Exploiting the New Judging System

The new judging system is now the law of the land in the ISU realm and will likely be adopted for use in the U.S. next season, as by necessity it must.  It would be unfair to junior and senior skaters to have them compete under one system domestically and another internationally.  It would also be unfair to skaters at other levels to develop under one system only to have to switch to a different system when they reach the upper levels, and it would be unfair to coaches to have them juggle two different systems when teaching students of different levels.  So, for better or worse, there appears to be no choice but to adopt the new judging system at all competition levels for domestic competition in the U.S.

In reviewing the results from the Grand Prix last season, one notices that the winners at some competitions outscored the winners at other competition by nearly 50 points!  Yet in determining advancement to the final, winners at every event get the same number of points, even though some of them would have gotten their clocks cleaned had they competed in other competitions than the ones they did.  This is a fundamental problem with using point based ranking systems to determine advancement in tournaments.  There is a silver lining around the black cloud of the new judging system, however, that offers a solution to this problem.

If you believe the scores from one competition are directly comparable to the scores from any other competition (as the ISU energetically argued to support adoption of the new judging system) then advancement to the Grand Prix Final can be made much simpler and fairer by using the average scores of each skater in the series.  Each skater would continue to be allowed to enter two or three competition.  At the end of the six competitions, the two best scores for each skater could be averaged and the six skaters with the best average scores advance to the finals.  Under this system seeding of the competitions and the strength of the fields in each competition become irrelevant.

The same holds true for qualifying rounds at Worlds.  Is the 16th skater in one qualifying group really worse than the 15th skater in the other group?  Do they really deserve to be eliminated, or are they a victim of unlucky seeding.

Solution?  Take the 30 best scores from the qualifying round without concern for how many of the 30 come from each group.  You post one of the 30 best scores you go on, you don't and your season is over.

In U.S. qualifying competition, this kind of approach would greatly simplify life and save the Association a ton of money, like up to $500,000 a year.  Some examples.

At Governing Council this year it was suggested that Regionals be eliminated by having some number of local competitions be selected as "point" competitions, and skaters with the highest point totals qualify for Sectionals.  The problem with this is the issue of fair seeding and the unequal relative strengths of the competitors from one competition to the next.  Further, local competitions not designated as point competitions will see their entries drop and take a huge financial hit.

Solution?  Skaters can enter any competitions they want and Headquarters keeps a record of the average score for each skater for their six best scores of the season.  The four skaters in each region with the best average scores one month before Sectionals qualify for Sectionals.  This eliminates the cost of Regionals and makes advancement to Sectionals independent of the strengths and sizes of each region.  To advance to Nationals, the 12 best scores from the three Sectionals are taken, regardless of how many skaters come from a given Section.  Advancement to Nationals would then be independent of the size and strength of each Section, and skaters would no longer have reason to Region or Section "shop" to enhance their chances of getting to Nationals.

In fact, one could go even further and question whether Sectionals are needed under the new system.  One could have the skaters with the twelve best seasonal averages qualify directly for Nationals regardless of their geographic distribution in the U.S.  If you are one of the twelve best on some cutoff date, say November 15, you go to Nationals, if not your season is over.

Under the new judging system, the only fair and effective way to hold qualifying competitions is to have a full hardware system at each competition.  This means nine systems for the nine simultaneous Regionals, at an acquisition cost of about $1,000,000 and recurring annual costs of maybe $100,000.  If qualifying competitions are eliminated then only one system is needed to support the several National Championships, which are never held simultaneously.  That avoids about $900,000 in acquisition costs and saves about $90,000 in recurring annual costs. 

At Governing Council this year there was also a great deal of discussion regarding how many Juvenile and Intermediate skaters should go to Junior Nationals, and how they should advance.  The average scores approach offers a simple, clean solution.  If you want 36 Juveniles at Junior Nationals, then take the 36 skaters with the best average scores on the appropriate cutoff date.  By basing the average on the six best scores you have a pretty good idea who are the 36 best skaters in the U.S. in a given season and, thus, deserve to go to Nationals, without worrying about how fair the 9/3, or 12/4, or whatever, geography is.

This approach can even be taken to the club level where you sometimes have four or five groups of qualifying at some levels and then a final round.  Are the qualifying rounds all of equal difficulty?  How does the fifth place skater in one group really compare to the fourth place skaters in the other groups.  Who really deserves to advance to the final round?  In a score based approach, the 12 or 16 best scores in the qualifying rounds could advance to the final round, regardless of how many come from any one group.

The use of average scores to determine advancement in tournaments and in qualifying to Nationals has the potential to greatly simplify competition and to eliminate questions of fairness in the distribution of skaters in regions and sections.  Potentially, Regional and Sectional competition could be completely eliminated, saving the Association a large amount of money each year.

Further, by eliminating Regionals and Sectionals, the number of Competition Judges needed to support qualifying competition would also be greatly reduced, eliminating some of the problems in having enough judges to support all the qualifying competitions nationwide.

If you accept the premise that scores from any competition will be directly comparable to those from all other competitions, then an average score qualification system has a great deal to offer U.S. Figure Skating, with few, if any, drawbacks.  There may indeed be a modest silver lining in the new judging system black cloud.

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Copyright 2004 by George S. Rossano