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USCA gives away
Handicap Tracking Points
to promote 2008 Regionals


by Bob Alman, Founding Editor
Posted September 23, 2007

Related Link
Bulletin Board Forum: Tracking Points Giveaway
How the USCA handicap point system works
How the new USCA Grand Prix point system works
Questions for the USCA Management Committee
Croquet World interview with Rich Curtis, 2005


Readers of Croquet World's American Bulletin Board alerted the editor to an unusual announcement about the 2008 USCA Regional Tournaments. It was posted by Fred Jones, USCA Vice President of the Florida Region and director of the first 2008 Regional of the year, in Tampa in early December 2007. The avowed purpose of the announced Handicap Points giveaway is to boost registration in all the 2008 USCA regionals. Croquet World sent repeated queries to all the members of the Management Committee but failed to elicit any comment from the group - except for its spokesperson, the president of the USCA. His comments addressed many of the questions we posed, but not all of them.

The most startling aspect of the announcement was the revelation that the USCA Management Committee (composed primarily of the Vice Presidents of the USCA regions) had voted to promote the 2008 regionals by guaranteeing that no player would lose handicap tracking points under any circumstances in any Regional, and that any tracking points earned would be doubled! Here's the precise wording, in part, as it appears on Croquet World's Bulletin Board:

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
THIS IS A GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO LOWER ONE'S HANDICAP WITHOUT GETTING ANY MINUS POINTS WHILE AT THE SAME TIME SUPPORTING USCA BY PARTICIPATING IN THE REGIONALS.
ALL HANDICAP LEVELS ARE ENCOURAGED TO PARTICIPATE. THIS IS A SUPER OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU HIGH HANDICAPPERS.
GO FOR IT !!!!!!!
LETS BRING THE REGIONALS BACK TO LIFE.

All readers are invited to post opinion or comment on this issue at any length to Croquet World's Americas Bulletin Board, under the topic of "Tracking Points Giveaway." Just hit the "submit a posting" link on the Index page and follow the self-posting menu. Bulletin Board postings are designed to stay online forever, easily accessible and indexed by date and topic.

By guaranteeing the players a virtual treasure trove of handicap tracking points, this unusual promotion will undoubtedly have the desired effect of increasing the registration in events that have often been viewed as superfluous in the USCA universe, competing with bigger and grander events in the regions and usually offering no substantial benefit to the hosting club. In fact, a popular Regional Championship might actually draw potential players away from established opens and invitationals in the area.

How does the giveaway affect a system designed to be performanced-based?

There is only one main argument against the giveaway, but it's a biggie. Although the USCA Handicap system is not without bias, it is based on the principle that players must earn their ranking in the system. The giveaway, on the other hand, allows players to "buy" the tracking points that lower their handicaps, giving those players an advantage over all other USCA members who don't play in the Regionals.

Theoretically, the USCA Handicap System is designed to reward players for winning and to penalize them (to a lessor extent) for losing. Although the system was designed (before the current Grand Prix system) with a bias that actually does reward participation to some extent as an incentive for players to compete in sanctioned events, for the most part its relative integrity has been maintained. Over time, the entire system will gradually slide downward, but everyone in the system slides down together.

The downward slide is reflected in the difference between the Association (International Rules) handicaps and the American Rules handicaps. As a rule of thumb, the Association handicap is two or three higher currently than the same player's American Rules handicap, all other factors being equal.

USCA President Rich Curtis offered his explanation of the Management Committee vote on the tracking points giveaway when all the other members of the committee declined to comment.
When the Handicap System was created under the management of Billie Jean Berne as one of the main achievements of the Bill Berne USCA presidency, the old Grand Prix system devised by USCA founder Jack Osborn was discontinued. But within a very few years - in the late 90s - the current USCA president, Rich Curtis, managed the complex task of creating a "New USCA Grand Prix" superior to its predecessor in many respects. The New Grand Prix was designed to richly reward participation as well as performance, in its own separate system. You could not possibly lose Grand Prix points if you played in a USCA sanctioned tournament - you would always come out on top, with your harvest of points based on where you ended up in the final rankings at the conclusion of play.

