on goals) or offside (no-calls on goals).
The league, however, is expanding its replay system. Starting this season, officials will review major penalties. Coaches can now challenge certain “black-and-white” calls in the buildup to goals. There’s no limit on challenges, but each unsuccessful one draws a two-minute minor for delay of game.
The pros: Goals and penalties are, naturally, stoppages in play. The NHL’s replay system, therefore, doesn’t inject stoppages into game flow. It occasionally prolongs them, but is relatively unobtrusive. And penalties for challenge failures will keep it in check.
The cons: Goaltender interference can be ambiguous. The offside reviews, meant to address blatant errors, have instead led to frame-by-frame replay dissections that don’t quite align with the spirit of the rule. So there are growing pains and gray areas that the NHL must address.
Yahoo Sports’ verdict: For its half-measured, imprecise and unproven structure, and the many variables that come into play in the game itself, there's a general dissatisfaction across NHL circles with respect to video review. Long delays spent watching referees search for minute details on small tablets are incredibly frustrating, but nothing is more detrimental to the game than the mass confusion often felt by fans, players, coaches and the media once a decision is made with review, or a play deemed unreviewable. The NHL has a history of being reactive before being proactive, and its replay system reflects just that. — Justin Cuthbert
What we’d change: With all the technology and advancements we have in modern sports, this wouldn't fly anymore, but … if I were in charge, I'd scrap video review entirely. Because I don't think there's an obvious formula that will work, let alone please everyone. I wouldn't, however, rely exclusively on the on-ice refs. To cover basic human error, I’d employ an "eye in the sky" official who can communicate with the referees to indicate when something needs to be scrutinized further. This would remove the clear and obvious errors, and leave ambiguity out of it. — Justin Cuthbert
The system: Refs can review and re-adjudicate certain plays on a courtside monitor at any time. Reviewable plays include: A) Whether a made basket (or attempt on which the shooter was fouled) was released before shot- or game-clock expiration, B) whether a made basket was a 2- or 3-pointer, and C) incidents that could warrant punishment beyond a common foul.
Then, inside the last two minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, out-of-bounds calls, shot-clock resets, goaltending and restricted-area block/charge calls become reviewable.
And, finally, in 2019-20, the NBA will pilot a challenge system. Coaches get one per game. At any time, they may dispute fouls, goaltending/basket interference or out-of-bounds calls. Reversals require “clear and conclusive visual evidence that the call was incorrect.”
The pros: The buzzer-beater checks are welcome. The 2-/3-pointer checks are done during timeouts for much of the game, and therefore aren’t disruptive. And the system helps get late out-of-bounds calls with the power to swing games correct. But …
The cons: The final two minutes of tight games become choppy marathons. Throughout the other 46, there is no mechanism for dealing with egregious errors. It’s important to note that this isn’t necessarily the NBA’s fault – basketball is simply a game of rampant subjectivity. But the result is that replay is either too disruptive or minimally impactful, and the NBA hasn’t been able to find a balance in between the two extremes.
Yahoo Sports’ verdict: Not a fan. The last two minutes are already a crawl, and replays can bring them to a full-on stop – often resulting in nothing conclusive. Now we’re breaking split-second charge/block judgment calls down like the Zapruder film. Reviewing a portion of the game is silly anyhow. Who’s to say a blown call in the third quarter isn’t just as important?
And I’m interested to see if coaches start using challenges merely as a way to get an extra timeout in the final two minutes. Fun! And, yes, I realize I sound like a 78-year-old sports talk-radio caller. — Ben Rohrbach
What we’d change: The NBA has an entire studio dedicated to replay in Secaucus, New Jersey. Every review is run through the replay center. If someone can determine there was a blown call during a dead ball and radio it to the officials without interrupting the flow of the game, then fine. If it takes longer than that to determine whether the call was blown, just stick with the whistle on the floor. And take it easy with calling everything a “hostile act” while you’re at it. If somebody takes an elbow to the chin inadvertently, we don’t need to pretend it’s World War III. Am I still ranting? — Ben Rohrbach
The system: It took the NFL two whole decades to venture into the murky waters of subjective reviews. Soccer, on the other hand, dove in headfirst with the very first iteration of its “VAR” system. Goals, penalties (and no-calls) and red cards (and no-calls) are the three main play types that can be looked at. The only objective, factual call within those three categories is offside. All types of fouls in the penalty box, in the buildup to a goal, or that might warrant a red card are reviewable, and are overturned if there’s “clear and obvious” evidence the call (or no-call) on the field was wrong.
