A couple of weeks ago I fell asleep during the third quarter of the Monday night NFL game (who doesn't?), and when I awoke, the game was still on and my oldest son was leaving for college. This was a little strange, as he was only 10 years old at kickoff. "Long game, Dad," he said. "Hey, I'll write if I need money. Ciao."
Is there anyone left in America, besides Al, Giff and Dan, who stays awake throughout the Monday night game? Nicholas Nickleby was a news flash compared with this show. And it isn't just an NFL problem. Nowadays almost everything in the world of sports takes up too much time.
NBA coaches talk about the lull that invariably occurs somewhere in the third or fourth quarter, earlier in any game involving the Clippers or Warriors. "We played O.K. except for the lull," they say. Well, who wants a lull, whether it occurs during a game, a movie or a conversation?
It's not just the major sports, either. Consider chess—if you've got a lot of free time on your hands. Tolstoy cranked out War and Peace and Anna Karenina in less time than it takes Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov to move a couple of rooks.
December 14, 1987
All sorts of things are responsible for this time warp, things that weren't around when the rules of game-duration were carved in stone (Thou Shalt Have Nine-Inning Baseball), about the time Phil Niekro was born. For one thing, pitchers, golfers, quarterbacks and tennis players all take more time to perform their chores now than they used to. They seem to get injured more often. Coaches hold more strategy sessions. Officials confer more often. There are TV timeouts, the steady march of relief pitchers, two-minute drills with the dreaded three timeouts per half per team. Sixty minutes of pro football is fine in theory, but the 200 minutes of running time required to play a typical game is ridiculous.
Some games can sustain drama for that much time, but most can't. On the last weekend of this NFL season, for example, the Lions meet the Falcons. Assuming the league won't cancel the game altogether—and by all means, Pete, consider it—should it last longer than three hours?
Here are some guidelines for regulating the length of sporting events that have gotten out of hand. You can read them in the time it takes the typical NFL team to run three plays:
Football: Games, pro or college, should last 2½ hours and no more. Individual conferences could divide the time in whatever fashion they choose. The Big Eight may decide on four six-minute quarters and a 90-minute halftime show. Or, in the case of Kansas versus Kansas State, it may consider just a very long half-time show and no game at all.
Basketball: Eight-minute quarters for all NBA games during the regular season (playoff games are fine as is). Any game in which one team falls so far behind that it starts dribbling away from the basket in order to take those futile three-point shots would be called immediately. College games would carry a running-time limit of 90 minutes. And coaches who are behind by 10 or more points with one minute left would be prohibited from calling timeout.
Baseball: Seven innings for the majors during the regular season. Six innings for colleges. Four for Little League—by that time the team from the Far East will have scored 15 runs, anyway.
Boxing: Most of those ballyhooed 15-round title fights turn into 45 minutes of ballroom dancing. Twelve rounds are too many, too. If three rounds are good enough for the Olympics, surely no pro fight has to last longer than six. Think how much brain matter it would save.
Hockey: Whoever heard of dividing a game into three periods? Let's make it two. Think how much brain matter it would save.
Tennis: There's no problem with women's matches, most of which last about 10 minutes. But two changes are in order for the men. First, Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander should not be allowed to play each other on any surface except ice. Their epic sleepwalk in this year's French Open took almost as long as two Monday night football games. Second, Lendl should not be allowed to study the strings on his racket between points. Unless he tells us what he's looking for.
Golf: At the Masters in April, Greg Norman said that the tournament didn't really start until the last nine holes on Sunday—the first 63 were just to jockey for position. Fine, let's just play the last nine—lord knows TV can still get a full three-hour broadcast out of that—and open up the course to the members for the other three days.
Some sports are doing an excellent job of moving things along. The pro bowlers squeeze four matches, a few words of advice on adjusting to heavy oil on the lanes and a trophy presentation into one 90-minute show. Volleyball is just about perfect, too.
Best of all is the 100-meter dash. Less than 10 seconds. No lull.