Speeding up a return to play after a timeout could cut the amount of down time in a game.
The question is whether shaving five minutes — the amount the league hopes to cut this year — off a game that lasts an average of three hours and seven minutes is enough. The league plans to get there by reducing on-field stoppage of play and streamlining replays.
Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Broadcasting & Sports, said he is on board with the current changes. But asked if the league approached him about fewer ads, perhaps the only surefire way to seriously dent game lengths, he said no.
The league insists its changes are about pace, though, not length of game. Tod Leiweke, the COO of the NFL, told the Leaders Sport Business Summit last month that the league is fine with a three-hour game. That comment elicited snickers from the audience largely composed of Europeans, who are accustomed to a two-hour window for a soccer match.
The league also is looking at other ways of adding entertainment, including loosening up its celebration rules that have been mocked endlessly as creating the No Fun League.
Pro Football Hall of Famer; former team executive with Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Indianapolis Colts; served on the NFL’s competition committee
■ SUGGESTION: Eliminate the automatic review after a touchdown.
“This is nothing more than ‘replay creep.’ It is calls such as these that the challenge system was created to deal with. Again, we are talking seconds but that is what is left to save. Under no circumstances should we expand non-challenge replay in any form. If you believe that you can get every call right by expanding replay, you must, concomitantly, accept the fact that you will significantly lengthen the game.”
SUGGESTION: Speed up penalty announcements
“Some referees move the game very efficiently. They speed up crew conferences and make their announcements quickly, others dawdle. Everyone must hustle. We also do not need the Gettysburg Address in announcing penalties. As the saying goes ‘just the facts.’ ‘76 Denver holding.’ Here is where technology can help. The referee would not even have to stop the game to make the announcement if he simply spoke into his mike while spotting the ball and his words were displayed on the ribbon and scoreboards. … He could give his explanation of the ruling while moving back to his position.”
SUGGESTION: Speed up return to play after timeout
“Players and coaches must also give a little in order to save time. We should expand the rule used in college basketball. With a minute to go in any timeout both teams must be on the field, lined up, and ready to go. Once they are given the one-minute warning, no substitutions on either side are allowed. The penalty in this situation for illegal substitution would be 10 yards. With 30 seconds to go in the timeout, both teams must be over the ball ready to snap it.”
CBS Sports Network studio analyst and former CEO, Oakland Raiders
■ SUGGESTION: Allow more celebrations
|Should NFL players have a say in the types of celebrations that are allowed?
Roger Federer is ready to receive serve. The camera zooms in on the suave, elegant Swiss, a global superstar. A back wall behind has a sponsor logo, just the kind of juxtaposition a company covets … except there is a person, hunched over, standing in front of the brand sign, seemingly right over the 18-time Grand Slam winner’s shoulder.
|Technology could make line judges obsolete.
Brad Gilbert, a former top player and well-known ESPN commentator, has called for just that. But he admits, like the umpire in baseball, lines officials are part of the cultural DNA of pro tennis and it will be tough to end.
He also says cost is an issue, because all but one of over 100 pro tennis events is yet to have instant replay on every court. The technology can cost upward of $80,000 per court for several weeks, while lines people might make a few hundred dollars per day.
But that begs the question: Why have the officials on those courts that do have replay — and many tournaments are expanding the use of the technology. And clay court events don’t have replay because the ball leaves a mark, so if replay is unnecessary why are lines people necessary?
Tennis is unlikely to change its approach because lines people are so deeply rooted in the pro game. Ironically, most of the players come up through the ranks of junior tennis calling their own lines without any referees or umpires. It is only when they get to the pros, where there often is instant replay, do they get lines officials.
Senior vice president, insights and strategies, Octagon
SUGGESTION: Use technology to resolve replays
“Replay in the NFL and MLB takes a long time, and is entirely subjective. Tennis gets it absolutely right. They use instant and transparent technology that is triggered on the field of play. What if the NFL and MLB limited replays to only those resolved by technology?”
|A change in the strike zone has been suggested to create more action in the game.
