The problem with football

Several years ago, journalists at The Washington Post loosed their considerable investigative resources onto the world of pro football. The dogged scribes there weren’t digging into Deflategate or drug problems or skinflinty millionaire owners or brain injuries or men in too-tight pants who like to punch women in their off-hours. They were instead breaking down the game itself, illuminating something that anyone who ever has watched football, on any level, knows but too often strangely chooses to ignore.

Football, The Post revealed, is boring. Man, is it almost impossible to sit through an entire game. Man, is it a waste of time.

The average pro game, back in 2010 when The Post did its thing, lasted somewhat more than than three hours. In 2016, it had climbed to just under 3:09. The Super Bowl, which shows up here in Atlanta in a few weeks, runs somewhere around 3:44.

We all know, though, that these games go on forever. What The Post data divers found out was what, exactly, goes on during that three-plus hours of “sport.” Which, again not all that surprisingly, is not a lot.

football-action
The Washington Post

In those sometimes endless hours of NFL game time, we witness, on average, somewhere around 11 minutes of action. Eleven whole minutes. The average NFL game that you watch on TV (or on the big scoreboard in any NFL stadium) features more replays of action (17 minutes) than it does actual, live action.

Hold onto that little bit of knowledge for a second or so: When you plop into the old La-Z-Boy and turn on an NFL game, you’re spending more time watching old stuff (replays) than new stuff (live action). About 1.5 times as much.

Then there’s another major time suck in every NFL game, one which has absolutely nothing to do with the game itself, represented in part in the The Post graphic (^) as “players standing around.”

Commercials. Ugh.

You’ve endured this sequence in an NFL game before; it makes me want to pluck out my eyeballs, slather them in bean dip and wolf them down so I never have to see it again:

  1. Commercial break
  2. Kickoff
  3. Fair catch
  4. Referee blows whistle, stops time
  5. Commercial break

The NFL tried to address this before the 2017 season, knocking down commercial breaks from five each quarter to four. But they jacked up the time of each break so that, often, they last almost two and a half minutes. In other words, you’ll often spend almost as much time watching commercials in the first quarter than you’ll see live action all game.

(The league scratched a commercial break each quarter so as to try to eliminate the above sequence, which mostly has happened. But it comes about, still, too often, and plenty in college football.)

(This isn’t to mention, too — although I guess I’m mentioning it — that the commercials are repetitive to the point of cruelty and all aimed at beer-drinking and truck-driving 29-year-old wing-eating bros.)

(And if you’re in-stadium? What do you do during these breaks? Have a beer and some wings, I suppose.)

The commercial breaks and the replays are one thing. (Two, I guess, to get technical.) But what’s really galling about this game — and this highlights the real problem with football — is that even when the clock is ticking, little is going on.

The conservative columnist George Will, a baseball man himself (a sport which has its own problems with dragging on), famously said of football:

Football combines two of the worst things in American life. It is violence punctuated by committee meetings.

Some have tried to change this. When the Cincinnati Bengals introduced the no-huddle to the game in the mid-1980s — think of the no-huddle as a workday with fewer meetings — it was a revelation. Many versions followed. After all, hurry-up offenses, as they’re now often called, are the best kinds. Who likes meetings? Football is at its best — and it’s not alone among sports this way — when time is running out.

There’s some evidence that huddles, on both offense and defense, are not as prevalent now as they used to be. Taken as a whole, though, hurry-up offenses have done little to change the fact that we still see only 11 minutes of action over the course of a game.

Three and a half hours of sitting around to watch 11 minutes of action. It’s like watching C-Span, except with a bunch of fat guys in too-tight pants.

A few weeks ago, Mary Jo and I sat down in front of the TV to watch Atlanta United play the Portland Timbers in the Major League Soccer Cup final. (Atlanta won something! Woo hoo!) The striking thing about this brand of football — I am an ignorant American when it comes to soccer — was its charming aversion to timeouts and its glorious lack of commercials.

Sure, in soccer you have players flopping around, and without commercials, you have ads on the players’ jerseys and scattered throughout the stadium. Plus, for all the sport’s running back and forth, sometimes the truly exciting plays — shots on goals, breakaways, that sort of thing — seem to be eons apart.

Still, there’s action of some sort, relatively non-stop, the whole game. And, with two 45-minute halves, a 15-minute halftime and a little extra time added on at the end (for the few stoppages and flopping), you can usually be in and out of a game inside of two hours.

This weekend, the NFL begins its playoffs, culminating when the Super Bowl hits Atlanta on Feb. 3. When I covered the Bengals for The Cincinnati Post, the playoffs were, by far, my favorite time of the year.

Now … well, I may catch a play here and there. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit in my big chair for hours at a time, watching the same dumb commercials over and over again, and then jillions of replays of the same dumb plays, just for 10-second spurts of action.

(A final way to think of this: You get to see one minute of live play for, roughly, every 20 minutes of sitting on your butt. And the live plays include incomplete passes, one-yard runs, kickoffs — which rarely get run back nowadays — and, insult to injury, kneel-downs. Ooof.)

It’s just hard to be a football watcher anymore. Given a choice, I’ll take C-Span. They dress better.

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