Editor’s Note: With the new timing rules officially in place, we are tracking game length for the 2023 college football season here.
While following the weekly college football action, we came across the below interaction about the increased amount of commercial breaks. This is something we’ve perceived as well earlier in the season. The commercial breaks seem to be happening more frequently and feel as if they are right on top of one another. As great as our feelings are, we decided to look into this theory to see if games actually last longer.
To find out if games last longer, we went to the NCAA statistics website, which provides the length of games for each season. We have provided a table below showing how long the average game has lasted at each of the 4 levels (FBS, FCS, Division 2, and Division 3) going back to the 2008 season. The NCAA did not have any data available for game length prior to 2008 and some years did not have any data at all for Division 2 or Division 3. All times are listed as hours and minutes.
|FBS Game Length
|FCS Game Length
|D2 Game Length
|D3 Game Length
As shown above, the average FBS college football game takes 3 and 1/2 hours to complete, which is 20 minutes longer than 15 years ago and about 10 minutes longer than 5 years ago. However, this trend of games lasting longer applies to every level with D2 and D3 games lasting 5 to 10 minutes longer than 15 years ago. Why is this happening?
Why Games are Lasting Longer
There are numerous reasons why games are lasting longer. The most noticeable change and partial cause of extended game length is the offensive scheme has drastically changed over the last few decades resulting in a new style of play across all divisions. The move to spread formations means we see more passing, which means we see more incompletions, more scoring, and more breaks. With college football, the clock stops after every first down, unlike its NFL counterpart, as well as after every incompletion. This has partially caused the game time to become bloated and is one of the drawbacks of increased scoring: more breaks.
The breaks we refer to have a few different triggers. We have the standard incompletion, the clock stopping for a short time after a first down or a player going out of bounds, commercial breaks after a scoring play or turnover, and the injury stoppage. Injury breaks have increased because the offenses are playing at a higher tempo, which can lead to players being gassed or truly injured but they also cause teams to fake injuries to slow the opposing offense down.
We also have our least favorite type of break within a break: commercials. As more points are scored, there are more opportunities for commercial timeouts. This isn’t surprising either as TV rights deals have skyrocketed to new heights, which means more commercial breaks even if they happen in quick succession. Nowhere is this more apparent in the table above than at the FCS level, which has increased by about 20 minutes since 2017. FBS teams have historically had more media opportunities than FCS programs, however, with the explosion of streaming platforms, the FCS has never had more exposure than in 2022. With more games shown on ESPN+ and other platforms as a result of TV rights, the number of breaks has also increased alongside the infusion of the aforementioned spread offenses.
Another reason game length has increased is due to various rule changes. In 2006, the NCAA allowed the use of replay to help correct any possible errors and also allowed coaches to challenge calls on the field. This changed further in 2016 with the much-debated targeted replay reviews. These reviews can take longer than the stated two-minute limit established in 2020 as well, which adds to the time already elapsed. With the heavy emphasis on player safety, more referees are likely to throw a flag when they are uncertain about whether targeting occurred and rely on replay to overturn an incorrect call. Each time this happens, another delay takes place followed by an automatic review of the targeting incident. You can see how the stoppages feel endless with the combination of rules and offensive changes.
These are some of the reasons why college football games take longer although it doesn’t account for every aspect that caused the length of games to increase. What can be done to fix the length of tames? That’s a tough question to answer but let’s start with some ridiculous ideas to solve the issue.
Awful, Radical Solutions
We do have some outlandish ideas to help shorten games and these will not be popular or ever see the light of day beyond this website so buckle up.
Radical solution #1: Require all teams to have a run/pass ratio between 45 to 55%. If we don’t want games to last so long we can always suggest that more run plays HAVE to be called. Imagine how epic it would be to see the team trailing by 7 points in the National Championship only be able to run the ball because its pass-to-run ratio is too high. Social media would have a field day if the scenario ever came to fruition. Another reason this idea is grotesque is that it would effectively kill any variation in offensive schemes. All the triple-option offenses would cease to exist since they would have to pass while the opposite is true for pass-happy offenses. Not difficult to see why this will never be implemented but hey, at least games wouldn’t last 3 and a half hours.
Radical Solution #2: Shorten halftime and get rid of the clock stopping on first downs.
