Tad Stryker: Stop the sitting and waiting already
A quick look at the best ways to shorten the duration of major college football games
As late as the Turner Gill/Mike Rozier era, relatively few Nebraska home games were televised. Non-televised games typically started at 1:30 p.m. and usually ended about 4:10, consuming about 2 hours, 40 minutes. Televised games ran longer, to be sure, but usually wrapped up in right about three hours.
Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? The issue gained momentum after the latest College Football Playoff final between Clemson and Alabama lasted more than four hours.
College football is my favorite sport, as it was 40 years ago, but the product is being diluted because it takes too long to complete the average game. It’s legitimate to attribute this as a major reason for declining attendance. According to an article that appeared Jan. 7 on ESPN’s website, over the past four seasons, the average length of games has increased seven minutes, from 3:17 in 2013 to 3:24 this season. This has occurred even though the number of plays has remained virtually the same: 143 plays per game in 2013, 142.6 plays per game in 2016.
It’s true that in the 1970s and 80s, there were fewer plays overall, and proportionally more of them were running plays, with fewer clock stoppages for incomplete passes. That makes some difference, but does not fully explain the nearly half-hour time difference for today’s televised games.
The ever-lengthening delays for TV timeouts are the main problem. The best way to reduce the length of college football games is to reduce the amount or duration — or both — of TV timeouts. That seems like a pipe dream, but let’s do it. If you’re serious about addressing declining attendance at college football games, and you really want to improve the fan experience, this is the most effective thing that could be done. What’s the best thing about going to a game in person? It’s the energy and excitement. There are few things that kill crowd energy and momentum in a stadium like a long TV timeout.
Come to think of it, considering the impending decline of cable and satellite TV subscriptions, the current climate of layoffs at ESPN and the inevitable downturn of TV rights fees that will be paid to conferences within the next 20 years, this is not a pipe dream at all. Declining TV revenues will force universities to recruit fans out of their La-Z-Boys and back to the stadium as the relative need for gate receipts starts to rise once again. It may not happen for five to 10 years, when current contracts — like the six-year, $2.64 billion contract the Big Ten signed last year and takes effect this fall — have run their course.
But let’s assume I’m completely wrong about the downward trajectory of cable and satellite TV. Let’s pretend that ESPN will continue to thrive into the mid-21st century, that TV revenue will continue to drive every decision. You can still bring in a lot of revenue if you reduce the number of ad windows and make advertisers pay more for the precious number of opportunities that remain during a college football telecast.
Let’s move on to a related, but perhaps more realistic, idea. The NCAA could significantly reduce length of games by reducing time spent on challenges and video reviews.
Those of us who love major college football need to re-assess what we want to accomplish with the video review. The goal should not be to get every single call right. That leads to needless second-guessing of officials and endless obsessing over calls. The goal should be to review calls that seem clearly wrong. We waste a lot of time fussing over too many video replays.
Probably the best way to accomplish this is to adopt the NFL video review format. That means, in most cases, if a coach doesn’t throw his red challenge flag, there’s no video replay. The main exceptions: every scoring play or turnover would be reviewed.
Let’s review the NFL procedure:
• Each head coach gets two challenges per game, or three if he wins his first two challenges.
• The only automatic reviews come with less than two minutes to go in each half, or on turnovers or scoring plays.
• The referee consults with spotters in the booth at stadium, and those at national replay headquarters. Then he goes under the hood to study replays from various angles for himself.
• Once under the hood, the referee has 60 seconds to make the call. The on-field referee makes the final decision. According to the NFL, in 2015, video reviews averaged 2:16 in duration.
But that’s the extent to which the college game should adopt NFL rules.
Some have argued that the clock should keep running after first downs the way it does in the pro game. I disagree. We should keep the clock stoppage after first downs in college football; it’s one of the best ways that college football differs from the NFL. Remember that with college rules, you skip a pair of two-minute warnings and their TV ads, which pretty much evens things out as far as elapsed time is concerned. The clock stoppage after first downs in itself is not a time eater. Consider that in 2015, Division II college football games lasted an average of 2 hours, 45 minutes, playing by the same basic rules as major college teams, but without the TV time outs and video replays.
Remember when Scott Frost led the fourth-quarter touchdown drive against Missouri in 1997? That 68-yards-in-1:02 phenomenon was as close as Frost will ever come to Johnny Unitas in this life, and it would not have happened without clock stoppages after first downs.
The recent rule change which re-starts the game clock soon after a play ends out of bounds should remain. And I could support reducing the number of timeouts per team from three per half to four per game. Other tweaks to the system are not really needed.
We may never quite whittle the duration of major college football games back down to three hours, but we should be able to fit them within the tolerance of the average fan.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.