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Less is More

2010 August 10
by Brian Goff

In his most recent post, Bill Simmons from ESPN Page 2 confesses Boredom with the Red Sox , laying the bulk of the blame on the length of MLB games, particularly in the AL.  He samples data from Red Sox game lengths over the past 35 years, finding nearly half of their (9 inning) games in 1975 ending in 2 1/2 hours or less and 90 percent ending in 3 hours or less.   By 2007 only 7 percent lasted less than 2 1/2 hours and 27 percent less than 3 hours.  So far this year, only 1 of 92 games came in under 2 1/2 hours.  Simmons reaction …

What a nightmare. I’m the same guy who once created the 150-Minute Rule for all movies, sporting events, concerts, even sex — if you edge past 150 minutes for anything, you better have a really good reason. The 2010 Boston Red Sox have played one game in four months that ended in less than 150 minutes.

My April post on Who Controls the Product explored the ability of individual players with the complicity of the media to break down league efforts to shorten games.  Simmons lays the ultimate blame primarily at Bud Selig continuing to display feckless leadership as with other pressing issues over the past couple of decades.  These are not mutually exclusive explanations.   Other “political economy” influences also contribute.  As a sport without a time clock, enforcement mechanisms for shortening games are not easy to come by.  For example, the Player’s Association would likely frown on fines that were high enough to incentivize more cooperation with faster play or with attempts to get rid of the DH (a Simmons suggestion).   While Selig as MLB Commissioner possesses relatively broad powers, attempts to speed up play through rules changes (more Simmons suggestions) would take either the explicit or implicit cooperation of a supermajority of MLB owners, making some of the more risk averse owners the deciding votes.    With fans and media voicing dissent, such votes would be difficult to obtain.

Whatever the obstacles, sports such as MLB with modestly increasing to declining fan base would be wise to tackle game length seriously.  I turn off baseball games because of the languid pace.  The biggest baseball fan among faculty on my floor admitted to watching only small segments of games because of their length — we are people who like baseball and have a historical connection to it.  How do you attract new fans with such issues.  Like Simmons, one of my attractions to soccer has been the limited 2-hour time commitment.

Even the NFL might want to take care not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.  TV has been the bonanza for the NFL over the last 40 years, but you still have to develop the fan base over the long haul.  One of my colleagues noted a recent game where his 9 year old son had a rooting interest in one of the teams but left quickly after an extended, 6 commercial sequence.

9 Responses
  1. August 10, 2010

    Commercials are certainly a problem, but let’s not confuse “game” length with “game plus comercial” length. College football has gone through this whole charade over the last couple of years, changing clock rules because “the games were too long for the younger generation,” while not acknowledging that it ramping up of in-game commercial time that made the games long in the first place.

    Your anecdote suggests it was the commercials, not the game, that sent the kid away. If that’s the case, work on a way to meet revenue goals with less commercial time instead of implementing stupid batting box rules.

  2. Aaron permalink
    August 11, 2010

    Great post, Brian. Another wrinkle to the NFL problem you pose is related to a recent study published in The Wall Street Journal, which said the average NFL game has only 11 minutes of actual game action.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/NA_WSJ_PUB:SB10001424052748704281204575002852055561406.html

    One could argue, in the NFL’s case, this is acceptable because of how much occurs over the course of a single play, and the necessity to analyze various aspects of the play on all 3 levels of the field to fully understand what just occurred. Baseball, however, has no such issue. There is little going on of consequence away from the ball. Yet, baseball is a game based on pace. Pitchers and hitters become uncomfortable when rhythm is altered, which leads into a significant aspect of strategy, even though it is a particularly dull one to observe. I am curious to see how the front office will reconcile the struggle between strategy and fan interest over the coming years as game length becomes a significant issue.

  3. Dan permalink
    August 11, 2010

    MLB should watch a women’s softball game. The players at the college Women’s World Series hustled on and off the field like my daughter’s 7th grade team. Those girls run to the bench when they make an out and run to the bench when the inning is over. They don’t step out of the batter’s box after every pitch and adjust their equipment (I guess it helps they don’t wear specific equipment guys have to). Players can play faster but it just wouldn’t look so cool for a MLB player.

    And for the NFL, the less is more concept applies to their schedule. If they go to an 18 game schedule they will dilute the importance of their games. I would have kept the schedule at 14 games but if they go to 18 it will be a 50% increase from the 12 game schedule they played when I was a kid. Besides, would they really make a lot of money considering people already pay full cost for the pre-season games and even those pre-season games get good ratings.

  4. Lee permalink
    August 13, 2010

    Very good post but ignores impact of home plate umpires concept of the strike zone. There are way too many walks in MLB (except when C. Lee is pitching). Make umpires enforce the real strike zone, make batters swing and ditch the designated hitter in the AL.

  5. Greg Pinelli permalink
    August 14, 2010

    One problem is the strike zone…watch a game from start to finish on television sometime (a lot of time needed) and try to figure out what a strike is for that particular umpire. My take is that it varies from one part of the game to the next and from one situation to the next. A pitcher would almost have to hit the on deck player to not get a 3-0 called strike.

    The other issue are the number of pitching changes..complete games or even 2 pitcher games are rare. As the risk sensitivity of Managers has increased and pitch counting become a dominant statistic more narrowly defined pitching specialties have proliferated. I watched a Giants v Cubs game the other day and the announcers were calling pitch counts in the 2nd inning!!!

    Even with some changes in the above I think the bottom line is that Major League Baseball is just NOT a 30 city enterprise! That’s about 10 cities too much…and attendance shows it.

  6. August 14, 2010

    An NFL game consists of endless array of commercials for cars, beer, life insurance, mutual funds, and limp-d*ck drugs, interspersed with a few brief snippets of actual play.

  7. LowcountryJoe permalink
    August 15, 2010

    I agree with Lee about umpires enforcing the strikezone. It seems to me that umpires particularly squeeze pitchers who throw slower breaking pitches.

  8. Tom permalink
    August 15, 2010

    Length of game is one thing I really like about soccer. I go to college football games, and I enjoy the day out, but the second half can be Ijust brutal. Football and baseball just beat you down with advertising.

  9. Victor permalink
    August 16, 2010

    Strange how many comments seem to love soccer for the managable and easy to antipate game times while other discussions about soccer complain about the ties and the penalty kick tiebreaker.

    Eliminate ties and lots more games go to extra-time. Eliminate penalty kicks and extra time might go on forever. In 1982, Indiana beat Duke in the 7th 10-minute overtime period. That’s well over 3 hours of total game time.

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