There’s no quicker way to gut college football than to eliminate the pageantry of halftime performances and institute a rolling clock on first downs. College football halftime lasts 20 minutes compared to 12 at the NFL level and cutting it by 40% would save 8 minutes bringing the 2022 average down to 3 hours and 20 minutes. Getting rid of the clock stoppage on first downs would certainly save some time too but the rule is part of what makes college football unique. As if the college football traditionalists haven’t endured enough in recent years, many of the amazing comebacks and finishes we have witnessed would occur far less frequently under this scenario.
Radical Solution #3: Establish a rolling clock except on first downs, injuries, scoring plays, and timeouts. An offshoot of the previous solution, this would see game length shortened pretty quickly while making no one happy especially as incompletions wouldn’t stop the clock. Advertisers wouldn’t be able to monopolize the airwaves because the clock would almost always be running, which means they can’t shove more products into our faces. Meanwhile, viewers and coaches alike would be apoplectic the first time a team ran 30 minutes off the clock without letting their opponent have a possession. Like the run/pass ratio proposal, this one would make fans nostalgic for the non-stop advertising.
Radical Solution #4: Eliminate all commercials. Hell yeah, now we’re talking. This would be pretty popular amongst the fans and that’s probably it. ESPN would lose a ton of money, companies would miss out on additional exposure, and coaches/players/school administrators would see the mega TV rights cash infusion disappear overnight and we’d be back to the old days.
Now that the terrible ideas are out of the way, let’s look at some more realistic solutions.
The Athletic had a similar piece on the increasing length of college football games and noted that TV timeouts currently last 2 minutes and 30 seconds with three of these breaks per quarter. They also noted that the number of breaks can vary depending on some of the factors we listed above such as scoring plays, injuries, replays, and timeouts. The NFL has a built-in break at the end of each half with the two-minute warning but college football doesn’t have that luxury. However, college football can take a cue from college basketball’s more standardized timeout structure in which the commercial breaks occur after 4 minutes of game action have elapsed (i.e. the under 16, 12, 8, and 4 timeouts).
For college football, they could have one long commercial lasting 2 and a half to 3 minutes every five minutes of game action. In this case, there would be a timeout between 15 and 10 minutes on the clock, between 10 and 5 minutes, and 5 minutes and the end of the quarter. Of course, the commercial break at the end of each quarter would remain in place. There could also be an opportunity for shorter breaks once or twice a quarter if a timeout is called, a replay is initiated, a turnover occurs, or an injury happens.
To augment these breaks, one method that has been suggested is advertising during the game with the addition of a split-screen. As if advertising wasn’t pervasive enough, this would be taking away from the action viewers want to watch and replacing it with whichever major company wants to sell you on its brand that you’ve already heard enough about. This also might produce the negative effect of people not watching games at all due to oversaturation of advertising although it is difficult to estimate the impact on viewership. The idea of constantly switching between a full screen for one play followed by a half screen for advertising would get annoying quickly.
One personal suggestion: advertising drop-ins by the announcers similar to what we hear on the radio. For example, this drive is brought to you by… insert whichever major brand wants its name mentioned before or during a possession. This would be a solid trade-off between not missing action but allowing for advertising to help defray the TV rights cost. In fact, there is recent research suggesting TV advertising is not as effective as previously thought. While this does occur currently, increasing the number of mentions wouldn’t have a massive effect for those watching the game but we acknowledge if its done too often, it would become similarly annoying to the split-screen proposal.
We also have to acknowledge the strong advertising incentives at play here: the longer a game goes, the more opportunities a company gets to have its brand shown to the world. That is if people aren’t glued to their phones at every stoppage. The same goes for ESPN, CBS, Fox, etc. in that you want as many commercial breaks as possible so that you can show more commercials to recoup the money spent on TV rights. In addition, the networks know which games are likely to have higher audiences so the more competitive ones will have a higher demand (i.e. higher price for the company advertising to pay to the network).
There is one suggestion that was brought up recently that is designed to speed up the game. The NCAA is looking at winding the clock after incompletions as soon as the ball is set for play. This rule would not be in effect for the final 2 minutes of the first half and the final 5 minutes of the game. While this could be a partial solution, it has to be implemented properly to be useful.
