When I watch Michigan football games, here’s how I set it up: The game goes on my TV, I have my laptop open to watch another game and toggle through Twitter, then I have my phone to occupy the inevitable simultaneous commercial breaks with something else.
Saturday’s game was ridiculous. It started at 7:30 p.m. and ended at 10:54 p.m., and that was one of the shorter games of the season. Last week, against Michigan State, the game lasted three hours and 59 minutes, almost identical to the NCAA average, is averaging three hours and 24 minutes a game this season. Way back in the before times of 1996, college football games averaged just over three hours in length, almost exclusively because of the commercials.
Watching college football games is losing its excitement. In a game like Saturday’s, when neither team was especially electric and tensions were low, the continuous commercial breaks kill the flow of the game. And, as a viewer, those frequent breaks make it hard to stay engaged.
You can’t watch a football game for football’s sake because you aren’t actually watching football. You’re watching an ad for some auto insurance group that you’ve seen 27 times in the last month. You’re watching the announcers come back from commercial break for 30 seconds to talk about a sponsor that the TV network lined up, just so they can send you back to commercial break to watch an ad about a drug for a disease you don’t have. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a punt or kickoff between the breaks.
The college football viewing experience is no longer about Michigan versus Indiana, or watching Purdue upset Michigan State, but it’s about the commercials.
When Michigan isn’t playing, I generally don’t watch college football. When 3:00 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. rolls around, maybe I’ll turn on a couple games in order to watch the last eight or so minutes of close matchups. I want to see if North Carolina can upset Wake Forest, or if Alabama will actually lose to LSU, but the TV networks made it so only the last 15 minutes are interesting.
The football doesn’t matter.
The first three-plus hours of the game isn’t fun to watch, no matter how good the teams are because I can’t watch the game. Tennessee versus Kentucky was an electric, high-scoring game. I could only watch the end of it because every time there was a commercial in the Michigan game, there was a commercial in that game, too.
Commercials at the end of drives make sense — it’s a sensible ending point and people are expecting to take a break. There were 11 drives in the first half of the Wolverines’ game Saturday, and 27.5 minutes of commercials each half isn’t terrible. But when a drive lasts one play because of a turnover, and they go straight back to a commercial, it feels like I’m not even watching football.
Instead, the excess number of commercials comes from one main source: booth reviews. It’s one of the biggest reasons the Michigan versus Michigan State game was four long hours — a product of eight replay reviews. Some reviews take up commercial breaks and minutes of dead air time as announcers flounder to fill the void of silence that would otherwise accompany watching slow-motion for five minutes. There cannot be replays that take minutes away from the game, removing the viewer and sowing dissatisfaction in the audience.
Maybe put a time limit on replays or create a quicker process to go through replays. I don’t know, I’m not an expert, but this needs to be reigned back in. The NFL has an average game length 12 minutes shorter than college football with much less variable game lengths. So we know it isn’t about the sport itself.
Major League Baseball, which is notorious for its pace-of-play problems and has been experimenting for years on how to improve it, finishes its games 16 minutes faster than college football.
The audience for college football, unlike the MLB, will not shrink. Instead, its pace-of-play problem will simply prevent it from growing as average viewers will be turned off by the commercial-plus-football model of televised games.
Something needs to change. Maybe the replays, maybe a shortened halftime, I don’t know what.
But college football often just isn’t fun to watch anymore.