The Unbearable Slowness of Sports

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Our attention spans are getting shorter. Filmmakers and video game designers are adapting. But professional sports leagues have no good way of picking up the pace of their contests without destroying their integrity. Until now.

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Do you watch televised sports less often than before? In my mid-twenties, I spent years without a TV, but still managed to catch most Lakers games in a given season. Even in my late twenties I'd watch a dozen or so regular season games per year. Now I only watch the playoffs. It's partly that I'm busier, and that sitting at a computer for work makes me less inclined to spend my leisure time staring at another screen. But I enjoy NBA basketball less largely because I've lost patience for the game.

The main culprit isn't the general shortening of attention spans brought on by the Web so much as the DVR. It accustomed me to skipping all commercials. Initially this made watching basketball more fun, especially at the end of close games. Then my dad started fast-forwarding through all non-clutch free throws. He'd even speed it up sometimes as the point guard walked the ball up the court. Unless the game is significant - imbued with dramatic tension that makes the slow bits suspenseful - I can't sit through a game at regular speed anymore. But fast-forwarding is no good either. A basketball game has a certain rhythm, and altering it without cost is no more possible than fast-forwarding to the best part of a favorite song and expecting to experience it as fully as if you'd listened all the way through.

Permit me a prediction. Attention spans are different today than they were a generation ago. Movies move faster. Video games unfold at a more frenetic pace. Perhaps the NFL can survive in this new environment. But slower paced sports? I suspect they'll have to evolve to keep a healthy viewership.

The problem is that there is no good way for this evolution to happen. Rule changes are too risky: implementing them means embarking on an unpredictable experiment for an entire season. That's okay for small tweaks, like giving point guards eight seconds rather than ten seconds to get the ball across the half-court line. But what about more substantial innovation? Imagine a larger tweak that would be widely considered an improvement. How would we know to adopt it?

The answer is for the NBA, Major League Baseball, and perhaps other sports leagues to set aside a few games each year - perhaps pre-season contests, but ideally early in the season games - to try out one major experiment per annum. Perhaps a vote among sports writers or fans or even players would determine it. Or less plausibly, but more conveniently for the purposes of this article, they could leave things up to me. What follows are a few suggestions I'd be terrified to impose for a whole season, but that I'd love to see adopted for a few contests to gauge their impact.

NBA

The major problem in this league is that the game stops far too much. It's especially unbearable in a game that is tightly officiated in the early minutes. Who wants to watch someone shoot free throws in the first quarter?

What I'd like is for the referees to tally all the fouls for the first three quarters, and the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. During this time, teams would just get the ball out of bonds when fouled, and the referee wouldn't even have to touch the ball before it went back into play. Then with some number of minutes left in the game - maybe 8 minutes, maybe 5 minutes - the teams would compare tallies, cancel out one another's shots, and send the team that earned more shooting fouls to the line to take all their shots at once. (Alternatively, this could be done for the first half only, and the shots could be taken at halftime). Free throws were never meant to be as large a part of basketball as they've become. And clutch foul shots at the end of the fourth quarter would be unaffected by this plan.

MLB

Presumably I'll never persuade purists to eliminate a whole inning. So I'll offer my next best suggestion: allow managers one opportunity per game to borrow an out or two from a later inning. So it's the bottom of the third. There are two outs, with men on first and third. Your batter strikes out. And you can decide to borrow an out or two in order to try and drive in those runs... but it's going to cost you, because once the current inning ends the opposing manager gets to decide at his leisure when to charge you that out or two. Yes, this would make it harder to compare players from different eras. But let's be honest. Steroids and changing ballparks have already robbed us of that.

NFL

Though this is the league that least needs to quicken the pace, I can't resist passing along this rant from Joe Posnanski:

Twenty-two people crash into each other, an official kind of guesses where he should spot the ball, it's about as imprecise as it can possibly be... and then they measure the thing to a hundredth of an inch. I mean, it's ludicrous.

Chains? Really? That's the measuring device we are using? When was the last time anything was measured by chains? What was that, about 160 BC? "Spartacus, he's about 20 links tall now." Chains. You have to be kidding me. It's so much a part of football we NEVER think about it, but it's absolute ludicrous. This is the most successful sports league in America, and they're measuring with perhaps the least precise measuring tool available. It's like the Flintstones. Seriously: How do they keep the chains in a perfect straight line? If they're not in a straight line, then you might be measuring less than 10 yards. How hard do you pull the chain to make it exactly 10 yards? They couldn't use a tape measure or a laser or something?

Experimenting is most problematic for the NFL since every game means so much more than in other sports, so it's probably good that this change is the least substantial.

OF COURSE, every reader save the most staunch sports traditionalist is going to have his or her own suggestions for how best to improve some league or other. Send yours to the e-mail address at the top of this page. If I get enough responses I'll share them in a future post. Maybe we'll save televised sports together. Or at least make a couple games early in each season worth watching.

Image via Flickr user Jiazi.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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