A new rule in which a batter being intentionally walked is immediately given first base without the need to throw four deliberately outside pitches was approved for the 2017 season following a recent agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association.
ADJUSTED STRIKE ZONE
A proposal to raise the bottom end of the strike zone for batters from the “hollow beneath the kneecap,” where it’s been since 1996, to the top of a batter’s knee is under discussion and review between the league and union. The idea has been kicked around for more than a year, though without any firm resolution.
The idea is to put more balls in play and in turn create more action during games. Nearly 30 percent of all hitters now either strike out or walk, the highest such rate in league history. And in a rough sense, many around the sport want to force fielders to do more to create outs. But there is a chance such a move could backfire and create unintended consequences. Shrinking the strike zone would be generally beneficial to hitters and bad news for pitchers. More hits and runs also theoretically extends game times instead of reducing them.
“We’re not suggesting that we change the strike zone to shorten games. We’re suggesting that we change the strike zone to get more action in the game,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this year. “The theory is that the pitch below the knee is being called a strike more frequently, that that particular pitch is hard to hit, and that forcing pitchers up in the zone would produce more action.”
A 20-second time limit on pitchers beginning their windup or coming to a set position after receiving the ball from the catcher was first tested in the Arizona Fall League in 2014. The Class AA and AAA ranks of the affiliated minors followed suit in 2015, and a pitch clock is now entering its third season of use there. Manfred openly supports a similar implementation at the major league level, but an agreement with the union has not been reached.
The idea behind the change is to create a steadier flow to games from pitch to pitch. Part of the complication around the pitch clock discussion is the existence of MLB rule 8.04, which already requires a pitcher to deliver the ball within 12 seconds if no one is on base. Enforcement of that rule, however, has been inconsistent. And even with the presence of the pitch clock in Minor League Baseball, some within baseball, including many big league players, remain resistant to creating a timed element at the majors to what historically has been an untimed sport.
Like several other elements, a limit on the number of mound visits by catchers, coaches and managers not involving a pitching change has been a proposal by MLB but has not generated an agreement with the players union. It remains under study and discussion.
Similar to the no-pitch intentional walk and pitch clock, the core idea with limited mound visits is to create a steadier flow of game action and less dead time. A lengthy mound visit was the source of the famous “candlesticks always make a nice gift” scene in “Bull Durham.” But in real life, mound visits have been targeted by the league as a particularly notorious culprit of lagging game pace.
The 72-hole stroke-play tournament is the staple format in golf, but things could be made far more interesting and attractive to viewers if some dramatic format changes were included in events throughout the season. This could include adopting six-hole competitions instead of the typical 72-hole format. Sound farfetched? Not really, considering the European Tour in May is testing its GolfSixes format involving two-man teams that play in six-hole knockout stages in an alternate shot format.
The PGA Tour this year has adopted a two-man team format for the Zurich Classic tournament stop in late April, but count on tour executives to pay close attention to the European Tour’s execution and fan response of its GolfSixes event.
U.S. chief operating officer, Lagardère Sports
■ SUGGESTION: Integrating food, music events with sports competitions “From an event standpoint, creating a richer environment for fans that goes beyond just the competition is key to the live experience. Bringing together sports, music and culinary elements can reach a broader audience, draw more people to an event, and create deeper and more lasting experiences. Our work managing the Safeway Open PGA Tour event last October was a great example of that belief, invigorating the on-site experience with a one-of-a-kind showcase of the very best local wine and food the Napa region has to offer, combined with a live concert each night of the tournament, gave fans more reasons to attend and provided a more dynamic entertainment experience.”
Executive vice president and managing executive of golf, Wasserman
■ SUGGESTION: Use team format in golf “Implement format changes to vary the nature of the competition from week to week as research shows the audience enjoys watching ‘team format’ golf competitions. [An example is] a format change to the Zurich Classic of New Orleans on the PGA Tour, which in 2017 will be the first PGA Tour official event to feature two-man teams rather than individuals, with both team members receiving official FedEx Cup points and prize money.”
|NBA timeouts could see changes after testing conducted in the D-League this past season.
