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Following on from my last post about a rowing passport, I want to run another idea past people. As I tried to make clear on the last blog (but clearly failed at least as far as followers of WeRow on Facebook were concerned, who rather bizarrely seemed to think that my writing to ask people’s views on something was an indication of the fact that I was out of touch and incapable of thinking about anything else – in need, said one poster, of going to do some work experience somewhere!), my asking is not an indication of anything other than just wanting to get some views. It does not mean that this is launching tomorrow, or that it is currently taking up a lot of anyone’s time. It is just something that I personally think makes a lot of sense for the sport, and I’d like to know whether enough people share my view to warrant us spending any time in delivering it.

First, the background: as you will know, we have a wonderful programme of regattas and Head Races, put on by clubs and volunteers all over the country. But competition as it currently doesn’t suit everyone. Some people say they don’t want to compete at all, which is fair enough; and for others, competition is quite a miserable experience. It’s usually a military operation, nearly always requiring travel (sometimes some significant distance) – and for that and other reasons, many people don’t get to race that often.

In addition to that, it’s my suspicion that there are at least some instances of people saying they don’t want to compete, when what they actually mean is that going to a regatta to get beaten hollow, or starting low down in a Head, isn’t necessarily a lot of fun. I can attest from the time I once subbed into a crew that went off below 200th in the HoRR that racing isn’t quite the same experience when you have to sit around for ages to start, and then thrash through the wake of dozens of other boats for the privilege of being able to starting a few places higher in a year’s time.

So, that’s the background. Here’s the idea.

How about we set up a ladder system of racing, like a squash ladder or a chess ladder, for every boat class and every region. The rules would be few and far between, and could be tailored to suit the geography, but at a very basic level you could challenge any crew that was, say, ten or fewer places above you on the ladder, to a race over any distance or time. The challenge would have to be accepted within, say, a fortnight, or the verdict goes to the challenger by default.

All that is then required is an agreed result, and a reporting mechanism. Two crews report the same outcome, and the system automatically adjusts. So, Crew A that is 283rd challenges Crew B that is 276th to race over a minute, and wins. Crew A goes to 276th on the ladder and Crew B drops a place. Crew B is gutted that they are slower starters and is confident that they come through in a longer contest, so re-challenges Crew A to race over three minutes next week. There’s no need for any intrastructure other than a reporting mechanism: no umpires, no stake boats, no finish line. Just an agreed challenge, and an agreed result between two crews.

I like its simplicity, the fact that there is so little to set up, and the way that despite both those things it could dramatically increase the opportunities to race. But there are ten other reasons why I would love to see it done, which I lay out below.

