College football games need to take less time — but not as a result of fewer plays
Proposals are afloat to shorten the time it takes to play games. Here are a few other ideas that could help
Wait a minute, whaddya mean they want to shorten college football games? Isn’t that what Americans wait for every year — the college football season? The games? Isn’t that why they sit in front of the TV or brave the weather to sit in the stands on Saturday nights?
For the past few years, college games have lasted between 3 hours, 16 minutes and 3 hours, 21 minutes. The powers-that-be in the college game say that’s too long.
If the games are too long, it’s not because of the actual game itself, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
They’re considering four proposals to shorten games, three of which would reduce the number of plays in a game, and that’s where they’re going wrong. There’s a difference between shortening a game and reducing the number of plays. You can do one without doing the other, but we’ll come to that.
Here are the four proposals: 1) Prohibit consecutive timeouts (i.e, icing kickers); 2) If a quarter ends on a penalty, the play will not be replayed as an untimed down in the same quarter, but will be moved to the start of the next quarter.
Fine. Whatever. Those are worthwhile changes and their impact on the game is minimal. The next two proposals:
3) The clock will no longer stop after the offense gains a first down except in the final two minutes of a half; 4) The clock will continue to run after an incomplete pass once the ball is spotted for the next play.
On the face of it, those are not bad proposals until you dig into the real impact. There are an average of 160 plays per game — 80 per team. According to CBS, games would lose about seven plays per game if the clock is allowed to run after first downs, plus another 18-20 plays per game if the clock is allowed to run after incomplete passes. In today’s iteration of the game, pass plays account for nearly half of all plays.
That would significantly change the game.
The reason people watch football games is to, you know, watch football plays? College football doesn’t have to cut plays to reduce the length of the game. Cut the peripheral events around the game, not the actual game. If they subtract the time stoppages for commercials and timeouts and injuries and penalty reviews, etc., a football game consists of only about 11 minutes of action out of the three-plus hours of game time.
According to Streaming Observer, TV commercials eat up 63 minutes of an NFL broadcast — one-third of the game — and NFL games are shorter than college games. There are 16 commercial breaks during a college football game, and they can last 2 ½-3 minutes each.
The networks cut away to commercial breaks after changes of possession, scores, the end of the quarter, timeouts, reviews. If one team scores, we go to a commercial; if another team scores quickly, we’re right back to commercials. The fans who actually attend the game are nothing but extras on the set, waiting for the action to resume.
TV commercials aren’t going away, but couldn’t they sell fewer ads and charge a higher rate to reduce the volume and/or run some of them juxtaposed on the screen while continuing the game broadcast, as some live sporting events do? As has been well established over the years, TV has dramatically altered every aspect of the game, and not for the better.
Then there’s halftime. Do we really need a 15- to 20-minute break in the middle of the game? Fans don’t need it. They can order hotdogs from their seats and they don’t need 20 minutes for a bathroom break. The NFL halftime is 13 minutes.
The players don’t need it. Peyton Manning, the former quarterback great, recently tweeted, “I don’t know if I ever made a halftime adjustment in my entire 18-year career. I think that’s the biggest myth in football — the halftime adjustments. You go in, you use the restroom, you eat a couple of oranges, and then the head coach says, ‘All right, let’s go!’” So cut halftime in half. Marching bands won’t be happy about it, but it’s better than cutting the main event.
Then there’s the time taken to review penalties. It’s excruciating. The refs study replays frame by frame like the FBI reviewing the Zapruder film. What’s next, a CSI unit? Fingerprints? Chalk outlines?
College football allows every play to be reviewed by a booth official and allows each coach to use one challenge (which requires burning a timeout). LSU coach Brian Kelly once expressed the sentiment of many fans following a game in 2021, which reportedly was stopped at least five times to review plays. Kelly said replay reviews were “ruining the game” because it was “just slowing the game down.”
The bottom line is that anything that reduces the number of plays is a bad idea, especially when there is so much fat around the game that can be cut.