Why you should care
Because time is money, and the NFL is wasting yours.
How long can you test the patience of fans before they tune out? Pro football may finally have found out.
Professional pigskin officially has reached full saturation. There are additional Thursday and Saturday games, along with new broadcasting platforms on Twitter and Amazon. Four times this year the league staged early games in London, so you can spend roughly 14 consecutive hours watching Sunday football. An inescapable sport was fine when our appetite for football was voracious. But now TV ratings are down. Some — including President Donald Trump — say it’s because of players protesting during the national anthem, although, as the Wall Street Journal reports, ratings actually slipped more in blue states than red states. Others believe the now-widespread knowledge about concussion risks has taken the fun out of watching athletes bash each other’s brains in.
One major problem? Even if you love your hometown team, watching an NFL game is a three-hour commitment. So here’s a suggestion: Cut the crap. It’s time to make like the football across the pond and put the NFL on a running clock.
The NFL has tried to curtail game time already through less drastic measures.
Too much of American football now is about watching players, coaches and referees mill about rather than seeing ridiculous athletes pull off scintillating feats. Last year, the average NFL game lasted three hours and seven minutes, and college was even worse, at 3:24. How much action do you get for that time investment? Well, in another Wall Street Journal analysis from 2010, after accounting for huddles, stops, commercials, timeouts and dead balls, actual game play amounted to … roughly 11 minutes.
To trim the fat, the NFL can change the rules so that pass incompletions no longer stop the clock. While football squads once pounded the rock, the current pass-happy era leads to a lot of untimed downs. Referees should ease up on the ticky-tack calls, after penalties jumped from an average of 13.9 per game to 15.6 from 2009 to 2016, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. And commercials, which increased from 64 to nearly 70 during that span, should be diminished.
The NFL has tried to curtail game time already through less drastic measures. In March, Roger Goodell presented plans to make games shorter, including reducing the number of commercial breaks. But he still made the breaks longer, lest the features of Ford F-150s go unappreciated. Around the halfway mark of the season, those half-measures had shaved off only about 26 seconds of average game time. Regardless, not everyone agrees game length is the problem: “The prime-time games in general haven’t been good, and people get tired of tuning into bad teams,” says Scott Kacsmar, an editor for the website Football Outsiders.
Yes, getting rid of the incompletion rule would change game strategy. It would eliminate the use of the spike, Kacsmar says, and encourage teams to pass more on first down. He believes it would limit comeback opportunities: “As a fan, I want as many two-minute drills and as much drama as possible.” But a running clock would also put a premium on getting plays off quickly, meaning more tired defenses — potentially turning snoozers into high-scoring games. Who wouldn’t make that timely trade-off?