Game length is a con­cern

Leagues plan to shorten half­time, speed up pace.

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Eric Ol­son

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 pointsper-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.”

DANNY MOLOSHOK / AP

USC fans sleep at the end of a game against Arkansas State in 2015. To keep fans in the stands and those watch­ing on TV or mo­bile de­vices en­gaged, col­lege foot­ball lead­ers are tak­ing steps to shorten game times.

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