In some leagues, including MLS, referees will trot over to a pitchside monitor to review judgement calls themselves. In others, like the English Premier League, decisions are made by the VAR – the Video Assistant Referee – off-site.
The pros: First of all, a shout for goal-line technology, which operates just like the tennis system and tells referees within seconds whether a ball has crossed the line. It’s excellent. Elsewhere, VAR has been able to step in and correct major errors. That said ...
The cons: Where to begin? Soccer’s flow is more continuous and important than any other sport’s. VAR disrupts that. It bridles the previously unbridled emotion of a goal. It is extremely inconsistent across different competitions – for example, the threshold for a reversal was far lower at the 2019 Women’s World Cup than it’s been in the EPL. And, like college football’s system, there are no constraints on it other than the video assistant’s judgement.
Yahoo Sports’ verdict: I’ve been staunchly pro-VAR. And I still believe it’s been a net-positive when used properly – see the 2018 men’s World Cup as an example. I’m sympathetic to Man City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan’s counterargument, but I do think that once players and fans alike get used to VAR, its looming presence will be felt less and less. The referees themselves will get more comfortable as well. The system needs time. But I also think it could use a different approach ...
What we’d change: Let’s give each coach one challenge per game – and a second if the first yields a reversal. Perhaps make goals automatically reviewable, perhaps don’t. But make every foul and out-of-bounds and offside call challengeable. Let coaches decide what’s a game-changing moment and what might be an obvious error. A challenge system would limit interruptions while still fixing blatant injustices, and would add an extra strategic element to boot.
8. College basketball
The system: It’s very similar to the NBA’s …
The pros: … with similar pros …
The cons: … but the implementation has seemingly been more shoddy. Incompetent clock operators, combined with refs obsessing over miniscule details, often lead to minute-long stoppages to put 0.3 inconsequential seconds back on the game clock. The word “unwatchable” is hyperbolic, but the ends of some college games can become excruciating.
Yahoo Sports’ verdict: While college basketball's replay system is maddeningly overused and agonizingly time-consuming, replay has still been a net-positive addition to the sport. There's nothing more aggravating than losing a game as a result of an egregious blown call, and replay reduces the number of instances that occurs. — Jeff Eisenberg
What we’d change: For heaven's sake, implement a time limit. No one needs referees sucking the life out of a dramatic game by checking their work on the monitor for five minutes at a time. If the answer isn't obvious in 90 seconds or less, stick with the original call.
Also, could referees please use some common sense when evaluating which team knocked the ball out of bounds instead of going by the letter of the law? The calls now are often as frustrating as when baseball players are ruled out when they slide into second base safely but replay reveals they came off the bag for a fraction of a second. Take this call late in the 2019 national title game:
A game of INCHES 🥵 ball hits off Davide Moretti PINKY finger at da end 🤯 n Virginia gets da ball BACK pic.twitter.com/N7tf4q8qPz— BLACK SPORTSCENTER (@VersaceBoyEnt) April 9, 2019
Virginia's DeAndre Hunter pokes the ball away from Texas Tech's Davide Moretti, but referees awarded possession to the Cavaliers after a lengthy, needless review. Did a frame-by-frame, super-slow-motion replay show the ball graze Moretti's pinky on the way out of bounds? Probably. But is that over-analysis that ignores the spirit of the play, that the ball’s movement was initiated by Hunter and not impacted by Moretti? A thousand times, yes. — Jeff Eisenberg
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