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

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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.
  • 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 Soccerbythenumbers.com 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.

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% 60mins ~120 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 almost 40 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.

Sources:

Written by Todd Boss

July 17th, 2013 at 8:20 am

2 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

    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

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