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How much live action occurs in each sport? Ball-in-Play studies summarized


How much live action actually occurs in each major sport?

I’ve never been the biggest NFL fan, despite living in a distinctly football town here in Washington DC.  But in the past 10 years or so, slowly my patience for watching an entire NFL football broadcast has ended.  Notice how games used to be slated for 1pm and 4pm on Sundays?  Now they’re 1pm and 4:15pm, with seemingly all that extra time now devoted to commercials.  Every time there’s a time-out, a break in play, after every challenge, there’s more commercials.

Ironically, the same distinct lack of action complaint is easily seen in baseball broadcasts.  So I can’t be casting too many hypocritical stones against my football-following brethren.

In any case, I’ve looked far and wide for “Ball in Play” studies for the 5 major professional sports to compare and contrast the TV viewer experience.  Here’s what I’ve found (all sources are listed at the bottom and referenced inline).  For some sports (Hockey and Basketball) it is relatively easy to assume that, if the clock is running, there’s action.  For the others, with either a lack of a clock (Baseball) or significant periods of inactivity while the clock is running (Soccer to some extent but especially in Football) the details are harder to come by.

  • Baseball: Per the 2013 WSJ study, Baseball games feature 17 minutes and 58 seconds of action.  Baseball games have been increasing in length (thanks in part to the eighteen annual 4-hour marathons between the glacial Boston Red Sox and equally glacial New York Yankees) over the years.   But, the amount of action has stayed roughly the same.  A 1952 TV broadcast showed about 13 minutes of action but just 9 minutes 45 seconds of commercials. The latest WSJ study found that fully 42 minutes and 41 seconds of between-inning inactivity would be purely commercial time on TV broadcasts.  That means there’s nearly 5 times as many commercials now than 50 years ago.
  • Football: Per the WSJ 2010 study, NFL games feature about 11 minutes of action.  The amount of action in football games has been roughly the same since the early 1900s.  There was roughly 13 1/2 minutes of action in 1912, and slightly less in the 2010 study.  Other studies have shown that football generally ranges between 12-17 minutes of action.  Personally I tracked one quarter of an NFL playoff game  a few years ago with these numbers: in 50 minutes of clock time we saw exactly 250 seconds of action (4 minutes, 10 seconds) accompanied by no less than 20 commercials.  And this turned out to be a relatively “easy” quarter: one time out, one two-minute warning and two challenges/reviews.  It could have been a lot worse.  More recent studies have found that things are worsening for the NFL: WP’s Fred Bowen counted the ads in a 2014 NFL game and had seen an astounding 152 advertisements during the game.  152; that was more ads than plays from scrimmage.
  • Basketball: NBA games average 2 hours and 18 minutes in actual time.  Working backwards (since the clock only runs when the ball is in play and we know there’s exactly 48 minutes of play time) we know that there’s 138-48 = 90 minutes of “down time” of some sort in a typical NBA game.  Not all of that is commercial time but all of it is inaction.  I cannot find any documentation of typical number of commercials so i’ve just split the difference between on-screen inaction and off-screen commercials in the table below.  If you’re a big-time NBA watcher and feel this isn’t fair, please comment as such.
  • Hockey: The Livestrong piece below (why is Livestrong doing “ball-in-play” studies on Hockey??) quotes average NHL games being 2hours and 19minutes in the 2003-4 season.  Working backwards from this, you have three 20-minute periods and two 17 minute intermissions, which leaves 46 minutes of remaining idle time.  Given that the idle times in Hockey are not nearly as long as those in basketball, I’m going to estimate that about 2/3rds of that 46minutes is commercials.
  • Soccer: Per the website 2011 study, between 62 and 65 minutes of ball-in-play action is seen on average in the major European pro leagues per game.  For the table below i’ll use 64 minutes as an average.  The duration of pro soccer games is relatively easy to calculate: they fit neatly into a 2 hour window by virtue of its 45minute halves, 15 minute break and an average of 3 minutes added-time on either side of the halves.  45+45+3+3+15 = 111 minutes of a 2 hour/120 minute time period.  Thanks to a bit of fluff on either side of the game, you generally count a soccer broadcast to last 1 hour and 55 minutes.  In the table below i’ve assumed that a huge portion of the intermission is commercial; in fact it is a lot less since most soccer broadcasts have a half-time show and highlights.  So if anything, the # of commercials in soccer broadcasts is less than listed.  Post 2014 World Cup Update: Fifa estimates that the group stage games averaged 57.6 minutes of action per game (if i’m reading their stat page correctly).  We can add this to a future version of this post.

