Baseball: Exactly How Boring Is It?

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Non-sports fans are always mystified at how those of us who avidly follow our favorite teams can sit through what seems like little more than a lot of standing around. Well, nagging spouses or roommates have some new information to back up their efforts to gain control of the remote.

A study by the Wall Street Journal last week broke down two Major League Baseball broadcasts (one on Fox, one on ESPN) and found that only 10.9% of the event (about 14 minutes) was filled with action, which the Journal measured as the time the ball was in play.

The newspaper measured from the beginning of a pitcher’s windup to the relevant umpire making a call on the play, including side plays like pick-off attempts. The rest of the game time was taken up with promos, on-screen graphics, close-ups of fans and coaches, and general milling about. For a full 88 minutes, or 68.6% of the time, players on the screen were literally just standing around.

Professional football is even worse for those who crave constant action. A similar Journal report earlier this year analyzed four broadcasts on different networks and found that during the typical pro football game, there are only about 11 minutes during which the ball is actually in play. Players standing around made up an average of 67 minutes of non-commercial screen time.

Generally, it’s up to the networks to select what’s on screen during breaks in the play. All of them will show every pitch, or every snap, but beyond that each sport differs materially in what the networks decide to put on screen. In baseball, they devote less screen time to showing coaches (3.5% of the time) and players in the dugout (2.7%) than in football, where sideling shots of players (3.4%) and coaches (4.9%) are frequent enough to regularly cause coaches to cover their mouths when issuing directions, to prevent lip-readers from tipping off the opposing team.

The sports also differ in their focus on replays, which account for 7.5% of an average baseball broadcast versus 14.5% in football. Excessive or not, football broadcasts prefer the slow-motion replay to the slow motions of players waiting for the next snap.

Viewers who are frustrated at their lack of control over what part of the game they are seeing at any one time have alternatives, though. