Around 100 million Americans will tune in this Sunday to watch Super Bowl LIV. The big game hasn’t just become the nation’s most popular sporting event; it’s also become America’s most important and most-watched television broadcast, an annual extravaganza that showcases our love affairs with both athleticism and capitalism.
But what, exactly, are we all watching?
We examined the nature of pro sports broadcasts as part of the sports analytics course we taught last semester at the University of Texas. We watched dozens of broadcasts across all major sports and charted every second along the way. Our goal was to understand the makeup of the most valuable properties in sports — live game broadcasts — and to map out how these broadcasts vary across different sports.
Our findings reveal that while different sports produce wildly different broadcast experiences, NFL broadcasts are among the most interrupted and least action-packed broadcasts of any sport. Simply put, there’s not a lot of actual football in a football game.
The numbers are startling. An average NFL broadcast lasts well over three hours, yet it delivers a total of only 18 minutes of football action. And although NFL games start with one hour on the clock and include a 12-minute halftime, because of constant clock stoppages and commercial breaks, game broadcasts are much longer than that.
Within our sample of 10 regular-season games from this season, we found that an average NFL broadcast lasted three hours and 23 minutes and included 50 minutes of commercial breaks. For context, some critics have complained that the Oscar-nominated film “Parasite” is too long.” But that movie is 70-plus minutes shorter than an average Dolphins game, and folks, if you thought “Parasite” had a brutal ending, try watching the fourth quarter of a typical Dolphins game.
Unlike Bong Joon-ho’s thriller, NFL broadcasts include a lot of commercial breaks: About 25 percent of an average NFL broadcast is commercials. But the 50 minutes of commercials are also distributed over more than 20 commercial breaks. To watch an NFL broadcast is to bask in a marathon of interruptions. Check out this visual summary of the NFC championship game:
Those different colors represent different broadcast experiences, and as the 49ers steadily defeated the Packers, our televisions toggled between Levi’s Stadium and Madison Avenue over and over again. The broadcast lasted three hours and 15 minutes, but it included 18 separate commercial breaks that in total lasted 43 minutes — not including the halftime break. In sum, the game’s 107 total plays gave us 14 total minutes (and 16 seconds) of football action. In other words, those who settled in to watch the entire NFC championship endured a commercial-to-action ratio of over 3-to-1.
From the time the ball is snapped until the whistle blows, an average individual NFL play lasts just a handful of seconds, with play duration varying based on play type. Long pass plays, for example, last longer than short running plays. But one thing that makes football different from, say, soccer or basketball is that the game clock often runs between actual athletic action. And to be fair, those intervals, which represent a majority of NFL broadcasts, aren’t exactly meaningless. They are filled with critical strategy as teams tinker with personnel, formations and play calls. They build suspense.
Still, depending on your level of football expertise and your investment in the game itself, those sequences may not actually entertain you, so the overall football entertainment density within an NFL broadcast depends on a viewer’s perspective. Football is in the eye of the beholder. If you’re wonky enough to geek out on the mechanics between plays, then you’ll be entertained for a majority of the broadcast; if you’re not, you’ll be bored.
Sports with more continuous action — and fewer stoppages — may have a leg up on the NFL. Soccer and basketball broadcasts both offer more action and fewer interruptions than football broadcasts — and they do it in a shorter time frame.
An average English Premier League broadcast in our study lasted less than two hours, and a majority of that consisted of actual soccer action. Because of the running clock and the flowing nature of the sport itself, EPL games include over five times as much action (59 minutes) as they do commercials (10 minutes), but even the breaks they do have are neatly coalesced into the 15-minute halftime period. Consequently, soccer broadcasts inject advertising into the flow of the action, hence the sponsored uniforms, the branded billboards that surround the pitch and the monetized chyrons on the corner of our screens.
Regardless, European football and American football provide viewers with wildly different broadcast experiences — and advertisers with different platforms. And the other major sports fall somewhere in between.
In terms of broadcast length, only Major League Baseball can hold a candle to the NFL. We charted 17 MLB postseason games, and they averaged a whopping three hours and 45 minutes while delivering only 23 minutes of athletic action (the total time of actual pitches and plays unfolding).
While contemporary American audiences grow more and more demanding, baseball is trending toward monotony. As a result, MLB officials are exploring ways to speed up games and tighten up broadcasts. However, while NFL broadcasts mimic MLB ones in many ways, the NFL has so far escaped baseball’s plight, in part because the average NFL game has more consequence than the average MLB game1 and in part because the proof is in the pudding. Regular-season NFL ratings are soaring, so if it ain’t broke…
But does the NFL actually have less reason to worry?
Coming into this year, the Super Bowl’s Nielsen rating has decreased for four consecutive years. Last year’s game was the lowest rated since 2005, and if these trends continue, broadcast strategies will have to adapt, especially when you consider that between smartphones and streaming services, the American attention economy is vastly more competitive than it was in 2005. Despite the recent upticks in regular-season ratings, the NFL and its media partners still need to accommodate 21st century audiences, and it looks like they realize that already.
As reported by Variety, Fox is actively trying to reduce the number of interruptions in this year’s big game.
“Fox intends to cut one commercial break from each quarter in its February 2020 broadcast of Super Bowl LIV, according to four people familiar with the matter, a bid to eliminate some of the interruptions to the flow of play. The maneuver comes straight from the playbook of the NFL, which has been working with its TV partners to counter criticism about the volume of breaks in the game.”
Many of us already watch football games with phones in our hands, ready to deploy our social media apps as soon as Joe Buck throws it to commercial, which begs the question: Are commercial breaks even as effective as they used to be? Yes, they still provide corporations an unmatched invitation to our living rooms, but as any good smartphone addict knows, just because you’re in the same room as me doesn’t mean I’m paying attention to you.
Surveys conducted by Mintel, a market research firm, identified that people age 18 to 24 are 11 percent less likely to consider themselves a fan of football, and many note the length of games as a reason why they are not fans. Even executives of major networks understand that streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu offer commercial-free options, and sports are the last frontier of live programming.
So as we settle into a new decade, it’s clear that the NFL is still the king of American sports, and the Super Bowl is still our biggest TV show. But it’s less clear if the next generation of audiences will tolerate the interruptions and run times of current broadcasts. Time will tell, and so will this year’s Nielsen ratings.