Don't expect this 10 times a game.

Photographer: D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

NBA to Put Whole Games on the Fast Break

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Are you ready for less basketball?

The NBA is experimenting with shortening the game from 48 to 44 minutes in an effort to improve game flow. Each quarter would be 11 minutes, instead of 12, and the number of mandatory timeouts -- often called "TV timeouts," as the main purpose is to break to sponsor messages -- would be reduced to two in each quarter. (Currently, there are three mandatory timeouts in the second and fourth quarters, for a total of 10 in the game.)

The dry run will take place in this Sunday’s preseason matchup between the Brooklyn Nets and the Boston Celtics at the Barclays Center. In addition to game flow, the league will be looking at how the new timing impacts player substitutions. After Sunday, the NBA could do more trials in future preseason games or in the D-League.

It being October, Major League Baseball is having another moment of self-reflection, with critics pointing to pace of the game as a potential hurdle for attracting younger fans. The league will test a bevy of new rules during Arizona Fall League play. The National Football League, on the other hand, enjoys limitless popularity and growing television ratings despite the fact that, as Vox’s Joseph Stromberg notes, the vast majority of a football broadcast consists of players standing around between plays, commercials and replays. (According to Stromberg, just 8.3 percent of a three-hour NFL broadcast is game play.)

Problems with the NBA’s pacing are most often associated with the final minutes of play, stretched out more than in any other league thanks to a perfect storm of timeouts, substitutions, strategic fouling (aka “hacking”), and subsequent foul shots. Sports blogger Mike Beuoy undertook the arduous task of analyzing the time stamps for every play of every game in the 2013-14 season, and found that the last minute of the fourth quarter lasts, on average, five and a half minutes.

Those final ticks may seem to take forever, but in looking at bloated game times, the biggest culprits are actually the 10 mandatory timeouts. Each takes up more real time than any other minute of an NBA game other than the final one. According to NBA rules, a mandatory timeout lasts 100 seconds. But, according to Beuoy, nationally televised games tend to pack in more ads per break, which manifests in longer overall broadcast time. With the exception of NBA TV, national broadcasts take 15 minutes longer on average than local broadcasts, thanks to more commercials being aired.

This makes sense when you consider that much of the criticism against the NBA’s gameflow comes in the context of the playoffs -- both that the postseason itself is simply too long, but also that playoff games themselves are rather lengthy. In an impressive post for Deadspin, Beuoy also calculated that the average playoff game is roughly 18 minutes longer than the average regular-season contest.

By reducing the total number of mandatory timeouts to eight per game, the NBA could certainly move things along more quickly. But how would that go over with its national broadcast partners, ESPN and TNT, with whom the league just signed a nine-year, $24 billion contract extension starting with the 2016-17 season.  Even if they larded up each break with even more spots, it’s hard to imagine that they’d make up all the ad time lost, resulting in a somewhat shorter game overall.

Anyone who’s ever taken advantage of Hulu’s infrequently offered yet highly coveted option to watch all ads in one block before the show starts can tell you that viewers prefer longer commercial breaks to more interruptions in their programming. Advertisers might not be so happy with this option, as brand retention decreases toward the end of an ad break, but this could be mitigated by airing the same commercial several times over the course of a broadcast. (Plus, we’re not too far from seeing ads slapped on the front of jerseys.)

It will be interesting to see how the NBA’s experiment affects the game on the court, as far as substitutions, player stamina and the like. But to viewers at home, fewer commercial breaks can only be a good thing, and is an example of the kind of consumer-friendly, forward thinking for which the NBA is increasingly known. Now, MLB, it's your turn. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net