I’ll preface this post by pointing out the majority of my 17 years in FIRST has been extremely positive and FIRST and the people in it have had a profound influence on me as person, as a professional, as a mentor, and as a maker. Anyone who knows me knows that I will go out of my way to promote FIRST and that it consumes my life (for better or worse). I am very thankful for what FIRST has done for me.
I’d like to pose a very simple question: Why does the value of a regional vary so greatly? By “value” I’m referring to what a team (the customer) gets for its registration fee, not the production quality of the event.
Looking through the results for the first four weeks of competition, for regional events only, I see a lot of variation in the number of matches. In general, the more teams there are at an event, the fewer matches each team will get. That’s a given. But that’s not always the case this year. Virginia had 64 teams and they only played 86 matches, giving each team only 8 matches. Orlando also had 64 teams but played 107 matches giving each team 10 matches. According to the public agendas available for each event, they had the same time allotted for qualifying matches (11 hours total). I was not at either of these events, so I cannot say for sure if the schedule was adhered to or not, but how can FIRST justify a difference of 21 matches between two similarly sized events?
My team attended Wisconsin this weekend. There were 60 teams in attendance, the same number as in 2014. In 2014, 100 qualifying matches were played, giving each team 10 matches, whereas in 2015, only 90 matches were played giving each team only 9 matches. I can understand that this year’s match cycle time is likely higher than last year’s, but Orlando apparently found a way. Lets go the other direction though - Waterloo had only 30 teams in both 2014 and 2015 and played 65 matches each year resulting in 13 qualifying matches for each team. That’s a lot, but based on my previous findings, they could have had even more with ease!
Many teams still only attend 1 event. Those teams in Virginia payed $625 / match (even higher for rookies). Teams in Waterloo only payed $385 / match. 24 of the 30 teams in Waterloo then also got to play in the Playoffs, further increasing the value of their event whereas 40 teams in Virginia only played 8 matches (a whopping 20 minutes of field time) and then packed up to go home, possibly done for the season.
Lets compare that with the district model for just a second - for the same $5000 registration, those teams are getting two SMALL events resulting in somewhere around 25 matches per team ($200/match). Even if a team could not afford to travel to a second district event, the value of one district event is still well above most regional events.
Now lets look at this from another perspective - the spectator. At these larger regional events, most teams are only going to play 2 qualifying matches on Saturday morning. Many spectators can ONLY attend on Saturday due to work or school obligations. Since the majority of the teams will NOT make the playoffs, those two matches may be their only opportunity to see their son’s, daughter’s, niece’s, nephew’s, grandson’s, granddaughter’s, friend’s, or colleague’s team in action. 5 minutes of play. At least they didn’t have to pay to see it…
Enough about robots. Remember, FIRST is about more than just the robots. So lets talk about everyone’s favorite blue shirted people - the judges! At Wisconsin there were approximately 20 judges. Some of those judges are locked in the Chairman’s Award interview room. Some of those judges are doing Dean’s List interviews all weekend. So, lets say there are 12 - 15 judges remaining. Based on my observations, they are probably broken up into 4 or 5 teams of 2 -3 judges - some of them are judging the robots and some of them are judging more than the robots. In an event with 60 or more teams, that’s not a lot of judges to go around, but I would expect that every one of those judges would be visiting every one of the teams so that everyone has notes to compare. At least in our experience, that has not been the case. For many years, this year included, we have only seen one or two sets of judges in our pit in Wisconsin. This year we saw only one set of three judges, though we did see them several times. Perhaps only one set of judges looks at 1/4th of the teams? I don’t know, but it irks me that the students do not get a chance to talk to more judges about their experiences. We’ve had very different experiences at other regional events (even large ones like Northern Lights and Midwest) seeing multiple sets of judges, so maybe the issue is limited only to Wisconsin. What have other teams at larger regional events experienced?
There were 41 Chairman’s Award submissions in Wisconsin this year. I believe we had 40 submissions last year or the year prior as well. When interviews are going into lunch on Saturday, how can judges properly evaluate and send judges to follow up with teams in the pit when playoffs are beginning (and most teams are packing up)? It’s been awhile since I’ve been to an event with <45 teams - how do others feel the judging is handled at smaller regional events?
No one is forcing us to go to larger regional events, but we can’t afford to travel to two events and our sponsors and families would be very upset if we didn’t play here at home. If we didn’t “HAVE” to go to Wisconsin, we would’ve happily gone to Central Illinois this weekend. While I am doing what I can and meeting with universities and other mentors to get districts into WI as soon as I can, that only helps out a few teams from the problems and inconsistencies I have outlined above. I have no control over what happens in Virginia or other regions.
All this boils down to is consistency. Why the huge variation in matches? Why the variation in judging? I haven’t even touched on inconsistencies on the playing field (more so last year than this year). If the value doesn’t improve, why shouldn’t we just build the robot for the experience and forego official events and just play at offseason events until districts happen? Our kids will get the same engineering experience, we wouldn’t have to build two bots and waste money because of bag and tag rules (well, we don’t HAVE to do that now, but at least it helps us make the most of the few matches we get), we wouldn’t have to burn ourselves out for six weeks, we could volunteer at the local event and still see familiar faces, we could afford to travel to new and interesting places since registration fees for offseason events are tiny, no missed school…I could go on and on.
I never thought I’d say this, but for what reason should any team continue to play in the regional model? Why are additional regional registration fees still so ridiculously high when the event does not see any of that money? Veteran kits are no where near $5000 anymore with no essential items included (this year with the new control system is the exception) and FIRST Choice providing access to donated parts. $5000 also helps pay for staff and logistics and game fields - so, I can see why initial registration is the way it is (especially since it is the same in the district model), but the $4000 additional event fee still boggles me.
Thanks for reading,