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Five Times Equipment Rules Changed and it Mattered… or Didn’t

Posted By Megan Morgan, Assn. of Sports Analytics Professionals, Wednesday, July 19, 2017
Updated: Wednesday, July 19, 2017

With the recent debate about “is it juiced or isn’t it?,” surrounding the five ounce, not quite three-inch orb, always with 108 stitches, hurled 60’ 6” by MLB pitchers, we looked at some of the times leagues and organizing bodies made changes to the equipment standards in their sports and the results those changes had on scoring and performance.

1.       1981: NBA installs breakaway rims in all league arenas.  This was a pace-of-game and player safety issue that came into play with Darryl Dawkins first shattered backboard in Kansas City on November 13, 1979.  The new backboards, which were already in use in some NCAA arenas, did have a discernable effect on scoring or shooting percentage.  However, when the NBA further updated the rims in 2009 to the 180-degree breakaway hinges, there was at least anecdotal evidence from the players that the ball did react differently when impacting the new construction.  Over the course of the entire 2009-10 season, the players effectively adjusted to the new rims and Shaq-sized dunk forces were held at bay.

2.       2005: NHL downsizes goalie equipment (leg pads were limited to 11”, catching glove circumference was reduced from 48” to 45”, and blockers were streamlined to 15” from 16”, and form-fitting jerseys were required), which contributed to an increase of about one goal per game in the 2005-6 (6.16 GPG) season as compared to the 2003-4 season (5.14).  Of course, the equipment change came in conjunction with rule changes such as eliminating the two-line pass and addition of a no-handling zone for goalies behind the net following the lockout of 2004-5, as well as an increase in the number of power plays, as noted midseason by the New York Times.  Stay tuned for the full-season data on reduction to the size of goalie pants that were introduced midseason 2016-17 and the brand-new chest protectors.

3.       2006: FIFA introduces the +Teamgeist ball for the World Cup, improves ball handling and consistency, with no correlation to scoring. With 14 panels glued together (reduced from the traditional 32 hand stitched panels).  With far fewer and now flatter seams, the new ball was markedly more consistent coming off the foot.  Bonding the water-resistant panels to one another instead of stitching them also reduced the water absorption during a standard match, reducing weight gain to less than 0.1% of the original weight, negligible with respect to FIFA’s maximum allowable 10% weight gain.  The impact on aerodynamics, however, had mixed reviews.  Smooth spheres travel more erratically than textured spheres because they create more turbulence/drag to disrupt the flight (that’s why golf balls have dimples).  In this case the effects of the increased drag were more pronounced at higher speeds – longer, harder kicks.  The Brazuca ball, introduced for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, solved for each of these issues.  It has only six panels with bonded seams, and the entire surface of the ball is textured with tiny bumps.  Fewer seams mean fewer erratic kicks; waterproof material and seam bonding ensures consistent ball weight throughout a match; a uniformly textured surface means smother laminar airflow for improved aerodynamics at any speed/distance; and the symmetrical panel orientation means minimal dispersion in flight path based on orientation of the ball at impact.

4.       2008-09: Speedo LZR racer polyurethane swimsuits were worn in 23 of 25 world record setting swims in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and in 43 record breaking swims at the 2009 World Aquatics Championships.  The reports and test results on the added buoyancy and lowered drag created by these neoprene (non-textile, non-porous) racing suits had caused the international governing body FINA to announce a ban to take effect in 2010.  Although the announcement was made in 2008, the suits were legal for competition until June 1, 2010.  The impact the suits had on the efficiency of elite swimmers was astounding, as the records were broken in 08-09 by margins two to five times of those posted over the previous two decades.

5.       2011: NCAA changed the test standard and limits on bat liveliness (from BESR to BBCOR), reducing batted ball speed (BBS) from composite bats to be equivalent to wood bats, resulting in a drop in homerun production by 25% for top DI sluggers.  A combination of an imbalance of increased offense and concerns for infielder safety due to high batted ball speeds led to this change.  Due to the hollow construction of aluminum and composite bats, the resulting trampoline effect, and the shifted MOI, balls were exiting the bats at speeds too high for infielders to have adequate reaction time, and with a force that could cause severe injury. It was also contributing to offensive production outpacing pitching and defense: In 2007, Division I teams were hitting homeruns at a rate of 0.68 per game; the rate increased to 0.84 the following year and was 0.96 in 2009; and from 2005-10, the top 50 homerun hitters averaged 19.4 a year (NCAA.org archived stats).  After the change limiting BBCOR, the top 50 homerun hitters went yard an average of 15.5 times a season from 2011-17, one of several stats indicating the goal of reining in the BBS was accomplished (NCAA.org).

(6.)       20??: If the NFL does indeed create a standard for the sticky gloves favored by virtually every receiver and defensive back in the game, will it draw the line with the current products or will there be some rollback?  There are no regulations dictating the performance factors of the glove, such as the level of tackiness, materials used, or thickness of the gloves – the colors, logos, etc., are all governed by the NFL’s uniform policy (Article 4, Section H). When a decision is made on the standard construction and performance specifications for gloves worn by non-interior linemen, we will learn a lot about how the league values highlight-reel catches and interceptions.

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