Saturday, July 29, 2017

Tennis Channel's Joel Drucker offers ideas for fixing USTA League sandbagging - Kevin's thoughts

I came across Joel Drucker's thoughts on sandbagging in USTA League a few days ago, and he has followed up with his ideas on how to fix it.  Naturally, I have some opinions too so let me comment on what he offers.

Get rid of Nationals and keep play only within sections

The idea here is that people sandbag because there is the goal of reaching and winning Nationals.  There is certainly some truth to that, but just winning Sectionals is still an accomplishment, and from everything I hear in some sections like Southern, they consider winning Sectionals to be a bigger accomplishment that winning Nationals so it would seem to make no difference for that group.  It seems human nature is that no matter what the championship is, if there is one, some people will cheat to win it.

But perhaps more importantly, not having some sort of play at the national level seems to go against the idea of a national organization like the USTA is.  It would be like the NCAA or NFL or NBA just having division or conference champs and that is it.  And some people may be more interested because there is Nationals and wouldn't be otherwise as having Nationals distinguishes USTA League from other local leagues.

Further, having Nationals does serve a purpose as it allows the USTA to compare players from different sections and use that to adjust things so that a 4.0 in Florida can be reasonably comparable to a 4.0 in Colorado or New York or California.

Kevin's verdict: I understand the point, but don't think it really solves the problem and may introduce others.

Be transparent with detailed ratings

Joel's thought seems to be that by being transparent people would know where they stand towards accomplishing goals.  I agree completely, that is a key reason why I do my ratings and reports, because people want to know where they stand and if they are improving or how much.  I don't see how this addresses sandbagging though and I think sandbaggers are actually why the USTA isn't transparent.  They believe if a 4.5 knows they are at 4.05 they would be more likely to throw a few games or a match to try to get bumped down, and the not knowing is a good thing.  Or if a 3.0 knows they are at 2.95 they'll make decisions to avoid playing anymore so avoid a bump up.

Kevin's verdict: I agree the ratings should be more transparent (although what would I do then!), but don't think doing so would address sandbagging and in fact could make it worse.

Make line-ups based on blind draws or using ratings

The goal here is to combat stacking which can result in non-competitive matches.  A blind-draw would have the captains put their players/pairs in a hat and how they are pulled out determines the courts played.  If ratings were made transparent, or even if an app were provided, another option is to let captains pick their players/pairs but they are assigned to courts based on their ratings.

Either of these would prevent deliberate stacking, but I see this less about sandbagging and more about identifying how you want to determine the best team.  Should the best team be the deepest one that can win top to bottom regardless of match-up?  Or should the best team be one that has a captain that can shrewdly get their players in the best position to win and steal a match or two?

Kevin's verdict: I have no problem with either suggestion, although it makes a captains job a lot different and removes some of the strategy involved, but the rules should be written and applied nationally for it to work, and like I said, it doesn't address sandbagging.

Take age into account for ratings

Joel asks if there is a difference between a 50-year old 4.5 and a 27 year-old one.  The answer of course is yes, but I'd contend every player regardless of age can be different and it is arguably discrimination to treat folks of different ages differently.  The NTRP system is one based on results, and so if a 50-year-old can achieve/maintain a 4.5 based on his results, good for him and age should not be a factor at all  Yes, there are different styles of play and a 50-year-old is likely to have a different style than a 20-something, but that is the beauty of our game, that different styles can play against each other and how each person executes their style and finds their opponent's weaknesses is what determines the outcome.

Kevin's verdict: I completely disagree with age based criteria for ratings.  I do believe that for ratings to be accurate you need players to be somewhat connected, and so if 50-year-olds only play others of the same age and there is no connection to the 20-somethings, that can be a problem.  But in most areas there is ample cross over between age divisions.

Emphasize participation

Joel suggests that everyone on a team should be given relatively equal playing time, not letting anyone play three matches before everyone else has played two.  Ignoring for a minute just the logistics of availability, this too is removing a captains ability to try to get his team a win.  It really is making it purely about participation, like little league where everyone gets to play.

Kevin's verdict: I don't like this idea, while USTA is "recreational", it is also competitive and implementing this turns league tennis into nothing more than a local club mixer where you get to play for 90 minutes.  I do agree it would somewhat combat sandbagging as the players that had sandbagged would not be able to play and dominate as much.  If a team wants to have a "play everyone" policy, go for it, but teams that want to compete should be able to do so, just be up front with players at the start of the year what the plans/goals are.

I applaud Joel for writing on the subject and offering up ideas, but what he proposes, IMHO, doesn't really address the sandbagging issue or waters league tennis down taking the competitive aspect out of it.

But I do agree things could be done about sandbagging.  I would offer up:

  • Tighten up the threshold for strikes - The thresholds are far too high, the USTA erring on the side of letting self-rates continue to play even when they are clearly above level.  Lower the thresholds and players would be forced to self-rate higher or get DQ'd far more easily.
  • Allow a solitary high rated match to be a strike - This would prevent someone from managing their rating by throwing a match or to to keep their rating down.  A single high match result could then result in a strike.
  • Ban self-rates from going to Nationals their first year, or require a higher minimum number of matches to qualify - Right now, a self-rate can be hidden by playing a single regular season match and being listed as the player in a default win, that gets them qualified for playoffs.  Then they can be strategically used in a few important matches at Districts or Sectionals and accumulate two strikes but be fine.  Once at Nationals, they can't get strikes.  If you just ban self-rates outright from Nationals, or even post-season play at all, the incentive to self-rate too low goes down, or the work required to spend a year sandbagging is a lot higher.  Or if the self-rate has to play more matches to qualify for playoffs or Nationals, the chances of successfully being hidden when they have to win important matches goes down.
  • Adopt anti-tanking in the NTRP algorithm - Players will deliberately throw matches or games to manage their rating down and the system allows and rewards it.  If the algorithm did something like the golf handicap algorithm and threw out a players worst scores, it would eliminate sandbagging or make it a lot harder to do it successfully.
  • Adopt consistent rules across sections - Today, National has some rules in place but allows sections to do some things as they see fit.  One is how to handle players that get strikes and whether to reverse matches or not.  In my opinion, players that are DQ'd should absolutely have their matches reversed and DQ's should be checked after every match including during playoffs.  Some sections only check at the end of players, when nothing can be done other than making the player ineligible going forward, but the rest of the team, and captain has benefited and accomplished their goal.
  • Suspend/ban captains that encourage/facilitate sandbagging - There are some captains that are notorious for cheating and flaunting the rules, and the USTA seems to do nothing about it, or have an awfully high tolerance for it.  Captains that have players that are DQ'd should be reviewed, and recurrences of it should ultimately result in suspensions.  This would not be hard, everyone knows who the offending captains are, the USTA should make a statement that such behavior won't be tolerated.

There are other ideas that have validity, but the above and others would not be that hard to implement.  I am not hopeful it will happen, however.  The USTA seems to not understand that many league players are at least annoyed by the sandbaggers, and some choose to leave the USTA and no longer play league, and so by allowing the behavior to continue they are actually hurting the game and ignoring the needs and wants of the many to enable the bad behavior of a few.  League participation is down nearly 5% over the past three years and I can't imagine that is something they aren't aware of.