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College basketball games can drag at the end. The last minute of the University of Kentucky’s one-point win over the University of Wisconsin on Saturday took about eight minutes — and that was relatively fast. The University of Connecticut, Kentucky’s opponent in the men’s national title game tonight, needed nearly 20 minutes to finish the last minute of regulation plus the five minutes of overtime of its opening game of the tournament, against St. Joseph’s University.

Expect a similarly lengthy finale if Monday’s championship game is close late. Or even if it’s not.

Stretching a minute of a close game into 15 with fouls and timeouts can break the rhythm of the game and agonize fans. The boredom can be excruciating if you’re watching on TV, when every timeout means more ads — or shots of huddles around a coach.

That sense of frustration is heightened because most of the delays come at the end of the game. Basketball, and the other major U.S. team sports, generally deliver a relatively fixed length of product: Blowouts and nail-biters take roughly the same amount of time until the last couple of minutes of clock. Soccer and rugby, with their real-time clocks, have even more uniform durations, except for the occasional match that must produce a result and therefore adds extra time.

For broadcasters and traffic planners, a predictable length of game is a good thing. For fans, it can mean the most competitive spectacles are over nearly as quickly as the dullest ones. And that’s an unavoidable byproduct of the structure of most major sports. Here’s a look at how time plays out in some major spectator sports — including one that’s an exception to the rule.

College Basketball

The six overtime games of this year’s NCAA men’s tournament through the Sweet Sixteen took an average of two hours and 28 minutes, according to Deadspin’s stopwatch. The six biggest blowouts? Two hours and one minute. That’s 18 percent shorter. The eight closest regulation games1 averaged two hours and 18 minutes.

Time is so far from a central concept in college basketball that the NCAA doesn’t keep official time stats. That’s why we’re using Deadspin data, plus timestamps on a live blog. “The NCAA is currently exploring adding basketball tracking for next season,” said NCAA spokesman Ketrell Marshall. His colleague, Christopher Radford, said there are “no official plans,” adding, “My understanding is that we are more interested to track the information to see if any trends might be identified. This is not due to any one hypothesis or concern, but more of an evolution of the data we collect and track.”

Pro Basketball

The NBA does collect time stats, which corroborate the story told by this year’s NCAA tournament: Most of basketball time is relatively inelastic. Since 1993, about 6 percent of games have gone to overtime, taking an average of two hours and 42 minutes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The average length of the games at the opposite end of the competitive spectrum — the biggest blowouts2 — was two hours and nine minutes, or 20 percent shorter. And those blowouts were just 10 minutes shorter than the closest non-overtime games.3

Pro Football

NFL games, built into their three-hour television programming blocks, show even less connection between duration and competitiveness — partly because the bigger the blowout, the more scores by the winning team stop the clock. The roughly 6 percent of games to go to overtime since 1993 (yes, the same percentage as in the NBA) averaged three hours and 28 minutes, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The biggest blowouts averaged three hours and one minute, just 13 percent shorter. The same number of non-overtime games that were closest were, on average, a mere eight minutes longer than the blowouts.4

Major League Baseball

Some very long extra-inning games make baseball the major U.S. team sport for which duration of a game is most sensitive to how close it is. About 9 percent of games since 1993 have gone to extra innings, and these have averaged three hours and 42 minutes, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The same percentage of games that were the biggest blowouts averaged two hours and 56 minutes, or 21 percent shorter.5

Baseball games that finish in nine innings flip the duration-competitiveness balance on its head. The average nine-inning game since 1993 in which the home team lost,6 and that was decided by just one run, took two hours and 57 minutes. The average duration of the same number of games that were the biggest blowouts was two hours and 58 minutes.7 All those runs scored by the winning visitors mean more time for the home team to record 27 outs.

Pro Hockey

The NHL doesn’t record time of game as an official stat. “We keep track of this internally, just to make sure that there are no macro changes that reflect anything evolutionary in our game,” said NHL spokesman John Dellapina. “But the fact is, from team to team and from year to year, the average length of our games is remarkably consistent. Bottom line, it never has seemed very relevant, interesting or illustrative to us.”

