Referee Issues moderated by WPP's Righteous Referee

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Postby UOPWaterPolo » Wed May 13, 2020 5:40 pm


by James Graham

Dear Water Polo:

Why is it important, and why should you care about the advantage rule?

Success can only be maintained by constantly evolving and being willing to change with the times. We see this in business, in coaching, and in our daily lives. But it is important not to just change for the sake of change, there must be a clear rationale. Thus, the purpose of this article. I want to see our sport greatly increase its popularity and draw more athletes and fans. I am going to argue that the “(dis)Advantage Rule” negatively impacts our sport. I will explain and highlight the differences between soccer and water polo, and explain why the advantage rule is great for soccer, but is problematic for water polo.

The Rule

The Advantage Rule (according NCAA rule book with my bolding and underlining key parts): The referees shall have discretion to award (or not award) any ordinary, exclusion or penalty foul, depending on whether the decision would advantage the attacking team. They shall officiate in favor of the attacking team by awarding a foul or refraining from awarding foul if, in their opinion, awarding the foul would be an advantage to the offending player’s team. The referees shall apply this principle to the fullest extent.

The advantage rule negatively affects water polo

I am advocating for changing the way the advantage rule is applied and executed, or for the elimination of the advantage rule all together. You may be wondering why? The advantage rule:

· is the main reason for all the grey area in our sport, and why fans do not understand how two identical situations were called completely differently,

· is incorrectly applied based on how the rule is written, and utilized to defend calls made or not made,

· decreases the total number of goals per game,

· increases physicality,

· is the largest reason for coaches yelling at referees during play, and

· is utilized by referees in situations the rule does not apply.

The reason for the confusion, physicality, decrease in goals, calls made or not made, and coach conduct and decorum is because, unbeknownst to us, the advantage rule was applied. Let’s unpack these assertions one by one.

1. Why is it that two situations that look the same be called differently?

Our rules for exclusions are fairly simple and definitely black and white. To hold, sink or pull back is a pretty simple concept for any fan to understand. So why are so many fans confused when watching water polo, and why is there so much grey area? This is because they see what looks like a foul in most sports, however, in water polo, sometimes it is called and other times it is not. How did that happen? The ADVANTAGE RULE! Part of confusion is that there is no signal required when the referee is applying the advantage rule. Further, the language in the rule allows for the referees to use, “in their opinion” to decided what is most advantageous to the offense. This creates an issue because half of what we already do is hidden under water, and then we have a rule that does not require acknowledgement by the referee that a foul has occurred. This causes perceived referee bias as a fan who witnesses two identical situations at center during the game, in which the defense is clearly fouling, but in one situation the referee awards a foul and in the other situation the referee chooses not to make a call. Now, the referee might very well have thought that both defenses were fouling and there was absolutely no bias, but allowed one player to play the “advantage” without communicating it to anyone. See the dilemma? We are putting the referees in an unfair situation with our rules and it is not their fault.

2. The advantage rule is being incorrectly applied based on how the rule is written.

Now let’s make sure we distinguish between rules and interpretations. An interpretation by definition is, “the action of explaining the meaning of something.” If a rule is clear and simple there is no need for an interpretation, but interpretations are needed to clean up misconceptions when parts of the rules are unclear, vague, or ambiguous. I truly believe if we understand the statistics of game situations, then the advantage rule is quite clear. In order to correctly apply the advantage rule, we need to know if calling a foul would be, “in favor of the attacking team” (i.e. would it increase the odds of scoring for the offense). This leads me to want to know how 6 vs. 6 situations convert compared to 6 on 5 situations.

I evaluated 51 games during a season and every possession that occurred in said 51 games (4506 possessions to be exact), and found the front court possession value, without 6 on 5, is approximately 16.1%. While the 6 on 5 possession value is approximately 37.7%. Please, note that possession value = goals/total possessions, shooting percentage = goals/total shots, conversion rate = goals/ (total shots +all turnovers), and that no individual front court situation was above 25%. Based on the data and the clear wording of the underlined/bold section above, should referees use the advantage rule to allow the player who is being fouled to attempt to finish their opportunities? The answer is NO. It is clear that it is NOT in the favor/advantage of the offense for the referees to refrain from calling an exclusion in lieu of allowing the player to continue the action. It is important to note that out of 363 center shots, centers scored at a lower shooting percentage than 6 on 5 conversion rate.

