FIVB tests beach volleyball video challenge system

By Corinne Calabro | Oct. 07, 2015, 5 a.m. (ET)
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Changes to the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour are in the testing stage as officials have added the video challenge system to a set of protocols for the athlete toolbox.

Athletes first used the challenge system in the medal matches at the Rio Open back in early September. U.S. based fans might have caught a glimpse of it at the inaugural World Tour Finals, which was televised on NBC on Oct. 6.

A system that’s already made its way into the professional indoor game, moving it to the beach seemed like a no brainer for the FIVB.

"They tested it for indoor first and the FIVB had an idea of what it should look like for beach," said Sinjin Smith, a 1996 U.S. Olympian and current FIVB Beach Control Committee Technical Delegate. "They wanted us to follow the indoor template. After testing it in Rio at the [Olympic] test event, we realized that there are different things about our sport versus the indoor game."

One of the 17 times a challenge was made at the World Tour Finals was quite a decisive one and allowed the athletes to get a definitive answer, where previously both teams would’ve left frustrated after pleading with referees. In the men’s bronze medal match, Brazil was called for a service foot fault on match point. Brazil challenged the call and the replay showed on the stadium’s big screen, no foot fault occurred. Brazil won the bronze.

"I think the challenge system is a great addition to our sport. We've needed this for a long time, especially since the referees aren't allowed to get off the stand to check the ball marks anymore," Olympic silver medalist April Ross said. "Sometimes the play moves at a speed too fast to be sure what happened and now it is much more likely that the correct calls will be made and points given to the deserving team."

Broadcasters love it too. One year away from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janerio and a video challenge system will offer athletes on the court the same transparency fans sometimes see on TV at home.

"We love it. Matches shouldn’t be decided by the wrong call. Referees get it right nearly 99-percent of the time, but that one-percent can be really important," said former beach athlete and 2012 Olympics NBC announcer Kevin Wong. "I think there are obviously going to be some tweaks as we figure what the best protocol is. My gut tells me two challenges per set is too many, maybe one per set. I’m really excited to see it be part of our sport."

Currently, there are only a set number of situations that athletes are allowed to challenge. During this testing phase, some of the protocols can change. And the FIVB is listening to athlete feedback on how to make their system work better. All in the sake of hoping to get calls right, and let the decisions and points come from the actions on the sand.

Situations that are challengeable include:
1. The ball is ‘IN’ or ‘OUT’
2. The antennae is touched by the ball or a player
3. The net is touched/not touched by a player
4. Touch/no touch by a player
5. Foot fault at service (the server touches the court (the end line included) or the ground outside the service zone)

Teams get two challenges per set, unused challenges can’t roll over to another set. If the result of the challenge is successful, then the requesting team maintains the number of challenges available to them at the time of the request. If the original referee decision is proved correct (unsuccessful challenge), the number of challenges available to the team requesting the challenge will decrease by one for that particular set. After two unsuccessful challenges in a single set, the team will have no more challenges the remainder of the set.

It is important to note though that a referee, if they feel they made an error, has the right to call a challenge themselves. And if a team is out of challenges, the captain of the team can still approach the head referee following a call. Listed above are the basics of the protocol, the details were explained further to athletes from a three-page document.

"We have an earpiece connected to the challenge official and a microphone. It’s a dedicated line for us between the first and second referee and the challenge official,” explained Katy Meyer, one of the American FIVB referees on the World Tour. "Once I determine that the request is an actual trigger, something that is challengeable and meets the five-second guideline, I ensure I hear correctly what the player is challenging, procedurally we look to the booth and let them know that we have a challenge lodged.

"From there, we wait to hear from the challenge system what the result of the play is. The challenge official will say to us very clearly the result, then it is our responsibility to share that with everybody. That includes the TV folks, the players and the fans. We finish by indicating the team that will be serving next."

In the technical meeting prior to the start of the World Tour Finals, Ross brought up an example not currently on the allowed list of challengeable actions. In time it could be added. There are much more variables for the FIVB to consider in beach than what they originally projected after looking at the indoor model.

"There are restrictions on the rules right now limiting what you can challenge, but I believe you should be able to challenge any situation where human error can be a factor. I think it's also satisfying for the crowd to see what the players are complaining about and then to see the playback in slow motion to see what actually happened," Ross said.

Fellow athlete Casey Patterson, who is currently ranked eighth in provisional Olympic rankings with Jake Gibb, echoed Ross’ sentiment. "I love the direction it’s going, that we’re implementing something like this," said Patterson. "It’s huge, we need that clarity. There are so many touches/no touches that happen so fast."

Though Patterson was a little more adamant about his ideas for the system.

"In theory it’s a really good idea. For me personally, I’d like every aspect of the game to be able to be covered by a camera, not just five aspects of the game. There is so much involved that’s left up to interpretation by the referees, even those can sometimes can get murky. I’d like to add as much clarity as possible or not at all."

Referees sound like they’re on the same page to show transparency in calls.

"I believe that it is a very good thing. Referees and administrators want to get it right," said Meyer. "Athletes want us to get it right. It’s also really great for players to know they have an alternative, a tool that simply requires lodging a legitimate challenge (one of the current five) and they don’t have to get upset. In that regard it helps them remain in their game."

"I don't see any drawbacks to adding this system permanently and thank the FIVB for taking this step to advance our sport," concluded Ross.

The protocol is still developing and the FIVB will assess the system and the rules following each of their tests. With 12 "Hawk-Eye Ready" cameras and the 18 TV cameras at the Finals at their disposal, the technology is quickly making the ruling process easier.

"Everybody can make a mistake, referees and players. Here’s an opportunity to fix a potential mistake," Smith added. "Referees don’t want to decide the game. They want the play on the court to decide the winner of the game. By utilizing the challenge, you can ensure the players are deciding the outcome of the game."