Both systems - the USCA Handicap System and the New USCA Grand Prix - went online on the USCA website and by the late nineties, both were being updated weekly. The handicap system records only American Rules results, while the Grand Prix rewards players with points in both Association and American Rules (but not Golf Croquet.)

With both systems in place and with the Grand Prix designed to encourage and reward participation, many USCA members assumed that the handicap system could now be moved gradually in the direction of a "zero bias", rewarding winners and penalizing losers on an equal basis - the way the official World Rankings operate. That has not happened. However, the system has been managed scrupulously in all respects as it was designed - until the recent decision of the USCA Management Committee to give away tracking points to promote the 2008 Regionals.

Questioning the USCA Management Committee

The main question directed to the members of the USCA Management Committee was and is: "Is a temporary promotion of the 2008 Regionals worth the price of compromising the integrity of the Handicap system?" We were surprised and disappointed to find that none of the members of the Management Committee would comment on the record in any way, despite repeated invitations, with the single exception of USCA president Rich Curtis.

Curtis, a trial lawyer expertly devoted to both consensus management and persuasive argument, indicated that the minutes of the Management Committee relating to the discussion of this measure could not be released, because they have not yet been approved. He said the measure was proposed and recommended by Doug Grimsley, chairman of the USCA Tournament Committee.

"When a committee recommends a course of action," Curtis commented, "we generally attempt to be supportive of their recommendations, since they are charged with a particular area of responsibility. The Management Committee felt that this was an appropriate way to encourage greater participation in the regionals, which has been declining for a number of reasons."

Were other measures were proposed to boost Regional number?

Yes, Curtis says there were two, both approved at the last meeting and closely related: Scheduling the next year's Regionals by December 1 of the previous year; and publishing a "fixtures list" announcing the location and dates of all titled tournaments. Early scheduling of USCA events will encourage managers of other sanctioned tournaments to calendar their own events around the USCA's.

Is the giveaway likely to be repeated?

Curtis says, "No, as it stands now, this is only for the 2008 Regionals. I suppose it will be reevaluated at the end of next year and could be implemented again, but for now its a one-time experiment."

For now, it's a one-time experiment...

He adds, "Given the structure of the handicap system and since there are virtually no handicapped tournaments in the US, I don't believe that implementing this experiment is going to have any significant or lasting impact on the integrity of the system."

Though accurate, that comment appears somewhat disingenuous. Surely everyone will agree that the main functional purpose of the handicap system is to divide players into different flights distinguished by players with equivalent playing skills, and to seed blocks. Official handicaps serve much the identical purpose in the other major croquet-playing countries, where handicapped tournaments are unpopular and infrequent. And when players of unequal strength play pickup games, they tend to devise ways of equalizing the games that are superior to awarding official bisques (with extra turns or replays) - by giving the weaker player a certain number of hoop points to begin; or by limiting the stronger player to a maximum number of hoop points in a single turn.

In the article "How the New USCA Grand Prix Works," Curtis is careful to point out that the Grand Prix is not intended to replace the handicap system, but to recognize the achievement of players who compete in both singles and doubles and win points according to their final placement, the length of the flight, and the average handicap of the players in the flight. According to Curtis, "Hopefully, the New Grand Prix will create a friendly competition amongst players of similar abilities and encourage players to participate in more tournaments." The New USCA Grand Prix rewards equally - in the same system - performance in both American Rules and International Rules [Association] play.

How to beat the system - the nasty and unspoken assumption

The giveaway will attract players who want to expand their bragging rights...

The unexamined assumption underlying the tracking points giveaway is that many players will leap at the chance to "beat the system." Badges of achievement usually must be earned. So the giveaway can be an effective promotion for only one reason: It will attract players who want to buy the badge of achievement an official handicap represents rather than earn it on a level playing field. While others get their handicap the hard way - by earning it - players in the Regionals can now beat the system and gain an advantage.

For people who want to expand their bragging rights with a lower handicap, this is probably an effective promotion. More players will register in the Regionals.

tracking-quote3.gif

If this really is a one-time promotion, the small do-jiggering of the system will smooth out and correct itself over time. If some people "buy" a lower handicap by playing in the Regionals, they will eventually have to pay the piper by being required to earn handicap points from players the old-fashioned way, in level competition.

