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Less is More

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.