So, in summary, here’s how the five major sports look like in terms of Ball in Play and # of commercials the viewer is forced to endure in a typical broadcast:

Sport Clock Duration Amt of Action % of Action Amt of Commercial Time # of commercials # of commercials/hour
Baseball 2hrs 58mins 17mins 58secs 10.10% 42mins 41secs ~84 28.31
Football 3hrs 5mins 11mins 5.90% ~75mins ~150 38.92
Soccer 1hr 55mins 64mins 55.60% est 19mins ~38 19.83
Basketball 2hrs 18mins 48mins 34.70% est 45mins est 90 39.13
Hockey 2hrs 20mins 60mins 42.80% est 30mins est 60 25.71

From this you can clearly see that watching Soccer gives you the most amount of live “Action,” though cynics and soccer-haters would probably claim that a lot of that action is “dead action,” defenders passing the ball around and not the type of action you see in other sports.  I’m a soccer fan and would rather have this type of “dead action” than what we see in the NFL: one 3 second running play then more than 30 seconds of watching players stand around before running another 3 second running play.

Soccer is easily the most predictable of the five sports to plan a viewing experience around; you know for a fact that a regular-season/non-Overtime game is going to be over within 2 hours.  All the other sports can go into over-time and lengthen the time commitment.

Professional Football is at the bottom of all of these Viewer-experience measures: it is the longest broadcast, shows the least amount of game action and forces around 50 commercials an hour onto its viewers.  And the NFL is only getting worse; recent years have seen the introduction of new commercial breaks where none existed before (after a kickoff being the most ridiculous, but the mandated booth reviews at the end of halves now gift-wrap new commercial breaks to broadcasters at a game’s most critical time).

Thoughts?  If you have better information I’m all ears.  I’ve had this post in draft mode since December 2010 looking for better data and, with the latest WSJ post decided to just go with what I had in July 2013.

Editor Update: over the years I have updated this post with additional information, resulting in adjusted numbers from the original.


Written by Todd Boss

July 17th, 2013 at 8:20 am

21 Responses to 'How much live action occurs in each sport? Ball-in-Play studies summarized'

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  1. Todd, thanks for putting this together. I found this information very interesting and enlightening. I played colege football and baseball and broadcasted both, as well as basketball but I have become a huge soccer fan. My freind from Uganda complained about football, “what is this sport? you run a play then hold a committee meeting! It is more committee meetings than sport!” Loved his analogy. I truly beleive soccer is going to continue to make inroads in the USA. There are so many advantages to playing it. I am 51 and still playing competitive soccer. Recenlty finshed playing baseball too. I could never do that with American football. I have in mind to work on a piece that demonstrates superiority of soccer over other sports. Thanks again for doing this research.

    Eric M

    4 Sep 13 at 10:17 am

  2. You bet; i’m glad you liked the work. If you ever come across more research that proves/disproves/supports the numbers here I’m all ears.

    Todd Boss

    4 Sep 13 at 10:32 am

  3. In hockey and basketball, the clock stops when the puck/ball goes out of bounds. This is not so in soccer. I would argue if one is to “calculate” the amount of actual playing time in baseball and football, then it should also be done for soccer, by subtracting the amount of time the ball is out of play.


    17 Jun 14 at 8:17 am

  4. That’s exactly how these calculations were done. If it wasn’t, then the number for soccer would be 90 minutes for a 90 minute game.

