Sports Rule Changes Won't Win Over Young Audiences Because They're Already Too Far Gone
Why this matters
Across the sports landscape, leaders are experimenting with rule changes to shorten games and create more excitement. These changes target young people who data show have tuned out from traditional sports fandom, but it may be too late to get them back.
How long should a game last?
Some sports have done a better job settling on an answer than others. At the highest level, a soccer match runs 90 minutes, plus a short halftime and a few minutes of stoppage time, amounting to two hours, give or take. That length is so set in stone that it caused a mini-uproar when FIFA added four or five minutes more than normal stoppage time to many games at the 2022 World Cup. A professional American football game takes about three and a quarter hours, a professional hockey or basketball game about two and a half.
Other sports have been chasing an answer for years. Professional golf can be excruciatingly slow, even though the best players in the world don’t hit mulligans or need much time to look for lost balls in the woods. Tiger Woods’ group at the Open Championship played a six-hour, nine-minute round in 2022. Major League Baseball games gradually moved from a shade over two hours, on average, in the 1930s to more than three hours in each of the past 11 seasons, according to Baseball Reference data. College football games have inched up to about 3 hours and 22 minutes over several years.
Some of the leagues that haven’t quite figured it out are moving to do so now. Golf isn’t, maybe because players run the PGA Tour and there’s no one to tell them what to do. But baseball is embarking on a most drastic rulebook overhaul this season with a set of reforms that include a countdown on each pitch to keep things moving. College football’s rules committee is tossing around a few game-shortening concepts, too. The biggest is a change to keep the clock running after first downs, as is the policy in the National Football League, rather than stopping it until an official sets the ball ready for play.
Among the sports most aggressively working to cut down game length, the purported reasoning varies between recapturing fans' interest and maximizing athlete performance. Baseball, the sport making the most aggressive push, frames it as a matter of fan engagement. Not much rigorous polling exists about how baseball fans feel about game lengths, but common sense, anecdotes, and what surveying does exist all point in the same direction: Games have become too long. While it might sound like a new-school complaint, powerful people in baseball have been raising issues about game length for at least 99 years. In November 1924, one executive of the old American Association told reporters: “Umpires do the best at all times to hurry games, but additional incentives are needed to impress upon the players the fact that the public prefers shorter ball games.” He floated an idea to offer prizes for the host teams that had the shortest games. College football leaders see reform as a matter of limiting the number of plays through keeping the clock moving so that there are fewer snaps across 60 minutes.
Lately, though, I’ve wondered if the intense focus on game length will prove to be a footnote among the problems confronting baseball, college football, and other sports – whether football reckoning with its safety, college sports trying to avoid a regulatory apocalypse, golf trying to avoid a permanent rupture at its highest levels, hockey haltingly moving toward a more inclusive future, or anything else. Virtually every sport has challenges that shorter games, or even more on-field action, cannot cure.
That doesn’t mean addressing one key issue is tantamount to shuffling deck chairs on a sinking ship. It also doesn’t mean that governing bodies aren’t busy working on larger issues while they take on the comparatively narrow issue of how long a game takes. But all of the focus on game length might obscure something serious about the future of sports in America: Keeping games tight won’t stop future generations from caring less about them.
Kids These Days
Hand-wringing about the future of sports feels alarmist, both because of the comically wide range of things that fall within “sports” and because big leagues are doing great. The National Football League is the sun, the moon, and the stars of American television, accounting for 82 of the 100 most-watched broadcasts in 2022. College sports are never more than a few minutes removed from some sort of existential crisis, but whether people will watch them on TV is not one of them. Lots of people wanted to watch March’s men’s basketball tournament despite the sport’s most marketable blue blood schools making almost no noise during the event. The women’s basketball tournament is growing by leaps and bounds. Millions of us have been hypnotized by a European auto racing series. Meanwhile, pro franchise values keep going up (and up and up), outpacing public markets. Sports are big business and will never not be big business, no matter what headwinds they face.
But it doesn’t take a deep look under the hood to see how we — a big, encompassing “we” of people who care about sports and want lots of people to enjoy them with us — will soon have a problem. Today’s school-age kids still like sports in big numbers, but those numbers are going down. Most of them stop playing sports by the time they’re 11, the Aspen Institute found in 2019, and the pandemic seems to have accelerated the trend of kids leaving sports across income and racial groups. Those numbers improved slightly in 2022, according to the institute’s surveying, but youth sports are still not roaring.
Not stunningly, young people in Generation Z — people born between the late 1990s and early 2010s — do not have much of a collective taste for watching live sports, either. A December 2022 Morning Consult survey is full of items that might scare a league commissioner or a sports TV executive. While 24% of U.S. adults don’t watch live sports, fully one-third of Gen Z’ers do not. Thirty-eight percent don’t have a favorite team (up from 25 percent among all adults), and 47% have never gone to a pro sporting event. A whopping 60% have never gone to a college game.
Game length is a significant factor in Gen Z’s sports apathy. Forty-five percent of respondents list “games are too long” as a major or minor reason for their lack of interest, making it the second biggest factor in the poll. But it’s not nearly as big an issue as the incredibly simple No. 1 factor: “I’m not interested in sports.”