Now, some will say that there are interpretations that instruct referees to encourage the natural goal. But why is an interpretation needed? Is the interpretation needed because the advantage rule is unclear, ambiguous, or vague about whether the referee should call exclusions based on the statistics I have provided above? If not, then there is no need for an interpretation and the rule must be applied as written in the rule book. Next, we are told that the referee’s job is not to create offense. That is correct, but calling a foul that the defense has committed (and the offense earned) is not “referee created offense,” but rather the referee doing their job of applying the rules. If calling a foul increases the probability of scoring (the decision would advantage the attacking team), then calling the foul is literally what the advantage rule says to do.

3. How is this costing team goals, increasing physicality, and causing coaches to yell at referees?

First, as I have shown above with the percentages, every time exclusions are NOT called in favor of allowing players to finish it costs the team goals. Not calling an exclusion and forcing the offensive player to “finish” is approximately, on average, a 20% decrease in conversion rate. Meaning if a referee decides not to award the exclusion foul 5 times in a game, it will cost the offensive team about 1 goal. Therefore, by not awarding exclusion fouls to the offense, as the rule states, the referee is inadvertently taking away the advantage of the offensive team.

Next, by allowing players to continue to foul instead of calling the foul two things happen: (1) the shooting percentages of the player is clearing being impacted by the fouling, and (2) it incentivizes physicality because once a player has committed a foul there is no benefit to stop fouling if there is no call. Center shooting percentage goes from 31% with contested defense to 36% with a pressured defense (Joey Gullikson, 2020). Pressured is defined as a player rushing the shooter from the side or behind, but not in physical contact with the player at the time of the shot, and contested is defined as physically altering a shot through contact with the offensive player. The player knows they are decreasing the shooting percentage, and the referee is allowing it throughout the game, so once you commit an exclusion why not do everything you can to stop them from scoring?

Last coaches yell down the pool deck when they see a foul not being called with the classic “HEY.” Usually the referee is allowing play to continue by applying the advantage rule, despite that fact that the offensive player is being fouled, and the coach doesn’t know if the ref sees the foul, believes it is not a foul, or is applying the advantage rule. This clearly puts the referee and coach in a tough spot and causes conflict. If the referee was required to signal when applying the advantage rule, it would mitigate this problem easily. By signaling, coaches, players, and fans would know the referee identifies and acknowledges a foul has occurred and is applying the advantage rule.

4. Using the advantage rule in situations where it does not apply.

The advantage rule should not be used to explain why a call is not made against the defense because the offense “did not have advantage.” For example, the defensive player committed a foul, but the offensive player was unable to pass the ball, so the referee did not award the foul because “they did not have advantage.” Or the defensive player commits a foul, but because the pass was not “good,” (in the referees opinion) the referee chooses not to award the foul. There is absolutely nothing in the wording of the advantage rule that allows these decisions and explanations. Further, this is the opposite of promoting offense.

Coaches are often told by referees that the position or location of the player affects whether they have advantage. This also is not in the rule! Position and location are both factors used in the rule book to decide if penalties and direct shots can be awarded, else position and location should not be used to justify calling or not calling a rule. To name a few, the center was in “bad” position because they were at 5 meters, or how ordinary fouls are seemingly harder to earn at center and 5 meters for a direct shot, but the goalie can earn a very quick foul when they are pressured. The list can go on, but there is nothing written in the rule book that can explain why fouls are called differently based on location or position, and certainly not the advantage rule.

Advantage Rule in soccer

Now that we have discussed how the advantage rule is problematic in water polo, I will discuss why the advantage rule works for soccer. I had the opportunity to interview a head coach of a Pac 12 men’s soccer team regarding the advantage rule and its application to the sport of soccer. This conversation was extremely informative and I want to share why soccer benefits from the advantage rule.

According to the coach, there are approximately 11 shots per game by each team, and of those shots, 6 are considered “quality opportunities,” and a few are 30 yard out (all world attempts that have almost no chance of going in the goal or even being on frame). Unlike soccer, in water polo there is no shortage of shooting opportunities, as each team averages about 28 shots per game. The coach stressed the importance of protecting advantage situations because they create the majority of the few quality opportunities a team earns in a soccer game. That is why applying the advantage rule in soccer is so critical to the sport and the success of a team.

