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Trimming Halftime is Wrong Move for College Football

Blue Line Media ImageRecently there have been a flurry of national sports writers who have written or tweeted about the length of college football games. The argument they present is that the NCAA has to do something to shorten the length of the games because they are taking too long.

It's ironic of course when sports writers spend all week talking ad nauseum about the sport they are paid to cover yet then complain about the length of the game.

A longer game would give them more content to cover in their stories and more potential story lines to write about as the week leads up to the next game, right? Baahhh what do we know, we're just a bunch of band dorks.

The part that gets us fired up about these conversations is that the first area these writers target to help shorten the length of the game is consistently halftime. They target halftime specifically because of the difference in time between the NFL and College Football.
The NFL halftime is 12 minutes long while college has a 20 minute halftime length.

Yesterday, this conversation came up again as Bryan Fischer from College Football Talk and Athlon Sports recommended cutting halftime to decrease the length of the game. Here are his tweets:

While we respect Bryan for his work, his argument is not only flawed it is exceptionally lazy. 

Since band kids are known as geeks and nerds, I guess that means we are really smart and probably really good at defending our arguments with data instead of biased opinions. Obviously, as college band alumni, we want the maximum time for halftime, but we'll put our bias aside and show you why focusing on halftime is the wrong move for the NCAA and Mr. Fischer. As a bonus we'll do it with facts and data.

The concept of a halftime was first introduced in 1863 in England to help break up the game of English football (aka soccer) and provide time for the teams to change sides. This was done to create a fair game where the effects of the natural conditions such as field condition, sunlight, wind, etc were equal for both teams. In other words, you don't want one team kicking into a 30 mph wind all game long, that would be unfair.

In American football, halftime became an essential time for the teams to regroup and rest after thrusting their bodies into one another for 30 minutes. As organized sports continued to grow in popularity around the world, all were built with a halftime. This helped limit injuries and exhaustion. The National Football League has a 12 minute halftime while College Football has a 20 minute halftime. College Basketball plays their games in two 20 minute halves and takes a 15 minute halftime. The NHL currently plays 3 periods. They take an 18 minute break in-between periods. That means in 60 minutes of game time on the ice they take 36 minutes of break time!

Now, remember that halftime is a constant. It has been 20 minutes in college football for quite a while and this length of time is consistent for every game played at all levels of college football. Only in the Sun Belt conference can halftime fluctuate. If both coaches agree, halftime can be extended by 5 minutes in Sun Belt Conference football games. This rarely happens.

If a college football game had a running clock it would take 80 minutes to play the entire game. That includes four quarters at 15 minutes each and a 20 minute halftime. Now think about this, ESPN currently allots 210 minutes to complete one college football game. Hence why games are played at noon and 3:30 pm EST. Maybe you're thinking right now that most games only take 180 minutes (three hours) to complete. That would be accurate if you were watching a Division 1-AA FCS football game not a Division 1-A FBS game which are the games you are most likely to see on ESPN. The average Division 1-AA FCS game takes two hours and 55 minutes to play.

In 2014, the average length of an FBS college football game was 203 minutes or three hours and 23 minutes long. That is up 16 minutes from 2006 when games averaged three hours and seven minutes. 

Here's where things get crazy.

While sports writers like to say that the NFL does it right with a 12 minute halftime, they are failing to recognize what is actually happening. The average length of an NFL game is three hours and seven minutes. Hence why games are played at 1 pm and 4:15 pm EST. Since 1996 only 4 NFL games have ever gone epicly long and lasted over 4 hours. In 2015, college football surpassed that number before the end of September! According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2014 there were 188 college football games that went longer than three hours and 30 minutes and 16 games that went over four hours long.

Let me just repeat what I just wrote to make sure you got it; since 1996 the NFL had four games go longer than four hours. College football had 16 games go longer than four hours in the 2014 season alone. Sure, there are more games being played in college football since there are more teams, but they are playing the same sport. College soccer and professional soccer are structured the same and take the same amount of time at every level.

So what's happening here? Is the length of halftime and college bands wanting to perform really the problem?

Blue Line Media ImageFirst of all let's make sure everyone is completely aware of what bands do at halftime. Bands are ready to perform the minute halftime starts. If you watched a game this year you probably noticed that you can see the band on the field towards the end of the first half. That's because with about 3-4 minutes left in the second quarter the bands go on the field and get ready to perform. Once the field is cleared they start their performance. That means the band is literally waiting for the players to get off the field. Usually 1-2 minutes into halftime they start. The average halftime show length is around 9-10 minutes. It then takes bands about 1 minute to march off the field. Which means that the band is on the field for around 12 minutes of the 20 minutes of halftime. There are a few bands at the FCS level that perform a 12-13 minute corps style halftime show, but that is pretty rare at the FBS level.

So, now that that is off my chest, let me just repeat it to make sure everyone understood it. Bands are only on the field for a total of around 12 minutes at halftime. The rest of halftime is used for advertisements in the stadium and for the players to warm up again. Bands are not out there performing for 20 minutes.

Moving on...