That’s what 73 percent of respondents said. To this group of high schoolers and middle schoolers, the difference between a four-hour and two-hour sporting event is immaterial. If someone doesn’t like reality TV or rose ceremonies, cutting episodes of The Bachelorette from two hours to 30 minutes will not woo them. Sports leagues appear to face the same difficulty.
Big-time sports leagues have no choice but to think seriously about how long their games take, but it’s possible that their efforts won’t succeed in bringing more future fans into the fold. In fairness to an institution like Major League Baseball, it’s not as if league leadership thinks game length is the only reason that the sport has fallen in prominence. The league does plenty of work to increase youth participation. It stages the World Baseball Classic, an event that had a mainstream breakthrough this spring and should, in theory, make more people in more places like baseball.
Nobody thinks game length is the only thing that ails the sport. It just may be the only thing that baseball can solve with a few shrewd rules changes. A commissioner can save everyone 26 minutes a night with a pitch clock and a few smaller tweaks to the rulebook. If the same silver bullet existed to address general disinterest in any given sport, the people in charge would have used it by now.
A Noble Pursuit
Each new fan who tunes in because of the reduced time commitment matters, but the real work being done by keeping game lengths tidy will be in service of people who already like sports and just want to engage with them more deeply. A baseball game that’s 26 minutes shorter is a baseball game that a parent is more likely to watch with their baseball-loving kid on a school night. A 24-year-old living in a city is more likely to go to a 1:35 p.m. game on a Saturday if they don’t think their attendance will wipe out a happy hour with friends at 5:30.
These aren’t the terms on which people tend to discuss the length of games. In the popular imagination, shortening a game is either a brutal, unforgivable smack in the face to a sport’s valued traditions, or it’s a brilliant way to get new people involved with a game. Reality, as MLB embarks on its big change and other sports consider their own adjustments, will probably fall somewhere in the middle. MLB’s permanent establishment of a free base runner on second base in extra innings will cost the sport some old-timey charm by making 17-inning marathons much less likely. It won’t, on its own, create a new category of fan.
But it will make it likelier that existing fans stick around for a whole game and pay attention to it. A sport needs to grow, but it also needs to avoid bleeding away its established fanbase. Here, college football might find an additional benefit in its pursuit of a quicker game: student attendance. Many teams, even among the sport’s most powerful programs, struggle to get students into their seats and keep them there throughout a game. Alabama coach Nick Saban has chided students for leaving early, and Alabama has tried to punish those who do. Some schools have offered perks and coupons that are only redeemable after halftime. But college students have a lot to do, and games are long.
A Long, Futile Game That’s Still Worth Playing
There’s value in speed, even the sort that doesn’t transform a sport’s long-term fortunes. But no matter how much fat gets trimmed, sporting events will be exponentially longer than much of the media they’re competing with. The short-form entertainment competitor for live sports used to be 30-minute TV shows. Now it’s 15-second videos, or maybe a comparatively mammoth 10-minute narrative production. Maybe you, like me, have watched a middle-schooler and elementary-schooler turn off a live baseball game in favor of a YouTube video about the career arc of one of the players in that very game. Many of those kids’ peers wouldn’t think to turn on a ballgame in the first place. It’s not just a matter of social media and streaming services providing more competition for attention, though. If younger kids are less likely to have ever been to a game in the first place, perhaps the fight isn’t just about game length but about making ticket prices less prohibitively expensive for families.
Which isn’t to say MLB can’t walk and spit sunflower seeds at the same time, so to speak. By limiting the length of games and trying to liven them up, the league is giving itself a better chance to compete in an ocean of options. It’s fighting an uphill fight, though. For exaggeration’s sake, imagine that faster games and rules to encourage offense (like banning the infield shift) make baseball twice as exciting to the average person. The volume of competition for eyeballs has multiplied by a factor of hundreds or thousands in the same span. Competing with the exponentially growing volume of content at our fingertips may be an impossible task.
Sports, among a generation that will soon be adults with lots of spending power, have lost some market primacy to social media, gaming, and all kinds of entertainment that aren’t sports. They retain key advantages over every other form of entertainment, though. Sports fandom is more inheritable than love for a TV show that will probably get canceled before a parent passes it down to their kid. The games air live, and that makes them both a communal touchpoint and something that’s relatively immune to DVRs and skipping commercials. The final episode of Game of Thrones got 13.6 million live viewers, many of whom watched with friends or talked about it with them the next day. Dozens of sporting events get more in a given year. People watch them at the same time and often together.
Those advantages have not eroded, but they do raise a crucial question: If smart rules changes don’t make games more appealing to younger audiences, then what might? The best hope for leagues is that they don't have to find that answer, because the truth is that leagues might never again have the sway over young audiences that they once did.
Sport's Next Generation
Young people today have a very different relationship to sport than their parents or grandparents, both in the ways they compete as well as how they consume their favorite athletes, teams and leagues.
We explore key trends among young people and their relationship to sport in this digital issue.