By Bill Riccio, Jr
For years, I’ve been reading or listening to sports commentators worry and wonder why games, particularly baseball and football contests on television, are getting so long. Games that took between two and two-and-a-half hours 30 years ago are now going well beyond three hours. Heck, some baseball games are going beyond that, and so are many college football games.
I recently umpired an 18-year-old wooden bat league game. My assignor told me to get up to Vieira Field at UNH for a 10 a.m. game: nine innings, I was on the plate. There were two good pitchers, and the game ended up 3-2. Strikes were pitched, bases were run and we got through nine innings – which is high school and youth baseball can be excruciating if the pitchers can’t find the plate.
First off, wooden bats change the game. After a high school season of hearing the clang of metal against cowhide, it was nice to hear the crack one associates with a clean single to right. But the thing was, the game took only 2:10 to complete – nine innings in just over two hours. That got my thought processes going.
The very next day, I was assigned an American Legion game in Wallingford’s Pat Wall Field between Wallingford and Cheshire in a senior (19-U) game. Once again, I had the plate, and once again I had two good pitchers. We got seven innings over in 1:21. The problem was no one scored, and we had to play five more innings. We still got a 12-inning game completed in 2:50.
Question: Is it the game that’s taking so long, or is it something outside the game that’s prolonging it?
Whenever sports pundits talk about length of games, it’s usually on television; and, the elephant in the room is ignored – (as the kids say) totally. The answer is obvious.
Take your average baseball game on TV. Every half inning there is a three-minute break for commercials. The rulebook specifically says there should be only one minute.
Multiply 18 half-innings by 3 and Sr. Irene, MZSH of St. Anthony’s School would be very happy with my answer: 54 minutes. So, is it that the games are getting long, or the commercial breaks are getting longer? If memory serves, there used to be only two-minute breaks for ads.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure that the average three-hour game is lengthened almost a third by text your own pizza topping, Clydesdales clomping down a path, car dealerships hawking their wares, or primary candidates who stick it to each other.
Football is worse. My crew once had a game at Brown v. Cornell. The game was televised by what was then known as Sports Channel. The producer came into the dressing room to advise us about commercials. At that time (1992) there were three commercial breaks in the first, second and third quarters, and four in the fourth. It is much more now.
As an experiment, I had my umpire time the number of minutes for commercials. It was 47. The game took 2:52. That was an Ivy League game and was mostly running. The actual play time, including a 20-minute half, was just over two hours. The game has changed mightily since then.
Now with the Spread Formations and the passing game overtaking the run, games are taking longer. Every time there is an incomplete pass, the clock stops, and doesn’t start until the next snap.
TV Networks, which like to have games in three-hour increments all day on Saturdays, pushed the NFL and NCAA for rules changes to speed the games up. The NFL changed its rules concerning starting and stopping the clock after penalties to conform to what colleges were doing. The NCAA took the NFL’s lead and started the clock after a run out of bounds, or catch-and-run out of bounds. The clock starts when the ball is placed down.
The whole reason for the 40/25-second play clock is to speed the games up, and that was at the behest of networks when West Coast offenses made the passing game more prevalent.
Those rules changes have not helped too much because the networks have since added more commercial breaks per quarter. Go to a televised college or professional game and players are sitting on their helmets, waiting for the “red hat” to signal they can begin again.
Of course, the networks pour lots of money into college and professional sports, and have to capitalize on breaks. The problem is one the one hand they’re complaining the games are getting longer, and in both baseball and football, the time for commercial breaks is one of the contributing factors.
I don’t know when it’s going to find an equilibrium to satisfy everyone, but the next time you wonder about how long a game is taking, just remember it may not be the actual play that is stretching things out.