The NBA’s D-League serves as a petri dish in addressing ways to speed up the flow of the game, especially during the last few minutes where timeouts bog down the action. For example, the D-League this year tested a new rule that uses “reset” timeouts in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. This experimental change does not allow teams to huddle during the timeout, and if a team does huddle or stops the ball from immediately being put back into play, they are charged a delay of game warning followed by a technical foul. The league also tested a new rule that reset the 24-second clock to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound. This falls into the category of getting to game action faster.
The NBA, through the D-League, also tested a measure that limits the length of instant replay to 75 seconds, except for fights or other altercations.
The D-League this year also tested a new policy that allows a coach’s challenge over personal fouls or any other play that triggers a replay except for flopping. Each team gets one challenge in the fourth quarter or in overtime. It empowers the coach to get calls right, but it does insert a stoppage point in the game.
The impact of these experimental rules changes will be evaluated by the league’s NBA’s competition committee after the season.
|Changes to offside penalties have been floated.
The NHL is continuing to investigate player tracking as it plans its long-term strategy for the technology and its implementation.
The technology, which used RFID tags in the backs of jerseys and in the puck, collected real-time data such as player’s location, ice time, speed and distance skated, as well as the speed and direction of the puck.
Part of the league’s evaluation continues to lie with the technology and its implementation. The speed of the game and unpredictability of the puck’s movements slowed the league’s efforts in the past, but recent improvements in RFID and optical tracking, as well as with machine learning and artificial intelligence, have moved the tracking technology forward.
The NHL strongly believes in furthering its digital footprint, and player and puck tracking would play a large role. Plans would likely include live graphics in broadcasts with overlaid statistics and metrics, the enhancement of the league’s existing digital products and potentially a second-screen experience both in-home and at the venue, as well as syndication of the data collected for fans for their own use. It would also greatly change the league’s internal statistical record keeping, and serve as another tool in player evaluation and coaching.
Review of offside calls
While the speed displayed during NHL games today is likely the fastest the league has ever seen, recent rule additions such as coaches’ challenges and video review of offside calls have come under fire for slowing the game. As MLB recently instituted timing guidelines for umpires regarding video review, the NHL could do the same to help curb a process that has often kept games at a standstill for multiple minutes.
At the league’s most recent general manager meeting in March, the topic was heavily discussed among the group, as well as how offside should be judged. Goals have been reviewed and overturned this season because of the current rule, which states that if a player’s skate is above the blue line, but not touching it, before the puck crosses the blue line, he is considered offside. While no immediate recommendation came out of that meeting, it is expected that discussions will continue through the league’s busy summer schedule, which includes a board of governors meeting.
Also as part of that GM meeting, there was a discussion of more hypothetical ideas that could improve the game.
■ Not allowing players to go down on the ice to block shots.
■ Moving faceoff circles in the offensive and defensive zones to better encourage play in the middle of the ice instead of along the boards.
■ Ways to lower the amount of congestion around the net.
At Tennis Channel, which hired former Fox Sports Vice Chairman Ed Goren as a production consultant, that means focusing on the personalities of some of the sport’s younger stars.
“Everybody wants to attract younger fans of any sport,” Goren said. “One of the things that I suggested was something called Gen Next — do pieces with 10 up-and-coming, young tour players. Give them the same list of questions. What’s your favorite rock group? What’s your favorite music? Favorite movie? Books, whatever.”
Goren said these types of production features help draw viewers closer to athletes and have proved to be effective in growing a younger audience. “There’s a tendency when you do that, there are people in the audience who are going to say, ‘Hey. He likes the same television show that I like,’” Goren said. “In a small way, there’s a connection.”
Keep younger viewers longer
Turner Sports’ NBA telecasts aren’t any shorter — they still last anywhere from two to 2 1/2 hours. But Turner executives believe that younger viewers will stick around if it uses younger on-air talent and cuts to fewer commercial breaks.
|Guest Rasheed Wallace and host Kevin Garnett share a light moment at “Area 21.”.
