Standardizing Cap Rules: How the Stanford Invite Can Jump Start Discussion

Observer Wally Kwong at the 2011 Club Championships.Here’s one headline for you coming out of Stanford Invite: “College Ultimate robbed of an ending for what will likely be the best game until Nationals.”

For those of you who didn’t catch Ultiworld’s livestream, the Sunday quarterfinal round saw #2 Colorado Mamabird (12-2) mounting a late comeback on #1 UNC (20-1). But Stanford was experimenting with going straight to hard cap (without the buffer of a soft cap), which, when it came on with the score 13-11 UNC, led to a confusing and anti-climactic ending. As is customary, the two teams played a point that didn’t matter (Colorado scored) to wind down a 13-12 game. And it illuminated one of the greatest issues of the game.

Ultimate is both a timed and point driven game – and yet tournaments often are not organized enough to enforce both. In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that the Stanford TDs are the ones who have it right and soft caps should be abandoned all together.

And yet the cap rules are not even standardized. Every tournament uses different rules about how games will finish – I repeat, the rules about how the final score is reached changes from tournament to tournament. That’s not innovative or experimental. It’s inconsistent and frustrating.

I’ll admit my personal bias. I’m a former player that has had his heart broken by a hard cap my team did not know was in effect. I’m a current viewer and reporter of college ultimate that wants to see dramatic games. I have never been nor will I ever be a tournament director.

So what are caps?

Generally, when a tournament director affects soft cap, teams will play to a score two points higher than the leader’s score. A 10-9 game will end when a team reaches 12; a 12-3 game will end when a team scores 14.

A hard cap adds only one more point to the game. If the hard cap is reached during a point, the teams will play out that point, then one more point, then the game is over. Some TDs alter this rule to be essentially play out the remaining point and end the game — unless the game is tied after playing the point, at which point you play double game point — next point wins.

Why are these rules in place?

Ultimate is a tournament sport. We jam between three and eight games into a weekend. To make those eight game weekends possible, there must be an enforceable time limit. Without one, teams would finish at different times and scheduling would be a nightmare.

Perhaps more importantly, if weather – particularly wind like we saw at the Stanford Invite – makes a game to 15 almost physically impossible, then the cap works to end a game — otherwise those people are playing through the night.

USAU offers little standardization, leaving much to the discretion of tournament directors; in USAU’s scoring rulebook, the only rule that I could decipher was that a winner is declared when one team scores 17 points.1

The two semiprofessional leagues — the AUDL and MLU — have moved to a timed game. They prefer the exhibition schedule format and have a business model that relies on fans paying for their product. In contrast, USAU continues to allow a lot of flexibility for tournament directors to adjust scoring and timing as they see fit. But imagine a basketball game to 100, a soccer game to 3, a football game to 35 – or 70 for that matter. Ultimate’s magic number 15 is arbitrary and could just as easily be 10 or 20. Sometimes it is changed to 13 or 17.

It’s a problem. The point driven system is not working with the way the game is evolving. The time system appears overlooked and often disorganized – most games have neither a scoreboard nor a game clock on hand. Have you ever watched an ultimate game without hearing someone ask, what’s the score? Have you ever heard that asked at a college basketball game?

Furthermore, there’s an open discussion to be had as to why soft caps exist in the first place. The most probable explanation for the soft caps is to avoid the “harshness” that the hard cap seemingly imposes. The halted Colorado comeback at Stanford Invite, the personal frustrations I mentioned from my college ultimate career, and the odd spectacle of a score, by the losing team, that ends the game — these all feel like frustrating moments, seemingly violating sporting fairness norms.

But the soft cap is harder to defend from a more analytic-based perspective. That argument (against the soft cap) starts by noting that Ultimate is a point-driven game. The game should end when a team scores 152. But, because of the tournament format, scheduling difficulties, and weather, not every game can realistically be played to 15 — the game simply can’t go on forever. At some point, the game must be capped.