In soccer, the advantage rule is often applied in transition or on the counter attack. This is critical because average shooting percentage in soccer from non-counter attacking situations is 6.9%-13.9% compared to 38.9%-60% on counter attacks. In fact, a research paper from the Sloan Analytics Conference titled, “Quantifying the Value of Transitions in Soccer via Spatiotemporal Trajectory Clustering,” found if a team counters immediately and attempts a shot in less than 15 seconds after regaining possession of the ball, the likelihood of scoring increases from 8% to 12.4% (p-value<0.01). Additionally, the likelihood of a team obtaining a shot is 35.1% vs, 10.6% (p-value<0.01). This is HUGE considering the 11 shots per game and having a 25% to 53% increase in shooting percentage. What would happen if the referee did not apply the advantage rule in these situations? Clearly it would hurt the sport.

This brings up a popular defense for the need of the advantage rule, which is “flow of the game.” “Flow” is an important topic for referees in both soccer and water polo, and referees are instructed to limit interruptions to the “flow” of the game by using the advantage rule. Due to the recent rule changes, like taking the free throw at the location of the ball, or an offensive player to be live and attack and shoot after being fouled outside of 6 meters, or for an offensive player to attack and shoot off a corner throw (goalie tip out), referees are no longer needed to assist in the “flow.” Unlike soccer, these rule changes allow the offense to play through the fouls without disruption to the game.

In soccer, most of the time the advantage rule is applied, the player who was originally fouled is no longer in possession of the ball and another player, who is not being fouled, is attempting to finish the action. This is a major difference compared to water polo. Our advantage rule is most often applied so that the player that is being fouled is allowed to continue the action.

The conversion rate on a soccer foul (excluding a penalty) is much lower than the counter opportunity or live action. For instance, the average of all free kicks score about 7.5% of the

time (although the closer to the goal the increased shooting percentage). Because counter attacks score at such an increased rate compared to free kicks, it is important for the advancing team to be allowed to continue their attack. Further, by acknowledging the advantage rule (foul) in soccer, and allowing the play to continue (counter attack), referees are promoting offense.

Last, in soccer the referee has a few seconds to see if the advantage will develop and if not, they are instructed to call the original foul. The rule in soccer states, “if the anticipated advantage does not ensue at that time or within a few seconds the foul must be called.” In addition, the referee yells, “advantage” or “play on” while waving one or both arms to signal the advantage rule is being applied. In water polo, a foul is rarely, if ever, awarded if a shot is taken or if the ball is stolen by a double team. Additionally, referees are not required to signal the application of the advantage rule, and therefore, no one besides that one ref knows whether they are or are not applying the advantage rule.

Water polo needs to evolve

Water polo statistically is very different than soccer, and the reasons why soccer needs the advantage rule do not apply to water polo. In order to grow as a sport, water polo must address if, why, when and how the advantage rule should work within our sport. I believe that one of two things need to happen to improve advantage rule situation for the betterment of our sport. Referees need to be (a) instructed on the percentages of the typical game situations (front court, power play, counter, etc.), and (b) required to signal they are applying the advantage rule while having the ability to make the original call if the player is unable to score. Or we should eliminate the advantage rule and allow fouls to be called when they occur. More often than not, calling a foul will favor the offense, decrease physicality, and create a game in which the rules can be applied consistently in an understandable way for coaches, athletes, and fans. I hope this creates a positive discussion and I would be interested to hear any counter points.


Joey Gullikson, John. K. Mayberry, Lewis. R. Gale & Lara Killick (2020): Not throwing away my shot: an analysis of shot features in men’s collegiate water polo, International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport, DOI: 10.1080/24748668.2020.1741915


Jennifer Hobbs, Paul. Power, Long. Sha, Hector. Ruiz, Patrick. Lucy (2018): Quantifying the Value of Transitions in Soccer via Spatiotemporal Trajectory Clustering, MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference presented by ESPN.

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Postby Mitch » Fri Sep 04, 2020 11:12 am

Has anyone digested this during our prolonged indoor time? Any thoughts? I think it would be amazing to lessen conflict by alerting the offense that you are playing the advantage. Maybe pull the ball out right away if an exclusion is earned after you allowed to advantage to play out in order to eliminate quicks?

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