Jamie talks VAR

Jamie talks VAR

8 November 2023

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The Premier League is one of the most successful British brands over the last 30 years. In partnership with Sky Sports, it transformed football in this country, creating a global appeal with a league home to the world’s best players, strongest clubs, biggest rivalries, and most exciting matches. With more than 3 billion people tuning in to watch across more than 190 countries, our top football division is an exported power brand that unites people through entertainment on a scale that most brands can only dream of. With Sky’s current 5-year deal to broadcast live premiership games worth £5.1bn, it’s a serious understatement to say that this entertainment is seriously big business.

And it attracts billions of viewers because of the drama levels it produces. That last-minute Aguero moment, the title-deciding ‘Gerrard slip,’ the Rooney bicycle kick – individual moments of pure joy and ecstasy, or pain and tragedy, depending on which team you’re following.

But VAR, football’s Video Assistant Referee technology, is eroding all that and sapping the joy out of the game so many love. And perhaps sapping some of its future potential as a brand.

In an effort to remove officiating errors from the game, in 2019, video replays were introduced to help on-field referees. And while this technology has meant that many incorrect on-field decisions or missed incidents have been reversed, the controversy created by refereeing decisions hasn’t been reduced; it’s been heightened. After all, VAR is operated by humans, and many decisions are still subjective.

Individual VAR decisions, which can take many minutes to make during a match, now completely dominate football debates, columns, interviews, and chat shows. It’s the only thing football fans, players, and managers seem to be talking about.

In the first half of Tottenham v Chelsea on Monday night, the ball was only in play for 23 minutes, with 34 minutes spent waiting for VAR to make multiple decisions. Nobody in the stadium had a clue what was going on, with players and fans alike just standing around waiting.

After the only goal in Saturday’s clash between Newcastle and Arsenal went through three different VAR checks before being given, Arsenal Manager Mikel Arteta said football in this country had become embarrassing and a disgrace because of the system. Arsenal then put out a bizarre formal statement hitting out at VAR and demanding it be urgently addressed. It’s a statement that football pundits like Gary Neville have branded ‘dangerous for the game.’

In another unpreceded and potentially dangerous moment, after a VAR mistake in the Tottenham v Liverpool game this season, Liverpool Manager Jurgen Klopp suggested the game should be replayed–a crazy suggestion (and not just because I’m a Spurs fan).

So, it feels like we are reaching peak anti-VAR, with these headline incidents on top of VAR’s day-to-day influence, chalking off goals by millimeters, with literally hairline judgments. Many of these goals look like goals to the naked eye, and some borderline decisions are later proven to be wrong anyway.

This is all bad news for the Premier League brand and their desire to continue to grow their connection and engagement with their audience. But this is not even the main problem with VAR. The key negative, from a brand engagement point of view, is the inability of fans to truly celebrate goals. Being a football fan is all about celebrating your football team scoring. It’s the pinnacle of the football-supporting emotive experience, why football brings such joy to so many people worldwide, and in some respect, why so many brands immerse themselves in the game. In a massive own goal, VAR has taken that away.

Now, no goal is certain until the possibility of the dreaded VAR check is complete. Celebrating fans can only operate at (say) 80% now versus the full-blown madness of pre-VAR celebrations. Likewise, if your team concedes at the worst moment possible, there is always the hope that VAR will save you. The key element to football and the Premier League’s success, the emotional highs and lows, have been dampened.

This problem is far worse in football than any other sport. Football is obviously a low-scoring game compared with rugby and cricket (two sports that successfully integrated video replay officiating). In a hard-fought 1-0 win, the joy of that winning goal is the single moment of pure celebration for the winning team’s fans. There is no rugby or cricket equivalent to this single moment. No major sport is so low-scoring. So, video officiating in these sports can’t really be compared.

So, what to do?

The general wisdom is that, unfortunately, VAR is here to stay. But even if that is true, for the sake of football, for football fans, and for the Premier League’s brand health, VAR’s influence throughout the game must be reduced. Together, the Premier League and Sky have transformed football through innovation and fresh thinking. So, they have the power to change it further for the sake of their brand.

Five minutes can’t be wasted canceling out hairline offside decisions for goals that, to the naked eye, look like fair goals. Perhaps, like in cricket, there needs to be an ‘umpire’s call’ for marginal offsides to go with the on-field decisions. Maybe fans need to be brought in on the action, listening to the audio discussions like in rugby and being told what’s happening. And perhaps there should be a timer on VAR to prevent breaking the game flow – if a decision can’t be made after a certain amount of time, stick with the on-field decision.

I’m not sure what the best technical solution is, but football and football fans deserve better than the current influence of VAR. The Premier League’s brand has been built on entertainment, sparked by moments of instant euphoria. And by restricting the emotive power of these moments, the emotive power of the brand is also restricted. To quote football fans up and down the country, VAR is killing the game.

Written by Jamie Williams