The Stanford TD explained his cap decisions in an email:

This year we tried a few experimental rules to see how they worked and how teams liked them (substitutions during timeouts was another one of the experimental rules). We spoke with numerous people about whether soft cap was significant, and the general consensus seemed to be that it adds confusion with little gain. Soft cap rarely comes into effect as the game is usually decided to 15 or by hard cap anyways. It seems that its only real purpose is to serve as a reminder for teams that the game is nearing its last few points.

So the necessity of having some cap doesn’t support the current system of having two different caps. Shouldn’t time caps go on if and only if necessary in order to end the game? Which would be, by definition, a hard cap.

To put it another way: If the main purpose of a time cap is to solve the problem of ending the current round in time to start the next round, then the soft cap is a poor fitting solution. Often times, the soft cap doesn’t work to end the game and the hard cap is necessary to actually end the round on time. In those cases, the soft cap only served to warn the teams that the “real cap” was about to shorten the game. Other times, the soft cap will err in the other direction and end a game prematurely — when there was still some available time left in that round.

The argument against soft caps has been going on for a while — at least as long as four years ago put — judging by this comment on RSD:

Soft cap needs to be abolished. It makes no sense. Just one timed
game. Why should a team get extra time to come back. Unless it’s tied.
I like just a hard cap rule. If within one when the horn is blown, [overtime
can happen, but only] if the losing team ties the game. I like that [as a set of cap rules].

Veteran coach and analyst Kyle Weisbrod explained his capping decision for the upcoming Northwest Challenge, hosted by his team, Washington Element. “We’re trying to keep the caps close to what we’ll have at College Nationals just to make it feel as nationals-like as possible,” he said. That means games to 15 and a soft cap 20 minutes before the hard cap, which goes on at the end of the scheduled round time.

So what is the real solution? Given that the sport is becoming increasingly spectator-conscious, we are probably to the point where there should be some standardization. Here are the viable options that I see:

  1. Make ultimate a timed game. It conforms to the manner we play (tournament) and cannot be affected by weather like scoring can. Overtime complicates things slightly, but every game could be equipped with a game clock – which could get expensive – and overtime could extend play five minutes. Alternatively, every team has someone with a watch, or at least a clock on their cell phone.
  2. Stick games to 15. Use only hard caps for pool play — the primary purpose for them is to keep pool play moving along. Then eliminate hard cap and use only soft cap for the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals – which enriches the viewer’s experience and ensures the most important games finish with the winning team scoring. For big games and tournaments, the tournament must display a game clock (a horn that‘s sound is often lost in the wind will not cut it).
  3. Eliminate soft caps all together. Hard caps go on when there are 5 or 10 minutes left in a round — thus the cap system is only used when absolutely necessary to keep things moving along.
  4. Extend round times or lessen the point cap (games to 13 instead of 15). Why are so many Youth and College ultimate games getting capped anyways? Yes, cap confusion and discontent is caused in part by weather and randomly sloppy play — but it is equally caused by TDs trying to squeeze too much into a given weekend.
  5. What about option number 5? You tell me.

  1. The rules on caps in the 11th edition are as follows:

    1. Caps are maximum score limits imposed before or during a game to limit the time required to declare a winner. The game ends when one team’s score first reaches the cap.
      1. A point cap is a maximum score limit imposed before the event.
      2. A soft time cap is a maximum score limit imposed during a game once a predetermined time of play has elapsed and after the current scoring attempt is completed.
      3. A hard time cap is the ending of the game once a predetermined time of play has elapsed and after the currentscoring attempt is completed. If the score is tied, play continues until one additional goal is scored. 

      4. or 13, or 17, etc. 

    1. Henry McKenna
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      Henry McKenna is a reporter for Ultiworld. An experienced sports journalist, he played ultimate for four years at Colorado College while pursuing a creative writing degree. He played for Inception and has coached in China and Spain.

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