Daniels described the night as a “work in progress,” saying he’s been encouraged by the feedback he’s seen on social media. “We don’t care about ratings or demos on this yet,” Daniels said. “We’re in year one of this thing. We want to give it time to develop. We think this is a cool way to watch the game.”
This seismic shift in the competitive landscape has been coming, but was realized broadly for the first time in 2016 in declining television ratings across nearly every sport. Unfortunately, the biggest declines are among males between the ages of 12 and 34. Among men 35 and older, sports interest still grows, holding off the impact to the bottom line for most sports. Competition for time is the challenge. The problem is that the younger fans we have lost will not bring in the next generation that follows them.
How is the industry responding? By the end of 2016, we knew there was a problem. But there are three more stages to a solution — understanding the problem, short-term fixes, and long-term solutions.
Understanding the problem
Most quick fixes assume if we modify the product, the problem will go away. That is not going to work here. Twenty-three years of ESPN Sports Poll data show declines are affecting the broadest level of general sports interest, as well as sport by sport. This is an industry problem, not a sport-specific problem, and not a product problem. Competition only explains what is happening to sports. It does not explain how competition changes American free-time behavior in a way we can address.
Where does sports rank?
Watching sports as planned social viewing is declining fastest among those who have the highest sports priority.
Percent of U.S. population 12 and older who most often watch sports as a planned activity with others
|High sports priority||70.6%||68.6%||67.1%||63.7%||62.2%|
|Avid sports fans||69.0%||65.1%||64.7%||61.1%||61.4%|
|All sports fans||56.7%||55.3%||56.0%||55.2%||54.1%|
Source: Luker on Trends - ESPN Sports Poll: 31,995, 2011-2016
Percent of U.S. population 12 and older saying this ranks between 8 and 10 (on a scale of zero to 10) of free-time priorities
|Time with family||70.0%|
|Time with friends||42.7%|
|Time to myself||37.5%|
|Playing sports / exercise||32.6%|
|Out on the town||26.0%|
|Sports fan activity||14.6%|
Source: Luker on Trends - ESPN Sports Poll: 2,993 U.S. respondents age 12 and older, 2014-2016
For the first time, Americans have far more compelling options for free-time activity than they have time to do them. This has forced people to, essentially, create consideration sets. They now prioritize, choosing from among their most compelling options. And, for the most part, the prioritization process is unconscious.
The problem is competition, and the response is efforts to increase the conscious priority of your sport. For the most part, tinkering with the sport or product is only responding to the source of the competition — online activity — rather than building strategies to increase the priority of sports.
While we see some investment in responding to the bigger issues, most sports and sports companies are more focused today on short-term fixes.
Changes like trying to speed up the game, modernize it, make it younger, and incorporate more fun things to do can buy time while sports study, design and invest in strategies to increase dedicated, high-priority fans for the future. I think short-term fixes send the right messages that we see there is a problem and we are responding, but the impact is short-lived and won’t bring a fan back.
More important, it isn’t going to bring a fan in the first place, if they aren’t fans today. That is why long-term solutions are essential to the future of sports.
Think about the things that get a higher priority for you in your free time. Time with family and friends likely comes first. Then stuff you have to get done, or the things you are committed to doing. Playing a round of golf, for an example, is a much lower priority than playing golf in your Thursday league. For more than two decades, sports fan activity and watching television have been the lowest free-time activities because they are always there and just for fun (see Free-Time Priorities chart). Time online is eighth overall in high priority in the U.S. But for 12- to 17-year-olds, it is second only to time with family.
Anything with a priority will replace watching TV or sports fan activity. And when a free-time activity introduces “a reason” for doing it, it moves up in priority. I see more sports seriously considering what it takes to increase priority and commitment, but few, if any, yet committed to long-term invested programs to reward that priority and commitment.