Remember that when comparing the NFL and college football you have to take into account the difference in rules and operating procedures of the game. The NFL does not stop the clock after first downs, college does. The NFL reviews all scoring plays and also reviews all plays when there are two minutes left in the half. NFL coaches only get two challenges per game to use to review a play. College football reviews ALL plays at any time and coaches are allowed one challenge per game. College football does not have a two minute warning like in the NFL.

Over time rules are also different. In college, over time has no clock. The NFL plays one 15 minute sudden death quarter to decided the winner. College overtimes can go on and on if both teams match each other in scoring after each overtime. 

There are clearly major differences between the NFL and college football when it comes to managing time.

So, why are college games really going that much longer? The answer is actually quite simple; the expense of TV contracts and the evolution of college football.

The Surge of Broadcast Media Rights

In 2006, ESPN signed a ten year $1 billion deal with the B1G Conference to broadcast most football and select basketball games. That averaged $100 million per year. Just this past summer, ESPN and the B1G agreed on a $190 million per year deal for six years for only HALF of the B1G's media rights as Fox Sports took the other half for $240 million and CBS took a basketball-only package for $10 million.

The total deal is worth $2.64 billion averaging $440 million per year for the B1G conference alone! That doesn't even include the deal the conference has with the Big Ten Network which Fox owns 51 percent of.

ESPN also has deals with the Pac 12, SEC, Big12 and ACC. This summer they inked the deal to create the ACC Network in 2019 and a 20 year extension on the rights for the ACC Conference. The SEC Network, which is owned by ESPN, brought in over $311 million in revenue after its first year which made the argument for the ACC Network creation even stronger.

But here's the problem, in signing these deals, the networks, especially ESPN, have dramatically increased their overhead while they are bleeding cable subscribers. More and more college football fans and general TV watchers are cutting the cord. ESPN has lost over seven million subscribers over the past two years alone. If those people only had one ESPN channel, let's say just the regular ESPN channel, then that's $6 per person which equals $42 million in loss for ESPN per month, or $504 million per year. Now, most cable providers offer more than one ESPN channel and you pay for all of the ESPN Channels you have in your package, so really that number is much higher.

On top of all of that, in 2012 ESPN signed a $7.3 billion deal to broadcast the College Football Playoff. This is their Super Bowl. They charged $1 million per ad that ran during the National Championship. The Super Bowl charges around $5 million per ad.

With these monster contracts and the bleeding of over $504 million in subscriber fees it is no wonder that college football games are averaging 203 minutes in length. ESPN has purposefully pumped more breaks into games and maximized the allotment of ad time to make as much money as possible.

In a 2015 Sports Illustrated article written about this same topic, Karl Benson, Commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference, directly attributed the increase of game length to television. He was quoted in the article as saying, "a lot of times it's coming out of commercials that games are delayed. The networks are always going to push the envelope and they're paying the bills. They need to get as many spots in as they can."

Benson also believes that the length of the game is now directly impacting attendance. He stated that fans expect a shorter game and that attendance was down 4% in 2014 for the conference equaling the lowest average for the sport since 2000. Personally, I'd love to see my Alma Mater play four hour long games every day if it were possible, but I understand his argument here. Families are taking larger chunks out of their days to attend a game and are deciding to go to less games throughout the year.

In the same article, Richard Southall, Director of the College Sport Research Institute, was asked about the reason behind such long football games. His response again shows that television's role in the games is impacting the length. "Commercial break lengths and the number are undoubtedly increasing," he said. "Networks have to generate additional advertising revenue to pay for the rights fees that are escalating."

It is clear as day that television directly impacts the length of games and will continue to push games longer and longer. While the average FBS game took 203 minutes in 2014, the average FCS I-AA game took only 175 minutes, the average Division II game took 165 minutes and the average Division III game took only 161 minutes. Guess which ones were shown by ESPN and other big Networks and which ones were not? Reminder, halftime is the same length at all four levels. So if halftime is constant then there is no way you can argue that the length of halftime is a major contributor to the excessive length of the game. Furthermore, as compared to the NFL, if you were to shorten college football halftimes to 12 minutes matching the NFL that would bring the average game length down to 195 minutes compared to the NFL's 187 minute average. Which means that there is still a major variable not accounted for that is extending the length of the game. That variable is also what extends games to over four hours long.

The Evolution of the Sport

In 2006, the average length of a college football game was three hours and seven minutes. Games averaged 127.5 plays run with teams averaging 29.2 passes per game and 24.4 points scored per game. By 2014 all of those numbers had drastically changed, as did the sport itself. 

Welcome to the table the wide use of the "up tempo spread offense". You know, the offense made famous by Oregon and Baylor. In 2014, the average game length increased to three hours and twenty-three minutes. Games averaged 143.7 plays run, 29.5 points per game per team and 32.4 passes per game per team. This means more scoring which stops the clock, more incomplete passes which stops the clock, more completions towards the sidelines allowing players to step out of bounds and stop the clock plus more first downs which also stops the clock.

More scoring means more commercial breaks after the extra point or field goal and then another commercial after each kickoff is completed.