    Todd Boss

    18 Jun 14 at 9:17 am

  5. Question for you. Don’t you feel that if soccer were to become commercially successful, these numbers would go down. Every other sport listed has seen a dramatic increase in commercialization in the last 30 years. If soccer ever did take off in the US, salaries would increase as would every thing else. That money would have to come from somewhere. More commercials , more stopping time. I feel it would become more on par with basketball if that happened ( which is still one of my favorite sports) Realize of course that I am only talking about in the US( your data is from US leagues)

    Charles Bland

    18 Jun 14 at 1:24 pm

  6. Hard to say. Remember back when MLS started and there started to be local broadcasts of World Cup games, we’d see split screens and like 5 minute periods where a static advertisement would be co-present on the screen with the soccer? That stopped (as did any bastardization of the MLS game, which at the beginning included shootouts to resolve ties and a “countdown clock”). But yet salaries and exposure in MLS has only risen. Nobody would dare to broadcast international soccer that way now.

    I think advertising on the jerseys helps. I think the omnipresent scoreboards along the side of the pitch help too (that’s unique to soccer … you get some similar advertising behind home plate in baseball but there’s nothing like it in NFL/NBA). So that helps. I suppose there’s just limited revenues to be made in soccer as compared to the other major sports.

    We also could begin to see situations like what we see in Nascar; they don’t stop the race to show ads; they just show the ads and come back to recap any action. Maybe that’s a good model.

    I tell you what appeals to me as a soccer fan watching on TV versus the other sports: I know when a soccer match is ending, and I know my time committment is under two hours. I know I have a period of time to take care of things/get food/go to the bathroom during halftime. There’s no interuptions. And the ball is really almost constantly moving; the only sport that comes close to action per minute is hockey.

    Todd Boss

    18 Jun 14 at 4:23 pm

  7. Thank you for doing this research, this is great. Only thing I want to add is the sport of Rugby has a similar viewing experience like soccer. It has two 40 minute halves with the clock running continuously. Very fun sport to watch with lots of fast paced action…where the games are completed in about 2 hours.

    Appreciate your work and thank you again!

    John Vergis

    23 Jun 14 at 8:05 am

  8. Rugby; i’d be interested to see this same study for Rugby. While it seems like it’d result in similar percentages to Hockey and Soccer in terms of the ball being in play, it seems to me there’s a lot of downtime in Rugby too. And I feel like there’s just waaaaay too many whistles in Rugby. Of course, i’m not nearly as clear on the rules, nor the strategy, so i’m not the best person to listen to here :-)

    Todd Boss

    23 Jun 14 at 10:27 am

  9. I dont see why we are comparing the sports like this. In American football, more happens in a single play than in 10 minutes of soccer.

    The only comparison that matters is the commercials, and yes American sports are experiencing an epidemic of commercials

    Jordan Rutledge

    2 Jul 14 at 6:06 pm

  10. Sorry, I absolutely disagree about your sentiment about soccer. If you watched the extra time periods between the US and Belgium, you’d never answer something this way. What “happens” in a first down run play where a RB drives into the middle of 15 other 300lb behomoths to gain one yard and then stand around for another 35 seconds until the next play occurs? What “happens” in a play where you wait an entire play-clock just for some stupid false start penalty?

    There are an amazing number of Americans who absolutely will not even consider watching soccer for some reason; the game is passionate, skillful, and exciting at times. Its their loss; I have converted more than a few of my formerly ignorant friends just by taking them to a game (we’re in DC and DC United has a great supporter section) or by watching high-level soccer games with them over a beer (marquee English Premier League games, Champions League and of course select World Cup games).

    The point of this article was simple; you get far more “bang for your viewing buck” by watching sports that continuously move. Hockey and Soccer being the two best examples. And this post was borne of my absolute frustration with the over-commercialization and just complete wasted time watching modern NFL games.