The Ideal NFL Like Proposal That Won’t Come Back
The commercial breaks we have been constantly harping on could be partially mitigated with an NFL Redzone-style channel focused solely on college football. A channel similar to this actually existed for a decade called Goal Line on ESPN but the network shut it down – and the baseball equivalent Bases Loaded – after the 2019 season. Under the auspices of the pandemic and with little warning, ESPN sent a memo in March 2020 that Goal Line was shuttered immediately and Bases Loaded on June 30, 2020. The college basketball version called Buzzer Beater was shut down in 2017 by ESPN as a way to cut costs.
ESPN cutting channels and popular shows are nothing new as they seek lower costs. They shut down ESPN Classic in early 2022 for similar reasons as the beloved Goal Line and Bases Loaded. These decisions are partially understandable as they are somewhat niche, seasonal programming. With Goal Line, it would be used once a week (Saturdays) for 12 hours across a 3-month time frame. For Bases Loaded, it was most popular when the college baseball and softball tournaments were in their Regional and Super Regional rounds, which equates to 4 weekends a year. As for ESPN Classic, its popularity amongst TV providers waned in the final years due to ESPN no longer using the channel as a linear service. We don’t know how much ESPN paid to have these 4 channels on the airwaves but it’s understandable they would choose to cut them if they’re only used for part of the year.
As much as we want to blame ESPN solely for not having a Redzone-style channel, it isn’t totally their fault. The NFL negotiates TV rights on behalf of all the teams while college football is negotiated on a conference-by-conference basis. Do we really believe these conferences and networks would be willing to share live or even slightly delayed TV signals with a 3rd party operation a CFB Redzone channel? They wouldn’t agree to such a deal because it would take viewers away from their channel, the games/rights they overpaid for, and their specific set of advertisers.
An ideal setup would be a college football Redzone channel that encompasses all networks that wouldn’t have non-stop commercials. As we’ve learned, if there’s money to be made, the fans and viewers aren’t factored into the equation so this likely won’t happen in our lifetimes. It was fun while it lasted with Goal Line even if we were limited to the ESPN family of network games.
Summary and Proposal
It’s no secret that watching live sports in America means we will be blitzed with advertising. Everything we look at on our TVs, phones, and physical mail is a chance to become the product of yet another company. There are few sports better suited for this type of exposure than college football – one of America’s favorite sports, which means viewers have had to pay the price with longer football games. Division 2 and Division 3 have seen game times last about 5 to 10 minutes longer in 2022 compared to 15 years ago. Meanwhile, FBS and FCS have seen games take about 20 minutes longer in 2022 compared to 15 years ago.
Since commercials are not going away anytime soon, changes should be implemented for a more streamlined viewing experience without decimating the rules unique to college football. Our personal proposal would be a strict amount of commercial breaks (three long breaks of 2 1/2 minutes and two short breaks of 30 seconds) alongside more verbal advertising. While we do hear some coming out of commercial breaks, we think including them once or twice a possession and at the conclusion would be a decent trade-off. On top of this, we wouldn’t have issues with a split screen of the football field and advertising during non-action moments such as during injury stoppages or replay reviews. Finally, limiting the longer breaks to specific times of each quarter akin to college basketball would be beneficial too. Remember, the audience is usually going straight to their phone, running to grab a drink/food, or using the restroom when a commercial starts so advertisers aren’t missing out on a ton of new customers.
While we aren’t big proponents of winding the clock after incompletions, we do believe this should be tested on a small scale instead of a sport-wide implementation. The NCAA has too many instances of changing rules on a national scale that are often tweaked shortly after (targeting and the automatic review of those penalties the past few years come to mind). That part requires planning and foresight, which the NCAA has shown a dearth of, and means all conferences will be forced to deal with an untested change if it was implemented.
We’ve made a lot of comparisons to the NFL in this post and we think there’s a lot for the NCAA to learn from their pro football counterparts. Not everything can be applied and we want to see college football keep some of the more unique differences but overcommercialization is starting to reach a critical mass. For most companies, it’s less about gaining new customers and more about maintaining market power since there are doubts about the effectiveness of TV advertising as mentioned earlier.
In this era of realignment and mega-TV contracts, we can only hope the advertising model is changed to something more palatable but given what we’ve seen over the last 20 years in college athletics, it’s unlikely to come to fruition.
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images / Steven Branscombe