The teams that have really adopted the up tempo offense show statistics far larger than the national averages. For example, Baylor in 2014 averaged a game length 17 minutes longer than the national average. Their games averaged 159.9 plays run per game and over 73.7 points scored per game. 

In the Pac-12, Cal games averaged 14 minutes longer than the national average and they even bested Baylor games by averaging 162 plays per game and 78.1 points per game.

Other teams that run the spread and averaged over three and a half hours of game length include, Texas A&M, TCU, Texas Tech, Arizona State, Ohio State, Western Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Toledo just to name a few.

Reminder, halftime length remained constant.

The evolution of the game to move away from the run and build offenses solely focused on up tempo passing schemes with five wide receivers has had a direct impact on the length of the game. Teams that are not used to playing against these up tempo offenses are more likely to use all six of their timeouts and we statistically see higher levels of injuries in games as fatigue sets in earlier. These offenses brag about causing defenses to throw-up mid series because they can't handle the tempo. The tempo doesn't allow defenses to make substitutions causing 300+ pound defensive tackles to get sick. 

What do injuries cause?

They cause TV timeouts.

When a player gets injured there is a TV timeout. The networks take a full TV break even if that player quickly got up on to his feet and walked off the field 10 seconds after the commercial break started. Higher numbers of injuries mean more commercial breaks. Against spread offenses, players sometimes fake injuries just to help others catch their breath.

So, here's where we are. TV contracts have spiraled out of control and networks need more ad time to make their money back while the game has evolved to include more plays run than ever. These factors have directly contributed to the length of the game, yet are ignored by national writers who call for the shortening of college football games.

Shortening the Game Length

If the data continues it's trend, college football games will only get longer and longer. This means the NCAA is going to have to address this with new rules or changes to the structure of the game.

First, I'd like to remind everyone that college football players are not professional athletes. They are not paid to play football. They do not have the finances to heal their bodies in hyperbaric chambers in their bed rooms like professional athletes can while sleeping. Twenty minutes at halftime to rest their bodies isn't some arbitrary amount of time. It was selected to allow these college students a chance to heal and give coaches a chance to teach or scheme with players whom are still learning the system especially if they are freshmen. Shortening halftime would not only hurt the bands it would hurt the players and coaches too.

So what should the NCAA do?

1) Adopt the NFL rule of not stopping the clock after first downs. The average play only takes 6 seconds to run. Teams have 40 seconds currently in between plays that don't result in a stoppage before they have to run their next play. If a stoppage occurs teams have 25 seconds once the ball is set. With college football now averaging more plays and scoring than ever, that means more first downs that stop the clock. Keep the clock moving.

2) No commercial breaks during injuries unless a cart is called in by the doctor to take the player off the field. Most player injuries are sorted in less than 1 minute, yet fans have to wait longer until TV returns from the timeout.

3) Get rid of kickoffs. The most dangerous play in football is already on the endangered list as both the NFL and NCAA moved the ball forward for kickoffs equaling more touch-backs. It's time to get rid of the kickoff and have teams automatically start with the ball at the 25 yard line. The main issues with kickoffs is the clock doesn't actually start until the player catches the ball. If a player opts to fair catch the ball or the ball goes out of bounds, no time actually comes off the clock for that play. If you want to see amazing return men get their chance to score then let them return punts. With the commercial after the score, then the kickoff and commerical that follows the kickoff we are looking at nearly 4-5 minutes in-between the extra point and the first play of the other teams next possession. If there are 10-12 scoring drives per game then we are seeing upwards of 40 minutes being used in this slot.

4) Force reviews to be made within 30 seconds. Too often are plays "under further review" in college football and some reviews can take upwards of 2 minutes. By the time the ref walks across the field to get his head set on and the review actually begins you've already had 30 seconds. Streamline the process. Use the ear piece and microphone that the ref already has attached to themselves as the direct line of communication to the booth. The play should be reviewed, no one should move and the call should be made. This drives me nuts. The ref's walk to get the head set can take nearly 30 seconds depending on where they are on the field. By the time they get their head set on we at home have already seen the replay multiple times on TV. This should be an easy fix.

5) If making money is the reason for commercial break increases then decrease the number of breaks and increase the number of ads seen during the game. Use European football for example. Those games run 90 minutes without a single commercial break in the action. They have advertisements on the jerseys, electric ad banners all across the outside of the field and all around the team benches. If they can keep the clock moving and still make a ton of money, surely American Football can figure out a way to do the same. With the average play only taking 6 seconds and games averaging 143.7 plays run, then that means we as spectators only actually watch 14 minutes and 37 seconds of actual football. The rest of the time the clock ticks while teams huddle, they stand at the line to audible or are getting up from underneath a big pile after a tackle. That's not much football. 

Which leads us to our last point. If fans are only watching 14 minutes and 37 seconds of actual football being played and bands perform for about 12 minutes at halftime, then the bands are almost equally important to the level of entertainment fans are receiving at the game.

It's time national writers focus on the real issue for college football game length and stop targeting the bands.