    Todd Boss

    3 Jul 14 at 8:34 am

  11. Thank you so much for putting this together. I am a 44-yr old former “soccer-hater” with a 9 yr old daughter currently playing club soccer. After watching her games for the last 4-5 yrs, I began to appreciate the sport a bit more. Then, I watched the World Cup for the first time this year, and I am HOOKED! It took the first game to figure out the clock and add-on time, as well as the “offside” rule (different than in U8 etc), but after my first game, I realized — no commercials! I thought, “no way this could be the same in MLS” but I was pleasantly surprised. I bought the MLS Live package (1/2 yr at $32 bucks) to continue my World Cup experience, cheering for the Crew. I still love American football, but I’m sick of the increased length of the game, and the # of commercials. When I was a kid, the 1 o’clock games almost NEVER lasted past 4. Now, they routinely do, so much so that we don’t even have 4 o’clock games, they’re 4:15 games. Now, I just DVR the Browns, and only begin watching about 20-30 minutes into the game, so I can fast-forward through the commercials. I’m hoping the MLS eventually plants a franchise in Cleveland, but that doesn’t look likely for quite a while. Anyway, thanks again.

    Jerry Cline

    22 Jul 14 at 10:36 am

  12. You bet Jerry. I’m in the same boat as you. I have grown utterly frustrated with the conventional NFL games and the number of commercials. At the same time that Soccer continues its renessaince in America.

    A running joke in my group of friends was this: “What time is the eight-oclock game on?” Which was a legitimate question because the late game used to be at 8, then it was pushed til 8:15, then again to 8:30 so that the networks could clear their 4:15 games AND have time to broadcast their highly lucrative highlights packages prior to the late sunday night game. Money money money.

    I’m glad you like pro soccer. The MLS product isn’t going to match the technical quality that you see in europe, but it isn’t as if you’re watching semi-pro hackers. Europeans who come to america routinely talk about the difficulties they have; the US game is strong, physical and requires significant endurance that you don’t have to have in certain european leagues. Its no surprise that the USMNT was the #1 ranked team in terms of distance covered at the 2014 World Cup; americans are the fittest atheletes out there and make up for shortcomings in quality with superior athleticism at the end of games. That’s why it looked like we could have gotten an equalizer against Belgium with a few more minutes and finally (after 115 minutes of looking overmatched) we finally looked like a dangerous attacking team.

    Todd Boss

    22 Jul 14 at 11:23 am

  13. Just because the ball is in play, does not mean there is “action.”

    Two or three players standing on a pitch passing he ball back and forth, while everyone else stands around “sucking air” or a player rolling around on the ground in fake agony is not what I would call “action.”

    In a 0-0 soccer game how many really exciting scoring chances are there? Two? Three? Five? The balance of the game is simply people running around kicking a ball between them.


    9 Aug 14 at 4:40 pm

  14. No offense Walt, but clearly you have a bias against professional soccer. And that’s too bad, because everything you said is the “cliche” of those who don’t understand the passion and excitement of the game. No there’s not a lot of scoring; that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of action.

    I’d rather watch a 0-0 soccer game, where the ball is actually moving and players are playing more than 2/3rds of the time than watch two poor NFL teams for nearly four hours and through hundreds of beer commercials for a scant 15 minutes of “action.”

    Every sport has what you could call “dull action.” NBA players slowly walking the ball up the court and then standing in a half court offense for 20 seconds isn’t exactly “action.” NHL dumps into the opposing ice so they can do line changes? Same. I love baseball and this is a baseball blog, but I won’t defend how slow the pace of play there is, when throws to first can get incredibly tedious. The problem with the NFL is that for every 3 seconds of a play you get ten TIMES that in waiting around. Its awful. I’ll never go to another NFL game in person. The only way I can watch the game now is via DirecTV’s redzone. It is what it is.

