Give us action, and make it fast. The lords of sports know how Americans like their games.
To keep fans engaged — in the stands or on TV or mobile devices — the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have taken steps to shorten games. Now it’s college football’s turn.
Last week, the Pac-12 announced a trial in which some nonconference games on its network this season will feature shorter halftimes — from 20 to 15 minutes — and fewer commercials. The Mid-American Conference also is picking up the pace, and ESPN said it would place greater emphasis on getting in and out of commercials on time and adhering strictly to 20-minute halftimes on games it televises.
All this comes after the average game length in the Bowl Subdivision increased to a record 3 hours, 24 minutes in 2016.
Professional and college sports and their TV partners are wise to watch the clock, University of Nebraska-Omaha sociologist Dan Hawkins said.
“Outside of big cultural events like the latest ‘Game of Thrones’ episode, we seem to have passed a tipping point where most people are satisfied consuming media on demand at their own convenience and in relative isolation,” Hawkins said.
“But there is a strong social aspect to watching sport — interaction with fellow fans, the immediate and unpredictable nature of sport, the fear of spoilers from social media or other sources — that still make sporting events best consumed in the moment. Clearly, sports leagues are afraid of losing this advantage if the product becomes boring for enough fans, and they’re now finally reacting to that.”
The NBA this month unanimously approved several changes, with the intent of speeding the final minutes of games. In college basketball, the NCAA experimented with a couple of time-saving measures in the NIT.
Professional baseball uses a 20-second pitch clock in the minor leagues, and Major League Baseball now allows intentional walks to be signaled without throwing pitches.
The NFL, with an average game length of about 3:09 last season, this year is reducing the number of commercial breaks per quarter and is changing the protocol for handling video reviews.
Longer college football games can be attributed to an increase in scoring, offenses that favor the pass over the run and the introduction of video review a decade ago.
Last year, average points-per-team hit 30 points for the first time. The game clock stops for point-after touchdown kicks and 2-point tries, and a TV commercial often comes before the ensuing kickoff.
Per-team pass attempts reached 30 for the first time in 1999 and have been under that mark only one season since. Incomplete passes stop the clock.
Four of the five teams with the longest games were in the Big 12, where huge offensive numbers are common. Texas Tech averaged an FBS-high 54.4 pass attempts, and the Red Raiders scored and allowed more than 43 points a game. No surprise, they played the longest games in the country at an average of 3:48.
MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said his goal is to shorten his league’s games from last year’s average of 3:25 to 3:20. There is a directive for the second-half kickoff to happen right after the halftime clock strikes zero, and officials are being instructed to set the ball quicker after each play.
Some stadiums will experiment with TV timeout clocks so fans will know how much time remains until the ball is in play after a media break.
Nick Dawson, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions, said game length probably is more of a concern to conference and school administrators than to TV people because the schools are worried about keeping stadiums full.
Reducing the number of ads run through a game is unlikely because of the giant rights fees the networks pay for the games, but Dawson said there are ways to tighten telecasts.
“Over the years you tend to get into sort of a rhythm of a commercial break being 2 ½ minutes, but you might ask for a little extra time on the back end to do a certain content piece or graphic or something like that,” he said. “In the moment it doesn’t seem like much. You start to add that up 10, 11, 12 times a game at 30 seconds a pop, it starts to materialize into a real amount of time.”
Though networks reported unprecedented college football viewership in 2016, Dawson said he’s willing to work with conference officials to address pace of play.
“What I don’t want to do is look the other way based on the fact our viewership doesn’t seem to be affected,” he said, “and then wake up five years from now and we have a real problem on our hands and it’s too late to correct it.”