How can we expect a fan to increase his commitment and priority to a sport unless that fan can see how the sport has increased its commitment to that fan? And what would it look like to a fan if a sport did that?
Here are some examples of those priority building blocks:
■ Time with family and friends: These are the highest free-time priorities. Make your strategies around how your sport enhances the opportunities and quality of experience with family and friends. Make the fan experience about a better way to be with family and friends, not just about the sport.
■ Planned social viewing: Fifty-six percent of fans with a favorite team live outside of that team’s market, which makes watching games on media the closest regular experience they can get. And the younger you are, the more likely you don’t live near your favorite team. When you plan to watch a sporting event with others, you have done the exact same work as if you planned a party or to go to a show with friends. Fifty-four percent of all sports fans most often watch sports as a planned social activity (see Appointment Viewing chart). The higher the sports priority, the greater the planned sports viewing.
■ Support instigators: Ninety-five percent of people attend games with others, and more than half watch sports on TV as a planned social experience. Someone has to make that happen. Five percent of the U.S. population routinely takes responsibility for planning. Do you know your 5 percent? And 25 percent of that 5 percent are the 35- to 54-year-olds we often ignore. Identify and support them, they are worth three times as much as other fans.
■ Start a conversation: You probably have email addresses for about 10 percent of the fans who say your sport is their favorite sport and their favorite team is from your sport. They are committed to you. Further, you probably have that email address because of a sale and for the purposes of selling more. Think of what would happen if you used your contacts to create a real relationship and increase priority and commitment without trying to sell. They would buy more because they see your commitment to them.
The future solution cannot be about growing the size of our fan bases. That is not realistic. It can and should be about growing the number of relationships a sport has with people who prioritize and commit to the sport — and who feel the sport is as committed to them.
Rich Luker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of Luker on Trends and the ESPN Sports Poll.
HOW FANS TYPICALLY WATCH
Other than football fans, fewer than half the fans who said they watched at least one sports event in the past year actually watched the entire game, according to data provided to SportsBusiness Journal by Nielsen. Nielsen Sports 360 last year conducted a behavioral study of more than 3,000 sports fans age 13 and older. Nielsen conducted an additional oversample survey exclusively among teens (sample size equals 324) and millennials (1,054).
IN THE BACKGROUND
Teenagers and millennials are more likely to be watching the sport in the background while doing something else, such as doing chores, talking with family and friends, or browsing online.
CEO, Bespoke Sports & Entertainment
“Through the at-home game viewing experience, we’ve grown accustomed to knowing what’s going on at all times, which is tough to replicate when you’re at an event. You have to monitor your Twitter feed to learn about injuries, watch the scoreboard to find out how many yards someone gained, or open an app to find out who’s in foul trouble. It’s made the live game experience stale for a generation that is used to on-demand information. Yes, there are radio feeds but the audio often doesn’t match up with game action and, when it does, radio can be overly communicative due to its nature. I don’t want to be told which team is going right to left, especially when I’m on the opposite side of the press box.
“Teams and events need custom audio streams that create a new listening experience modeled after the ESPN Megacasts. There need to be feeds fed with detailed breakdowns from coaches, homer analysis, live locker room look-ins, etc. And the on-field audio needs to be augmented with more, higher quality on-field mikes to take the sounds of the action past the first few rows and up to the cheap seats.”
MOBILE BEHAVIOR AT LIVE EVENTS
Millennials use several social networks regularly, with Facebook commanding the lead in both audience size and engagement. After Facebook, Snapchat has the highest engagement per visitor among millennials, just slightly ahead of Instagram, which is second in terms of penetration. Millennials overall have a more diverse diet of social media platforms they engage with on a regular basis.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
Executive vice president, Nielsen Sports North America
Creative director, Octagon
“Let’s work with official apparel brands, sponsors, unions and other key stakeholders to give players the freedom to modify and customize their gear if they have a particular message, style or cause they want to wear on their sleeve or sock or cleat.”