    Todd Boss

    10 Aug 14 at 9:13 pm

  15. Love this post, Todd. I grew up playing football and baseball and continue to watch the Reds and Bengals. However, I absolutely LOVE watching hockey. When you understand the strategy and realize why the players are passing the puck so much, this “down time” turns into suspense and excitement. Yes, it’s great to see the players peppering the net with shots, but setting up the play is just as great.

    When I watched the World Cup this year, I started making the comparison of Hockey to Soccer. It’s not merely standing around and kicking a ball back and forth. They’re moving the ball and looking for scoring opportunities. Plus, NOBODY can say that that US-Belgium game wasn’t exciting. I’m not much of a soccer fan, but I was literally jumping up and down on every one of those scoring chances. Plus, it was nice that there weren’t many commercials.

    I’d just like to add a point to your article though. Have you been to an NFL game recently? Talk about a drunk fest!! “Fans” are more concerned about heckling quarterbacks and cursing head coaches than actually enjoying the game. I encourage anyone who’s never been to a hockey game to find one and go to it. There’s nothing like the suspense and excitement of an NHL game. I was at the fourth playoff game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins when CBJ came from 3 goals down to win 4-3. That place was absolutely ROCKING!!! From what I hear, Columbus Crew games aren’t that bad to go to either. I’ll have to go sometime.


    4 Sep 14 at 4:57 pm

  16. Hey Jon. Thanks for the feedback. Last three NFL games I’ve attended live were here in Washington, in San Francisco and at Oakland.

    So, you can imagine what my day-game experience was like. In Washington the stadium is so remote and the in-stadium prices are so high that people get incredibly intoxicated before arriving, then sit in a monstrosity completely void of any character. It takes 2 hours to get there and longer to get out, turning the game into an all day and into the night affair. In Oakland there was a stabbing and a heroin overdose in the parking lot as we walked up, and most of the fans looked like they were either on parole or active members of MS-13. San Francisco featured several out-and-out brawls on the ramps heading into the game, not to mention what can only be described as “aggressive” behavior in the stands from the home fans.

    Only in football can you routinely expect to hear fans screaming curse words from the stands. Would you take your pre-teen child there? no way.

    Personally, I think Hockey is easily the best in-game user experience. Fast paced action, constant scoring chances and breakaways, not a ton of downtime, somewhat limited/controlled time exposure. Unfortunately, Soccer fans have an up-hill battle in america, where a sizeable percentage of sports fans won’t even consider watching the sport because they equate “scoring” with “action.”

    Todd Boss

    5 Sep 14 at 9:06 am

  17. So silly. This is on par with pigs are pink, flamingos are pink; flamingos fly, therefore pigs can fly. Just one item — take that goalie. For the huge majority of the game time, he is just standing there. In Football (American) you can’t just count the action time; there is all the strategy in the huddle, the changes at the line, the reorganizations, the alternative plays —- lots going on all the time, not just in the 4 seconds of play. If you look at soccer the same way, the goalie time is like 4 seconds. Hardly reflective of the game or action. :)


    8 Nov 14 at 2:24 pm

  18. So Norm, I guess you want to count the time that a bunch of guys are standing around in the huddle as “action?” Sorry, disagree. There’s such “strategy” time in other sports too; in Baseball while the pitcher is awaiting to wind up and the fielders are moving around, in Basketball while the ball awaits to in bound.

    And, no matter how you classify “action time” in the NFL, there’s still WAAAAAAY too many commercials, Way too much down time.

    Todd Boss

    9 Nov 14 at 3:00 pm

  19. It has to be wrong for Basketball since the clock is stopped during free throws, yet I would still count that as action, therefore, the action in an NBA game is longer than 48 minutes.

    Jak MacAvoy

    30 Nov 14 at 7:49 pm

  20. Good point Jak. I wish I could find better NBA information. I’m not sure i’d call “all” of free throw downtime “action,” but certainly the shot itself should count.

    Todd Boss

    1 Dec 14 at 10:47 am

  21. I love this dude


    23 Feb 15 at 8:50 pm

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