Men’s gymnastics at the NCAA level is currently in a debate over whether it should switch from open-ended (Olympic) scoring to the 10.0 system (the perfect 10). Oklahoma men’s gymnastics coach Mark Williams addressed the issue in an open letter to the gymnastics community.
The argument between open-ended scoring and the 10.0 system is simple. Open-ended scoring is a superior way of scoring gymnastics routines, but it is complicated and difficult for casual fans to understand. The 10.0 system has serious drawbacks as a scoring metric, but its simplicity makes it easy for casual fans to understand and is insanely popular.
Katelyn Ohashi and Nadia Comaneci are textbook examples of just how invaluable the 10.0 scoring system can be. I would go as far as to say that any time a gymnast is being scored under the open-ended system, the sport is being held back. McKayla Maroney went viral after the 2012 Olympics. But just imagine how many times someone would comment “and she scored a perfect 10” whenever her famous “not impressed” image was shared on the Internet. It would have given Maroney instant credibility as an athlete. Casual fans would have seen Maroney as much more than your typical Olympic gymnast who had a fun, cute moment that everyone loved, but someone who was one of the most talented vaulters the sport had ever seen.
Without an Olympic gold medal on vault due to her ill-timed error, casual fans didn’t understand just how significant of a vaulter Maroney really was. Casual fans skimming the Internet didn’t understand the significance of 16.233, but they do understand the significance of 10.000 which is what made Ohashi go viral. As long as Ohashi scored a 10, everyone would understand what she had done was impressive and worthy of attention.
Just imagine how much more fame Simone Biles would have if she were scoring 10s. How many of Simone’s routines would spread like wildfire on the Internet in the same fashion as Ohashi’s UCLA routines? How would the sports community react if Simone broke the record for most perfect 10s? It can only be imagined the tsunami of media talking points such an occurrence would generate. Especially as the comparisons to Nadia would be created almost instantly.
It is the well established pattern of the perfect 10 generating massive amounts of popularity that makes the 10.0 system so enticing to use despite its drawbacks as a scoring metric. It is often proposed that men’s college gymnastics should switch to the 10.0 scoring system to reverse the declining participation rates on the men’s side. It is often injected into conversation to “explain” why the women’s side remains so popular at the college level. But there is one thing this argument completely misses.
In both cases, neither Nadia Comaneci nor Katelyn Ohashi made the sport famous. Both are examples of college and Olympic gymnasts achieving the highest level of media attention, but women’s gymnastics was popular before they came along. It is not Nadia but rather Olga Korbut who is credited with making gymnastics one of the most popular Olympic sports. It was Korbut who gave the sport the breakthrough it needed to be what it is today. And yet Korbut never scored a perfect 10 in her career. Ohashi did a lot for NCAA gymnastics, but women’s college gymnastics already had considerable coverage before her arrival.
The perfect 10 can enhance a popular product, it can be a great tool, but it can’t be the foundation of success. Nadia and Ohashi had so much success in provoking a strong reaction over their routines because people were already watching the sport in large numbers before they even mounted the podium. That first step, getting people to tune in, is the real problem men’s gymnastics needs to address.
The perfect 10 is often treated as an easy solution and a quick ticket to success. One quick fix that can solve the problem of low participation rates and a lack of popularity in men’s college gymnastics. That is a flawed mentality because if one easy change will cause instant success, that would be true for everyone. But life doesn’t work that way and it certainly won’t work for the men’s side of the sport. And this mentality undermines another critical factor.
Men’s gymnastics and women’s gymnastics are completely different sports. Baseball and softball have more in common than the two different genders of gymnastics. The two sports have two very different needs, style of athletes, and more specifically, demographics. The perfect 10 works so well for the women because its athletes are unlikely to compete at the elite level (international competition). In men’s gymnastics the opposite is true.
Men’s gymnastics is filled with athletes who are either already competing in international competition, or have viable future prospects to be an elite level gymnast. Women’s NCAA gymnastics can disregard concerns over how their policies impact the national program. For men’s NCAA gymnastics that prospect is absolutely critical, if not the one advantage it has. NCAA men’s gymnastics can use “our gymnasts are training for the Olympics” to attract fans. It can use its facilities and Olympic-style Code of Points to attract strong national team members who want to use the NCAA as a stepping stone for the Olympics.
But if men’s NCAA gymnastics wants to keep that advantage intact, it needs to be cohesive with the elite level. The 10.0 system is anything but. Male gymnasts at the college level are also at the ideal age to compete in international competition. They will have to compete simultaneously in two different levels of the sport with two different scoring systems. It would be a monumental task to ask a basketball player to do something like that. But for a gymnast it is significantly harder as gymnasts specifically build routines around a Code of Points. You would be asking gymnasts on an Olympic trajectory to balance their training time/routine construction to account for both open-ended code and 10.0 code considerations.
It is for these reasons that I advocate the 10.0 system for women, but the open-ended scoring system for men in college gymnastics. The downfall of NCAA men’s gymnastics is tragic, but the scoring system is not the culprit. The culprit is rising costs ranging from equipment, insurance rates, and healthcare for the athletes. On top of men’s gymnastics falling short in the realm of marketing and branding to attract more fans, plus a failure to engage the fans it currently has. All while men’s gymnastics has to compete with other sports for funding. Those are the factors that will be on the mind of an NCAA athletic director as he or she decides whether gymnastics should be added or dropped. The type of scoring system in place is too mundane of a topic to have any relevance in such a decision.
I’m glad someone of Mark’s stature and clout was willing to say these things. He is someone who is widely respected in gymnastic and more people on both sides of the sport should listen to what he has to say. The perfect 10 is an invaluable tool for gymnastics, but it is also misunderstood and can hold the sport back when it is implemented in the wrong way. That’s a lesson both men’s NCAA gymnastics and women’s elite-level gymnastics need to understand.
Below I included my favorite quotes from Mark’s open letter. I highly recommend you read the rest of it.
“It’s not wild speculation to say juniors may forego college if we stray from FIG scoring—it’s what actually happened the last time we tried it. In the 1990s we modified FIG scoring in order, we hoped, to enhance parity across the NCAA and add excitement to the sport. (Sound familiar?) It didn’t seem like a dramatic modification at the time, but the reality was that the changes we made vastly reduced the chances of our NCAA athletes succeeding outside NCAA competition, which led to future athletes bypassing college to train. To be honest, as someone around then, I can’t believe we’re now considering making the exact same mistake again.“
“Our continuation as a sport is entirely predicated on NCAA men’s gymnastics being a critical component of Team USA’s Olympic aspirations, yet we want to turn our backs on the very thing that’s keeping us alive? It makes no sense.“
“…women’s gymnastics is undeniably more popular in the U.S. than men’s. That’s always been true, and ignoring cultural reality is incompatible with critical thinking.“
“What we should be looking to replicate from the women’s side of the sport is their relentless promotion, how they market their meets and make them more watchable.“
“There seems to be an impression that attendance at men’s meets has declined due to our scoring system—an idea that has no basis in fact. (At Oklahoma, for instance, our attendance has increased year every year since FIG scoring began.)“
“There was no mass exodus of fans due to a digit change on the scoreboard, and fans won’t suddenly appear to see a different set of numbers either.“
“Scoring doesn’t attract fans; marketing and promotion do.“
“Accessibility of information, and increased engagement, is what will bring in more fans, and allow them to engage with each other.“
And finally, he finishes with the gut punch:
“I’m all for new ideas, but converting our scores in hopes of fan engagement is NOT a new idea. We’ve tried it before and it unquestionably harmed our sport. I’m not in favor of making the same mistake twice.“