Owner, Tampa Bay Rays
“I’m a traditional guy, but when I think of traditional I think sort of old-time baseball and what made the game great which is fly balls coming down in the gaps, ground balls being picked up like Ozzie Smith. Plays … not just walks and strikeouts.”
|As NFL replay review is centralized, sideline monitors will be replaced with tablets next season.
■ April 2015: MLB unveils Statcast, a series of high-resolution optical cameras with radar equipment that collects data and tracks the location and movements of the ball and players on the field, for use in all MLB Network Showcase games. Statcast made its debut during the 2014 All-Star Game in Minneapolis and in the postseason.
■ January 2015: ESPN uses camera-carrying drones for coverage of the Winter X Games in Aspen. That summer, Fox used drones during its coverage of the U.S. Golf Association’s U.S. Open, and Turner employed the technology during the PGA Championship.
Turnkey Sports Poll
The following are results of the Turnkey Sports Poll taken in March. The survey covered more than 2,000 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.
The Knicks recently played the first half of their game without any music or game presentation enhancements (videos, on-court promos, etc.). As a fan, does such an NBA game experience appeal to you?
|Not sure / No response||3%|
When attending a sporting event, would you prefer …
|Fewer but longer breaks in play||68%|
|More but shorter breaks in play||19%|
|Not sure / No response||13%|
Which leagues, if any, have a “pace of play“ problem? (Select all that apply)
|None of these||5%|
|Not sure / No response||1%|
Across sports, which of the following elements has the most negative impact on the fan experience?
Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. Turnkey Intelligence specializes in research, measurement and lead generation for brands and properties. Visit www.turnkeyse.com.
■ March 2015: Minor League Baseball announces new rules and procedures at the Class AAA and AA levels that limit inning breaks to two minutes, 25 seconds, and allow pitchers 20 seconds to begin their windup or the motion to come to the set position. For the 2016 season, mound visits by the manager or a coach are limited to 30 seconds, and beginning in 2017, pitchers have 30 seconds to throw the first pitch of an at-bat after the first batter of an inning break or pitching change.
■ June 2015: NCAA women’s basketball games move from 20-minute halves to four 10-minute quarters beginning with the 2015-16 season to enhance the flow of the game. Also, a new media timeout format for televised women’s basketball games is passed.
■ June 2015: For NCAA men’s basketball games, beginning with the 2015-16 season, several new rules are put into place including: reducing the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds; allowing teams to have one fewer timeout in the second half; adjusting media timeout procedures; and reducing the amount of time allotted to replace a disqualified player from 20 to 15 seconds.
■ June 2015: NHL approves a new overtime format to 3-on-3 for five minutes.
■ April 2016: The NFL and Twitter announce the first livestreaming deal between a major U.S. professional league and social media platform, in which Twitter will distribute a live OTT digital stream of the league’s “Thursday Night Football” package during the 2016 regular season.
■ January 2017: NASCAR implements a new format with races now consisting of three stages that provide two predetermined breaks in each championship points event with championship implications in each stage. Top-10 finishers in each stage are awarded additional championship points, while the winner of the first two stages of each race will receive a playoff point and the race winner will receive five playoff points. Each playoff point will be added to a driver’s reset total following the 26th race, if that competitor makes the playoffs.
■ January 2017: To increase the pace of play during softball games, the NCAA approves restricting the number of charged conferences to six per team, not allowing defensive teams to huddle at the pitcher’s mound after an out, and giving teams 90 seconds between innings before they are required to be ready to resume play.
■ March 2017: MLB adopts rules that permit the umpire to immediately award first base to the batter for a no-pitch intentional walk, and managers will have a 30-second limit to decide to challenge a play.
■ March 2017: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in a letter to fans says the league will work to cut down on the frequency of commercial breaks. Also, sideline replay monitors will be replaced with hand-held devices and authorizes members of the officiating department to make final decisions on replay reviews.
■ April 2017: As part of a one-year deal, Amazon will replace Twitter in livestreaming the NFL’s 10 Thursday Night Football games carried by CBS and NBC.