If, on the other hand, this "experiment" is declared successful and is therefore to be repeated, the entire handicap system for American Rules play embarks upon a "slippery slope" that will likely end in a substantial devaluing of a system that is already somewhat comprised by design.

If the handicap system is designed to reward performance and the Grand Prix is designed to reward performance as well as participation, many will argue that the distinct and separate values of these systems need to be rigorously maintained and even strenghtened.

What do the overall numbers tell us?

National USCA membership appears to be rather stable at a little more than 3,000 - numbers close to the national memberships of the other big croquet-playing nations: the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia. Those countries, however, have smaller populations, so in fact the U.S. is still a "weaker" croquet country from the standpoint of percentage of the national population. (By that measure, ten times more Australians play croquet than Americans.)

Although all members of the USCA have handicaps, the handicap table shows that almost one-third of USCA members still have a beginning handicap of 20. And although the Grand Prix was designed to encourage participation and competition in USCA sanctioned tournament at all levels, fewer than 1,000 USCA members compete in one or more tournament a year - as revealed by the Grand Prix tables.

...The Grand Prix...cannot be counted a huge success... By that measure, the New Grand Prix - although it's a magnificently designed and implemented system - cannot be counted a huge success. Curtis said when it was implemented, "Hopefully, the new Grand Prix will create a friendly competition amongst players of similar abilities and encourage players to participate in more tournaments." Whether the new Grand Prix has achieved this purpose is not clear. If more sponsorship and cash prizes went into the promotion of the system, perhaps that would increase the numbers. But such an investment cannot reasonably be expected while croquet remains such a small sport.

The USCA Management Committee has now undertaken to create more participation in USCA sanctioned tournaments with a promotion that does, indeed, seem cheap at the price. And most croquet players may prefer not to know very much about how their favorite sausages are made, or how the USCA policy that lowers their handicap is created. Croquet World, on the other hand, is very interested in learning how official policy is made and how it affects all the players in the sport.

Questions still unanswered

Many other questions directed to the USCA Management Committee remain unanswered. They are numbered below. The committee members or members of the USCA or ANYBODY is free to comment on these questions and this article by posting your response to the linked BULLETIN BOARD FORUM titled "Tracking Points Giveaway."

1. Were any sound alternative plans for promoting registration into the 2008 Regionals suggested or discussed?

2. Assuming this "one-time-only" plan works for the 2008 Regionals, what position does the Manage Committee plan to take on the 2009 and future regionals?

3. Is it not the proper function of the Regional VP's to ensure the viability of their regional tournament? In an organization that already is weak in local/regional management, is it not a bad idea to use the national USCA structures and functions to make the Regionals successful, when a more productive long-range approach would be to create a tournament in which people would want to compete without resorting to "giveaway" enhancements?

4. The USCA Planning Committee's informal development slogan is "All croquet is local." Would not the further development of the Regionals be a proper focus for energizing and organizing the regions and districts of the USCA (lead by their regional VP's) to be more responsible for generating their own results?

5. The USCA GRAND PRIX was meticulously designed and implemented to reward PARTICIPATION, while the USCA HANDICAPS were organized (primarily) as a PERFORMANCE-BASED system. To preserve the clear distinctions between these systems and to use them for the purpose for which they were designed, would not a better incentive have been to DOUBLE the Grand Prix points in the Regionals (perhaps permanently) and thus avoid compromising the integrity of the USCA Handicap system?

6. A related issue: Because the USCA Handicap system already awards more points to winners than the points deducted for losers in the same game, it has a built-in "slide" which is reflected in the current relative standings of the INTERNATIONAL RANKINGS and the USCA rankings, with USCA members formulating their International RANKINGS by adding two or three units to their USCA handicap number. Because the International Rankings are based entirely on performance and will not "slide," presumably the USCA handicaps will become increasingly inflated over time. Is there anything being done to address this in the Management Committee? (And yes, I know that the USCA handicaps are not actually "rankings", but in fact they are used as rankings for the purposes of dividing flights and determining seeding.)

7. The big overall question here is simply: Is further compromising the integrity of the performance-based USCA handicap system in order to achieve a one-season boost for the Regionals really worth the cost?


 
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