Using the NHL’s internal tracking, Dellapina sent the time for the 11 games last Tuesday night. They ranged from two hours and 24 minutes for the New York Rangers’ win in Vancouver, to two hours and 49 minutes for the New Jersey Devils’ nine-round shootout loss in Buffalo.

One Exceptional Sport

Many fans lament the lengthening of sporting events because of television breaks, officiating reviews and other delays. But what really drag are the bad games: the uncompetitive ones, where the outcome is never in doubt. Short of mercy rules or running the clock on blowouts, the structure of the games doesn’t allow for the bad ones to go by quickly.

One major sport, though, has a sensitive internal clock, thanks to its unusual scoring mechanism. In tennis, the winner is the first to win a designated number of sets, almost always two or three. The winner of each set, too, is the first to a designated number of games, and that number depends on the competitiveness of the set.8 And the winner of each game is the first to four points, by two, so each game’s duration also depends on the competitiveness of that game.

The result is that blowouts can be over very quickly. On the opening day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s round of 64, the round of 128 at the Sony Open in Miami was underway. There, Jarkko Nieminen beat Bernard Tomic, 6-0, 6-1, in Tomic’s first match back from an injury, in just 28 minutes — the shortest match on record in men’s ATP World Tour tennis history. That same day, the University of Pittsburgh beat the University of Colorado by 32 points. It took two hours and three minutes.

While Nieminen’s win was extreme, short match times are the norm in tennis. The 10 percent of the 503 men’s matches that were most competitive at the last four Grand Slam tournaments9 lasted an average of three hours and 20 minutes, according to Tennis Abstract. The 10 percent of matches that were least competitive averaged just one hour and 31 minutes — 55 percent shorter.

There are downsides to tennis’s time flexibility: It makes scheduling much tougher for tournament organizers, broadcasters and fans. But no one who was in Miami for the 28 minutes of Nieminen and Tomic would have wanted to see an hour and 35 minutes more — least of all, Nieminen and Tomic.

 

Footnotes

  1. One game in the group clocked by Deadspin was decided by one point, and seven by eight points. ^
  2. There were 1,592 overtime games in the data. I wanted to compare these to the same number of games at the other end of the spectrum — the biggest blowouts. The trouble is, there were 1,491 games decided by 26 points or more, and 1,742 games decided by 25 points or more. So I collected the times for the 1,491 biggest blowouts, along with time for a randomized group of 101 of the 25-point blowouts, and took the average of those games. I used similar methods when the numbers of games didn’t divide cleanly, for the NFL and MLB. ^
  3. Data through Sunday, March 30 of this season. Time of game was missing for two games. Closest non-overtime games were those with the lowest margin of victory. ^
  4. Using the same method described for the NBA, I was comparing 339 overtime games with the 339 biggest blowouts and the 339 closest non-overtime games. In practice, for blowouts that meant all games decided by 29 points or more plus some decided by 28 points; for non-overtime games, I included all one-point games and some two-point games. ^
  5. I removed one forfeit and 219 called games. The data includes the first 12 games of this season. ^
  6. I used home team losses to ensure the bottom half of the ninth was played to the end. ^
  7. There were 23,124 nine-inning home losses in the data. Of these, 4,949 were decided by one run. To compare two like extremes, I chose 4,949 home blowout losses using the same method described above to handle cases where there were many games of the same victory margin near the cutoff. In this case, that meant all home blowout losses by seven runs or more, plus some of six runs. ^
  8. Usually the winner needs to take six games, winning by two. If the set reaches six games apiece, it’s usually decided by a tiebreaker, whose length itself depends on competitiveness. The final set of most Grand Slam tournaments, plus Davis Cup and Olympic matches, isn’t decided until one player has a lead of two games. ^
  9. Competitiveness was judged by the ratio of one player’s return-point winning percentage to his opponent’s return-point winning percentage. All matches in which each player won a return point were included, which omitted four walkovers and John Isner’s retirement loss at Wimbledon. ^

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