New handball rules

As pointed out in the introduction, see section 1, a new set of rules were introduced in handball in July 2016. In this section, we will examine these 5 new rules, and discuss them mainly related to their potential effect on uncertainty of outcome, but also, to some extent, in relation to other potential adverse effects. According to the sparse information (see [IHF, 2016], [IHF, 2015]) we have been able to find on the arguments by IHF for introducing these rules, the rough statement “to make the sport even more attractive” seems to be a reasonable summary.

The fact that the testing procedure was performed only on two youth world championships [IHF, 2017] also indicates that more analysis/discussion regarding consequences perhaps could have been conducted.

The rules (in short from [IHF, 2017]) are (quote):

  1. Goalkeeper as a player: The goalkeeper may be used as a seventh field player.
  2. Injured player: An injured player should leave the playing court after receiving medical care on the court and can only re-enter after the third attack of his team is complete.
  3. Passive play: After showing the forewarning signal the team forewarned has a total of 6 passes to shoot on goal.
  4. Last minute: In Rules 8:5, 8:6, 8:10c and 8:10d, the wording “last minute of a game” should be replaced by “last 30 seconds of a game”.
  5. Blue card: The referees have a blue card in addition to the yellow and red ones to provide more clarity regarding the disqualification of a player. If this card is shown, a written report will accompany the score sheet and the Disciplinary Commission will be responsible for further actions.

The main relevant point to note here, is that all rules mostly should lead to decreased uncertainty of outcome in handball.

Rule 1, opening up for a general 7 against 6 attacking style, is an obvious candidate in such a manner. If one team is much better than another, they will (almost always) be better both in attack and in defense. An extra player in attack will hence produce an extra superiority for the better team.

Surely, the same thing can be said for the worse team, but the risk of playing with an open goal should make it far easier for the more skilled opponent both to get the ball – either by a better goal keeper saving and hitting the empty goal – or by simply better defensive play gaining ball control to again score in the open goal. A good example on this change of playing style was observed by the runner up team in female EURO 2016 – Holland, constantly playing 7 against 6 in attack and truly gaining advantages from it. Hence a playing style equilibrium of the best teams utilizing this rule change to gain even greater superiority is to be expected.

This new rule is also the one which has gained greatest criticism in popular media. Typical with handball aficionado commentators making statements like: ”scoring on an open goal is not handball”.

Rule 2 makes it more risky to “fake injuries”. Apart from the fact that this rule may induce more physical danger for players, increasing the risk of not expressing potential damages, it makes it obviously harder for weaker teams to try to gain time given an unexpected lead in a match. Such a rule may seem just (it should not pay-off to cheat), but obviously decreasing uncertainty of outcome.

Rule 3 is the most obvious rule change for real uncertainty of outcome reductions. Objectifying passive play, that is defining a given number of passes after signaling passive play, will make it much harder for weaker teams to attack and score goals. Luckily, the rule has not yet been fully implemented as referees still use personal judgement in such situations, as the last two major tournaments, female EURO 2016 and men’s 2017 handball world championships have demonstrated.

Rule 4 is perhaps not that important, neither for actual game play, nor for uncertainty of outcome, But, a rule making it more risky to try to keep a lead by “illegal means” in the end of match is clearly advantageous for the best teams.

The “blue card” rule, rule 5, is like rule 4 perhaps not the most important one. But again, structuring and making rules clearer will almost always be beneficial for the best teams. In most situations, weaker teams only option is to try to twist the rules a little bit.

Apart from the obvious surprising fact that IHF wants to play hazard with a sports product seemingly in good and increasingly good shape, what really surprises are the fact that the uncertainty of outcome consequences of these new rules has been completely absent from the public debate.

After all, as upcoming paragraphs will demonstrate, handball is not rich on uncertainty of outcome, at least not in national leagues.