  1. The first is that it plays to behaviours that already exist. No-one who has ever been in a crew can deny that two crews that come alongside each other naturally change pace and draw a little firmer. Before you know it, two crews that were paddling along at steady state find themselves at 28 just because there was a little bit of needle, with coaches wildly objecting that they’re meant to be at 20, and asking the cox what’s wrong with them. We’ve all been there. This formalises what’s in many rowers’ blood.
  2. Second, everyone knows (aside from the times that people aren’t meant to be racing but sort of do, as above) that clubs and crews do pieces against each other all the time. The pity is that right now, they try to hide it from the NGB because it’s deemed to be frowned upon. Both of those things seem odd to me. In my view, it’s just a bit of fun, and we ought to celebrate it. So why not put a framework around it that allows people to do so?
  3. Third: no-one is obliged to take part, which is great because not everyone will want to – but not doing is likely eventually to encourage others to get involved. Say you’re in the 3rd VIII of a big club, and you have no interest. You fall down the ladder until you get into a position where you are surrounded by other crews who don’t care either, and there you stay without anyone bothering you. But when you move on and another set of people take on the title of the club’s 3rd VIII, they can have a bit of fun moving up. It’s a bit like the University Bumps Races, just without the carnage.
  4. Fourth, which is sort of connected to the third, it sits alongside the existing competition framework without in any way disturbing what is there or causing anyone or any club to change their routine. We could rank it on the basis of the Head of the River Race, or by using PRI – but it wouldn’t really matter where you started, because crews would soon find their level. There would be ups and downs, but the downs wouldn’t mean that you were somehow massively inconvenienced in some future competition. And if you fell off towards the bottom of the ladder because you aren’t taking part, then you aren’t taking part. Nothing wrong with that.
  5. Five – and this is a really important one – it means that everyone at every level of the sport can win something. At the moment, for many people, competition is competition for its own sake: you compete, but you know you aren’t going to win anything or do more than advance a few places in  next year’s starting places. But with a ladder system, a crew 300 places down the ladder can be the biggest mover of the month, and win something accordingly.
  6. Sixth, with a decent reporting mechanism (something a bit like Tinder, although obviously I have no idea how Tinder works), it would be simple, and fun. Every month we could see (and maybe give prizes for) all sorts of things: the crew that rose most, the one that threw down the most challenges, the best overall club performance (divided by the number of boats the club has) – you name it. There would be plenty of scope for a bit of bragging and a bit of joshing, and with a forum built round the reporting mechanism, plenty of opportunity for an OMG here or a WTF there as results came in. To point 5 above, imagine the lowly crew of a small club helping their club snatch the overall club title from a major club on the last day of the month, by moving up 10 places to take the club average to the top of that months’ league. It could be the talk of the town. 🙂
  7. Seventh, it would allow people to get involved more casually (and as I will try to explain in a blog tomorrow, finding ways to that is important for the future of the sport). How many people do we all know who can’t commit to the number of outings needed to be in a club’s leading crew, but who could go out occasionally? Club A’s Occasionals, Club B’s Alumni, or even Virtual-Club-Comprising-Mates-Who-Just-Borrow-A-Boat-Occasionally, could get on the ladder and have some fun. We could welcome all sorts of people who have hung up their oars, back to the sport. (By the by before I get on to the eighth… I know reason 7 can work from my own experience: I set up Crabtree Boat Club in 1996 by hiring an old VIII and a boat rack in Thames RC, and telling mates that they could go out in a composite crew if they signed up – and I did that because the crew of mates that I took down to HRR for a couple of years (as “Free Press”) always had to race in the Ladies’ Plate because of the pedigree of the oarsmen, even though we only ever managed to get together on the Monday. (Unsurprisingly, success for us meant we’d led at the end of the island!) From those humble beginnings, Crabtree is now a thriving club.)
  8. Back to my reasons…. Reason number eight is that it can be adapted according to what works locally. It doesn’t need BR to lay down loads of rules, but it does need a central reporting mechanism and it does need promotion and prizes to add to the fun. I realise that it works better as described in some places than it does in others, but that emphatically does not mean that it can only work on the Tideway. On the contrary: clubs that are close to each other but not on exactly the same piece of water in different parts of the country (say, Runcorn and Warrington) could set up ‘fixtures’ with neighbours, invite them down for some very knock-about fun racing in a boat that they can lend, and who knows, maybe then have a barbecue of a summer’s evening – only to have a return match. It works in cricket. Why not in rowing?
  9. The ninth reason ties in a bit with the concept of the rowing passport, which eventually I’d like to see ending up with people much more easily able to interact with others in rowing: namely, that crews from one region’s ladder could potentially travel to race crews on another, with BR looking at prizes in cross-regional competition in what you might describe as “Power8s without the cost”. In my perfect world I’d be putting a couple of boats in the boathouse part of 6, Lower Mall and inviting people down to the Tideway to throw down a few challenges to comparable crews, without them having to load up their trailers and bring their own kit. Book in with ours and come and have some fun. Why not?
  10. And my tenth reason is that you can have ladders across so many different sectors. Schools ladders and club ladders and sculling ladders and eights ladders. You could have divisions from which crews could be promoted and relegated. You could do all sorts of interesting stuff, with the focus being on people at every level just enjoying it. But you don’t need any of that just to kick it off. We could produce and put out a reporting mechanism (which today is technically relatively trivial, but ten years ago couldn’t have been done), publish the bare bones of the rules, and then see what works.

So, those are my ten reasons why I think this would work. What do you think? Is this bonkers, or is it a good idea? I’d love to know your views. So, let me know your opinion, either by mailing me, or commenting below or on Twitter – or by coming to chat next week at Henley Royal. I’m going to be on the new British Rowing stand that will be by the entrance to the competitors’ enclosure, next to the regatta shop. You’ll find me and a number of the BR team there ready to chat to you about whatever you want to talk about.

Finally – to repeat, before anyone again goes nuts that this just shows that I’m out of touch, or wants to know why I’m not doing something about people answering the phone! I’m just throwing it out there, and am happy to hear the reasons why it wouldn’t work. Personally, I like it; can see how it could be a lot of fun; and would love to see us develop it and roll it out. But right now it’s just an idea, and other than me writing this blog, it hasn’t taken up anyone’s time. With this and the rowing passport, I’m exploring ideas without being under any illusion that everything works for everyone. And tomorrow, I’ll write about why in my view it’s important for the future of the sport to be doing that. If you disagree, you know where to come and find me to complain next week!

Posted in British Rowing.

3 Responses

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  1. Newcassle says

    To summarise: Strava.

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