College-football fans are having to devote more and more time to watching games. Each passing season sees the length of games get longer and longer.
The national average game length for the 2013-2014 season, according to NCAA stats, was three hours and 17 minutes. Games went up to three hours and 23 minutes the n
ext season and dropped by one minute in the 2015-2016 season.
Last season, game-length average grew to three hours and 24 minutes, making for a total increase of seven minutes over the last four seasons. There could be several explanations for the rise in game length in the sport, but what is the most likely reason?
As more teams move to the spread offense, those teams are throwing the ball more each game. More passes can lead to more incompletions or first downs, both of which stop the clock. While this seems like a plausible culprit at first glance, statistics say otherwise.
During the 2013-2014 season, teams averaged 32 passes per game nationally, and the number of pass attempts stayed the same the next season. There was a slight dip in attempts for the 2015-2016 season with 31 per game, and last season, it stayed the same across the nation.
So, passing attempts haven’t jumped each season, and yet, the length of the game is still increasing. Could the cause for games running longer be fewer completed passes, then? The statistics don’t show that to be true, however.
On average, teams completed 19 passes per game in the 2013-2014 season, and that number held steady the year after. In the 2015-2016 season, the number of completions slipped to 18 per game, where it stayed last season.
The other obvious potential reason is more first downs, which stop the clocks and could lengthen games. But that hasn’t been the case over the last four seasons, as teams have averaged 20 first downs, 19 first downs, 19 first downs and 20 first downs.
The number of plays hasn’t changed over the last four seasons, either. Teams averaged 143 plays per game in 2013-2014, 143 in 2014-2015 and 142 in both of the last two seasons. Again, there isn’t anything in the stats to say why game length is increasing.
That leaves just a few reasons for the length of games to be on the rise.
One thought is that injuries can add to the length of games. The clock stops with each injury, and players are taught to go down if they think they have an injury. There are no official stats on the length of time spent on injuries or timeouts from injuries.
Another reason for games taking longer to finish could be instant replays. Officials review every play in college football, and in some games, it leads to several stoppages while they look at plays that could change the outcome of a game.
One major rule change could also be leading to more and longer stoppages for replays. The targeting rule, which comes into play when a defensive player hits a defenseless offensive player or leads with his head, can result in players being ejected from the game and can have a major impact on a game.
Officials must carefully review those plays to make sure targeting is the right call and whether they should eject that player. At times, those reviews seem to take an inordinate amount of time.
Injuries and play reviews tend to lead to more commercial breaks, but there could be more commercial breaks due to the fact that networks are paying huge fees to broadcast games.
Those networks turn to advertisers to turn a profit, and more breaks in the action mean more commercials in the broadcast, which could certainly factor into the increasing game length.
If these factors are behind it, it will be hard for the powers that be in college football to shorten the games. Injuries and replay reviews are going to happen, and the networks aren’t going to stop selling ads to pay for their broadcasting rights.
The only quick fix would be changing the rule that stops the clock each time the offense picks up a first down. That would shave a few minutes off the game, but it would also change the strategy at the end of games and could lead to fewer comebacks in the sport.
Right now, fans will just have to set aside three and a half hours to watching their favorite team.