Pace of play is a major issue facing both the NFL and college football right now. Stating flatly that games take too long doesn’t accurately describe the issue — although it is more of an issue in the college game than the NFL — so much as that football is becoming baseball: a whole lot of standing around while the game is technically “on.”
As this FiveThirtyEight chart details, the total number of commercials shown in NFL games are up — as are the numbers of penalties and replay reviews.
As the chart shows, the average NFL game in 2016 was 4:04 longer than in 2009. Penalties were up 12 percent, commercials were up nearly nine percent, replay reviews (based on 2015 and ’13 data) were up over 30 percent, while incompletions rose only 1.5 percent.
There NFL office can’t tell teams to throw fewer passes or its players to commit fewer penalties, it can control how replays and commercial breaks are handled.
And it appears the league is prepared to do just that.
In a public letter released Wednesday, commissioner Roger Goodell outlined ideas circulating the NFL to cut dead time around replays and the touchdown-extra point-kickoff area:
[N]ext week clubs will vote on a change to centralize replay reviews. Instead of a fixed sideline monitor, we will bring a tablet to the Referee who can review the play in consultation with our officiating headquarters in New York, which has the final decision. This should improve consistency and accuracy of decisions and help speed up the process.
Regarding game timing, we’re going to institute a play clock following the extra point when television does not take a break, and we’re considering instituting a play clock after a touchdown. We’re also going to standardize the starting of the clock after a runner goes out-of-bounds, and standardize halftime lengths in all games, so we return to the action as quickly as possible. Those are just a few of the elements we are working on to improve the pace of our game.
Together with our broadcast partners, we will be working to meaningfully reduce down time and the frequency of commercial breaks in our game. We will also be giving our broadcast partners increased flexibility to avoid untimely breaks in the action. For example, we know how annoying it is when we come back from a commercial break, kick off, and then cut to a commercial again. I hate that too. Our goal is to eliminate it.
Frankly, it’s surprising the suggestion in the first paragraph hasn’t already happened yet. Microsoft paid the NFL $400 million to get its Surface tablets on sidelines — without much benefit to the company as of yet. Having someone trot out a Surface to the field with each replay seems like a seamless marketing opportunity, a chance to shove a NFL sponsor in viewers’ faces without aggravating viewers since it would be in an effort to get the game re-started more quickly.
Goodell told USA Today that internal NFL research showed fans were more bothered by the number of commercial breaks than the length of such breaks, and as a result the league will drop the number of breaks in each quarter from five (six in the second quarter) to four while increasing their length from 1:50 to 2:20. The league will also work to drop the number of commercial-kickoff-commercial sequences from the 27 percent figure that populated NFL broadcasts last season. “It drives me crazy,” Goodell said.
While we’ve yet to see the NFL’s full plans for reducing game times, this seems like a good start at chopping the game length down to the magic 3-hour mark. (The average FBS game was a soul-crushing 3:24 in 2016.)
In an age where attention spans are only getting shorter, football must do everything in its collective power to shrink the amount of dead time in its games. Goodell’s outline is a good start.