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What Makes NFL Games Take So Long?

This week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell answered the prayers of pundits and fans alike: he announced a plan to make NFL games shorter during his annual pre-Super Bowl press conference. “What we’re trying to do is make our product as exciting, and our games as exciting and action-packed, as possible,” Goodell said, hoping to counteract an 8 percent year-over-year TV ratings decline.

Some of the proposed changes are intuitive, like streamlining the review process so referees don’t have to huddle under replay booths. Others feel more forced, like a limit on the time teams have to prepare for kickoffs. And one new proposed rule will surely hearten fans at home: cutting back from five commercial breaks per quarter to four.

To figure out whether these proposals could actually shorten games, I went looking for what’s making games take so long in the first place.

schalter-nfltime-1

Games really are taking longer than they did a few years ago, though each year doesn’t necessarily follow a broader trend. According to Pro-Football-Reference data, regulation-length games over the past two seasons are longer than they’ve been in any year since 1999, which is as far back as PFR duration data goes.1 But on the whole, games aren’t significantly longer now than they were a decade ago: from 2001 to 2005, the average game length was 3:07:12, just 41 seconds longer than the average from 2012 through 2016.

But what fills all that screen time is different. The average number of incomplete passes, penalties called and plays reviewed are all the same or higher, meaning we’re spending a larger percentage of those three-plus hours watching referees make decisions, players stand around, or commercials commercialize.

To see how interruptions have come to dominate games, look at the dip in the chart above, which shows the last time game-length was on the decline. After the 2005 season, the NFL lowered the time limit for replay reviews from 90 seconds to 60. Games immediately shortened by an average length of several minutes, and since then game length has correlated with the (rising) number of replay reviews per game.2 But as the number of reviews increased from an average of 0.79 per game in 1999 to a high of 1.70 in 2013, even 60-second reviews were long enough to push the average length of games back up to their early-decade rates.

Between replay reviews, commercials, penalties and incomplete passes, stoppages of all kinds have been rising since 2008:

PER GAME AVERAGE
YEAR DURATION REVIEWS COMMERCIALS PENALTIES INCOMPLETIONS
2008 3:02:39 1.3 64.2 12.6
2009 3:04:34 1.2 64.3 13.9 13.0
2010 3:04:56 1.3 65.3 13.9 13.2
2011 3:06:38 1.4 64.3 14.6 13.6
2012 3:06:52 1.5 65.6 14.3 13.5
2013 3:08:42 1.7 66.4 13.6 13.7
2014 3:06:14 67.0 15.9 13.0
2015 3:09:01 1.6 67.9 16.2 13.2
2016 3:08:38 69.8 15.6 13.2
Game, interrupted

Penalty tally is the total number of penalties called, not accepted. Numbers for 2016 average game duration and incompletion per game are for regular season only. 2016 commercials tally is as of Dec. 18, 2016. 2016 penalties are up to date through
this season’s conference championship games.

Sources: Pro-Football-Reference.com, NFL, NFLPenalties.com, Business Insider

Especially compared to the unusually short games of at the end of the last decade, the stoppage-heavy games of the last few seasons have felt much longer than they really are. If Goodell and the NFL leadership want to make their TV product more compelling, they’ll focus less on making games end sooner and more on reducing the amount of football-watching time we spend watching stuff that isn’t football.

Footnotes

  1. I did not include overtime games in the data set since they can end with different amounts of time left on the clock.

  2. When I ran my regression between the duration of games and the average number of replay reviews, the r-squared value was 0.686.

Ty Schalter is a husband, father and terrible bass player who uses words and numbers to analyze football. His work has been featured at VICE, SiriusXM and elsewhere.

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