Is the NBA Selling Out Game Time for Commercial Time?

Mar 7, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo (9) goes for a shot in the lane over Brooklyn Nets power forward Mason Plumlee (1) during the second half of Boston
Mar 7, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo (9) goes for a shot in the lane over Brooklyn Nets power forward Mason Plumlee (1) during the second half of Boston /

The NBA is experimenting with the idea of a 44-minute game, per Jeff Zilgitt of USA Today. The Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics will play the test game on Sunday, Oct. 19.  It’s part of this new and pressing notion that games are taking too long….or something like that.

You hear all kinds of excuses why the NBA game is “too long.” We’re taking too many free throws! Players are logging too many minutes! Fans don’t have the interest for a full 48-minute game! All of this is unsubstantiated hogwash, but why let reality get in the way of perfectly good rhetoric? Let’s address them in order.

Too Many Free Throws Slow Down the Game

The “too many free throws” argument is substantively wrong. In fact, the number for free throws per game has been in decline for the last 30 years.

The average number of free throws per game is down more than 20 percent since the “golden age” of basketball in 1984. No one was complaining about how there were too many free throws then. Nor was there a call to reduce the minutes of games.

Some will supplement this argument by saying it’s the last “two minutes” that slow down the game and that’s the real problem. Whether that’s true or not is moot: the last two minutes aren’t going to be but. If you reduce it down to a two-minute game, there will be a last two minutes.

Protecting the Health of the Players

People are logging too many minutes is the next complaint, but the reality is that minutes have been steadily reduced over the last eight years. Last season, Kevin Durant led the league in minutes played with 3,122 minutes—good for 373rd all-time.

In the history of the league there have been 304 players to average 40 minutes. The last one was Monta Ellis with the Golden State Warriors in 2010-11. Only three players have topped the mark since 2007-08. Compare that to 2006-07 when six players did it that season alone.

It’s not like players are playing more now than they have historically. In fact, they’re already playing significantly fewer minutes. The NBA doesn’t need to solve a “problem” that’s already been solved.

I’d elaborate more by stating that there have been studies which have shown conclusively there is not correlation between injuries and playing time, so the theory reducing times in and of itself reduces injuries is flawed, but that’s not needed. Playing time is down.

The Game Is too Long 

People argue that fans don’t have the interest to watch a full 48 minute game. According to Zillgitt, the average NBA game takes about two hours and 15 minutes. Compare that with the length of the other main professional leagues in American sports.

So the NBA is already taking the fewest minutes of any professional sport in the country, but our fans can’t be held to the TV that long? It takes an hour less than the NFL (with more actual action time) but it’s somehow harder to hold interest?

Unless NBA fans have a much higher rate of ADD that’s just unsubstantiated rhetoric. Again, this argument is just fundamentally wrong.

So What’s the Real Reason?

Why the sudden need to shorten games? It’s not the time games take. It’s not the minutes the players are burdened with. It’s not the free throws at the end of the games slowing it down. All those things are provably wrong assumptions.

So what’s the real reason? I have a theory. Networks slot a 2.5-hour block of time for every NBA game. If they shorten the games, that time slot will remain 2.5 hours.

In the experimental game, they’re reducing the timeouts as well, meaning that game could come under two hours. But let’s not fool ourselves into believing that would be the permanent change.

With the new $2.5 billion TV deal, I’m highly skeptical the networks agree to fewer blocks of commercials. I don’t think they’re plying more money for the rights to less ad revenue.

Networks tend to program in 30-minute blocks, they’re either going to have a two-hour block or a 2.5-hour block devoted to the game. Which do you think they prefer?

And how do you believe the networks fill that extra time? As the saying goes, “Follow the money.”

Consider your programming. What’s not basketball is some introduction and follow up, a little half-time reporting and mostly commercials. Which of those do you think the networks are going to add more of?

As NFL games are growing in length, the fluff is coming from extra commercials. Dana Jennings of the New York Times did a little experiment:

"So, I decided to confront this disturbing disconnect when it came to me, football and N.F.L. ads. On a recent Sunday afternoon, I parked myself in the den — “couchgating,” as KFC would have it — and scrutinized the commercials as fiercely as Peyton Manning calls his masterly audibles. Risking potential catatonia, I knowingly let myself get sacked by this media blitz, hour upon hour, even saving my kitchen timeouts for when the game was in progress."

"The first thing that shocked me was the sheer volume of ads. There were well over 100 of them spliced into each game. Think of it as more than 100 shots to the head, and you wonder whether neuroscientists shouldn’t be investigating A.C.S.: Ad Concussion Syndrome."

This isn’t rocket science. It’s just math. And once you do the math you realize that the sudden rush to shorten games has nothing to do with player health or fan interest. Get ready for 100 commercials. Literally.

Do you watch games and scream for less basketball and more commercials? I know I don’t

May 31, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) drives to the basket against San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) during the first quarter in game six of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports /

Do you want to see the stars have their minutes cut below 30 minutes? That doesn’t make the game more watchable. This isn’t about the players or the fans. Let’s not kid ourselves.

No, this is about the money. Always, always, ALWAYS, follow the money.

And there are reasons to not do this.

Cutting games would carve out any compatibility with history. As time is reduced so are player’s minutes. And as minutes go down, so would the numbers. Say goodbye to anyone ever averaging 30 points for a season again. Say goodbye to anyone ever hitting 20/10.

Even triple-doubles would become a rarity.

The all-time record for points and assists would be completely out of reach. Because of previous rule changes, the rebound record already is.

I’m a bit of a numbers geek. I like being able to have some uniformity to compare the players of the present with those of yesteryear.

Grantland’s Zach Lowe makes an argument for a 40-minute game and addresses the historical argument:

"Per-game stats factor into the day-to-day conversation about the league in a deeper way; we still talk about “20-10 guys,” and the scoring title always gets some late-season press."

"But the league again and again has adopted rules that changed the per-game statistical landscape, and fans and media have adapted just fine in rejiggering our scales. The 3-point shot is probably the single most important innovation since the shot clock, and the league’s move to legalize zone-style defenses has rendered the 20-plus-point scorer almost extinct."

Almost, but not quite as almost as it seemed at the time. Lowe’s article, written last year, is dated now. Last season, 18 players topped the 20-point barrier. So that was an anomaly, not a trend.

And yes, there are some things that have needed to be adjusted for, such as widening the lanes or the three-point shot, or even the rule changes around the late 90s to early aughts.

Those have required fans to adjust, but not a wholescale change. Lowe understates the historical value of numbers as an estimate of greatness. In fact, Basketball-Reference bases its Hall of Fame predictions exclusively off of numbers—numbers which would be impacted by a 40- or 44-minute game.

Furthermore, the career achievements are still celebrated. Numbers like 20,000 or 30,000 points are what make you legends or super-legends. Places on the all-time ranking make for an argument of where players stand historically. Kobe Bryant is still chasing Michael Jordan on the all-time list for a reason: He wants that place in history.

Point being, yes the understanding of numbers have shifted here and there, but these are small shifts, not seismic ones like when the lanes changed. Wilt Chamberlains 50-point season will never be repeated because the rules are that different. Point blank.

But since then there’s been a fair degree of comparability between one generation and the next.

I’m not unreasonable. If there were good reason to sacrifice that piece of nerddom, I would be all for shortening games. If it mean preserving players or careers, I’d be behind it. If it were something fans were demanding, sure. But this isn’t fan’s complaining and it’s not for the players health. There’s no evidence it is.

I see no good reason to reduce the game. All I see are red herrings to veil what seems to be the real, but far less marketable, reason. Frankly, I don’t want to exchange less basketball for more commercials.