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The Biggest Sporting Rule Changes in History


Premier League football is set its biggest rule change in decades when VAR is introduced to all games in 2019/20. The system has proved controversial when used at international tournaments and the FA Cup last season. Who knows how exactly it will affect Premier League teams. Will it favour the smaller teams who lose out to big decisions “favouring” the top clubs? Will it make shift balances in Top-6 games or influence top of the table clashes? Dominant teams might “lose their edge” like new casino players on a bad run. But whatever happens, there will be plenty to talk about like any rule change that takes place in sport.

Here’s a list of 7 of the biggest rule changes in sporting history.

The back-pass rule in football

Italia 90 may have defined an era for English football but the overall tournament was one of the worst. Gameplay was turgid, discipline was non-existent (who can forget Benjamin Massing’s tackle on Claudio Caniggia?), and most matches were just plain boring. One of the components of the dull play was defenders passing the ball back to the goalkeeper, who would pick it up and stand with it for extended periods of time before hoofing it upfield.

FIFA introduced the back-pass rule in 1992 to combat overly-defensive play and time-wasting. It caused confusion at first but eventually, goalkeepers learnt to adapt and ushered the dawn of the “sweeper-keeper”, with Manuel Neuer being one of the greatest in the world.

The six tackle rule in rugby league

Rugby league plays second fiddle to rugby union in wider popularity but it’s still an exciting code. The split away from rugby union came in the early 19th century after a pay dispute and the Northern Rugby Football Union introduced professionalism decades before the Rugby Football Union. As further rules changed between the two codes, one of the biggest was the six tackle rule.

The rule was introduced in 1972 and gave attacking teams six chances to score before they had to turn the ball over to the opposition. It shares similarities with American football’s “four chances”. Referees keep count and sometimes shout after each tackle to notify the players. On the fifth tackle, the referee signals to let the attacking team know they only have one tackle left before they change the ball over. If there isn’t a scoring opportunity available, the attacking team usually kick the ball forward to try and make something happen or force the other team to play from the very back of the field.

The three-point field goal in basketball

The majority of points scored in basketball come from inside the “D” for two points. They’re easier to score and the bigger, most successful teams employ strong attacking players who can muscle through defences. In 1945, an experimental “three-point line” was tested in a college basketball game between Columbia and Fordham. 13 years later, it was used again but 2 feet further out.

It wasn’t until 1961 that the American Basketball League made it a rule and became the first league to do so. They settled on the three-point line at 25ft from the basket. It took the NBA, formed in 1976, three years before they adopted the three-point rule as many thought it was a gimmick. The first NBA three-pointer was scored by Chris Ford of the Boston Celtics on October 12, 1979. Governing body FIBA introduced the three-point line in 1984, and settled on 20.5ft for basketball matches outside of the NBA. Distances range from 19.75ft in high school (US) to 23.75ft in the NBA (the NCAA’s is 20.75ft).

Three pointers have grown in frequency thanks to Stephen Curry, one of the best three-point scorers in history. What was seen as a gimmick is not an important element of a championship-winning team strategy.

Tiebreaks in tennis

The tiebreak – or tiebreaker – in tennis started as an experiment in 1965. It was created by Jimmy Van Alen, a creative polymath with a love of tennis. Initially, there were two types of tiebreak. The first proposed was a best-of-9 point affair, with the potential of a “sudden death” point if the tiebreak went to 4-4. Its first Grand Slam use came in 1970 at the US Open and continued until 1974. The second variant is the one used today: the 12-point tiebreak. On first glance, 12 can be split in half and lead to a 6-6 draw. But a rule saying a player must have a two-point lead to win lead to what we have today. Because of this, it’s usually first to 7 points but with the two-point lead a player needs, it can go much further.

Unfortunately, tiebreaks aren’t always employed in final sets at Grand Slams. And that has lead to some peculiar records. In 2010, John Isner beat Nicolas Mahut 6–4, 3–6, 6–7(7), 7–6(3), 70–68 in the longest match in tennis history. The final set lasted 8 hours, 11 minutes over 3 days. Isner was also involved in another final set tiebreak when he faced fellow big server Kevin Anderson. He lost that match 7–6(6), 6–7(5), 6–7(9), 6–4, 26–24. Both matches took place at Wimbledon and fuelled the rule change whereby final sets at Wimbledon would involve a tiebreak if they reached 12-12 in games.

The extra point kick in NFL

This rule and its changes is two-fold. Extra-point kicks are the equivalent of conversions in rugby and are officially called as such. There’s also the option to get two extra points by running the ball but most elect for the easier extra-point goal. The rule changed in 2015 meaning extra-point kicks after touchdowns had to be taken 33 yards from the goal posts and, as you might have expected, the extra distance lead to more misses. Then in 2018, the NFL eliminated extra point attempts at the end of regulation time. This was a sigh of relief for gamblers and spectators, especially if a team already winning had to kick for an extra point they didn’t need.

Drugs testing in MLB

It seems ludicrous that a modern sport didn’t introduce proper drugs testing until 2003 but that’s what happened in Major League Baseball. In 2002, a joint drug program was introduced where players would carry out urine tests for banned steroids between 2003 and 2004. By 2003, 5-7% percent of the 1,438 anonymous tests were positive for steroids. Fines and suspensions were carried out and the sport was rocked by some influential names on the list who could kiss their Hall of Fame appearances goodbye. As the years went on, drug testing increased with stricter penalties helped by the Mitchell Report commissioned in 2008.

With so many caught doping in the 00s, who knows how many played while taking performance-enhancing drugs in previous decades. The bans contributed to a 15% reduction in runs scored and a 23% decrease in home runs.

NHL Institutes the Avery Rule

Perhaps not the biggest rule change but a necessary one. Sean Avery was a controversial figure in the NHL, both on and off the ice. In Game 3 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals against the New Jersey Devils, Avery (playing for the New York Rangers) began screening the Devils’ goaltender Martin Brodeur and making obstructing gestures by waving his hands and stick in his face. Nothing came of the initial play but Avery went onto score on the second attack. Screening wasn’t uncommon or illegal but the lengths Avery went to were deemed unsportsmanlike and the NHL amended the unsportsmanlike conduct rule the very next day to avoid it happening in future.

Sean Avery retired in 2012, went to work for an advertising and creative agency in New York City, and left after filing bankruptcy.


These are just some of the rule changes in sporting history over a few decades. Football has plenty of its own, including recent changes in the Premier League. The reasons behind new rules or amendments to existing ones are often to improve the sport or stop detrimental effects. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but the magic of a victory will always transcend the laws.


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