The Accidental Spectator’s Guide to Improving Sports

Paul Windle

I did not grow up watching sports. My family did not gather around the television for the “big game.” Since reaching adulthood, however, I have watched, or rather been in the room while other people have watched, countless hours of throwing, catching, and flopping. For this I blame my husband, who, like most American males, follows sports with a near-religious dedication.

Bearing witness to sports without any real emotional attachment, I’ve noticed several problems endemic to baseball, basketball, football, and soccer—and like a McKinsey consultant at a steel mill, I’ve developed ideas for how to remedy them. As you slog through the Super Bowl, consider these suggestions for a superior spectating experience.

Baseball: America’s pastime is always around and therefore easy to take for granted. Teams play 162 games each season—and that’s before the endless playoffs, whose monotonous best-of-fives lead up to the agonizing best-of-seven World Series.

Luckily, there’s a simple solution. Major League Baseball could inflate the value of each individual game by reducing the total number played each year. Chop the regular season down by 25 or 30 percent. Give the postseason a haircut, too: best-of-three is good enough for the earlier playoffs, and best-of-five is plenty for the World Series.

Basketball: Reversals of fortune are so common in basketball that the significance of the first 36 minutes pales in comparison with that of the last 12. Team A wins because it happens to be on top at the final buzzer, but if the game were a beat longer, Team B would go home victorious.

The NBA could re-weight the game by changing the way it calculates league standings. Teams should get three points for winning a game, and one point for winning a quarter. If Team A wins all four quarters, it’ll shoot up in the rankings with seven points. If Team B wins three quarters and chokes in the fourth, it’ll still get three points.

Football: The thing about watching football is that you don’t actually watch much football. A Wall Street Journal study found that, on average, the ball is in play for just 11 minutes each game.

To reduce dead time—when the clock’s running but nothing’s happening—the NFL should reduce the maximum time allowed between the end of one play and the start of the next, from 40 seconds to 20.

The league could also cut down on the need for official reviews by abandoning the rule that requires players to maintain control of the ball after they hit the ground. Let common sense reign. If a catch looks like a catch, call it a catch.

Soccer: This one’s a no-brainer: make the goals bigger. Six more inches on each side and suddenly those close misses that ricochet off the posts would make it into the net. The goalie’s job would get just a little harder; the striker’s job just a little easier; and the viewer’s experience just a little less frustrating.

I know soccer fans pretend to appreciate how difficult it is to score, but this recommendation would not lead to basketball-level tallies. It would merely reduce the likelihood of the scoreless ties and 1–0 “victories” that make “the beautiful game” so awfully dissatisfying.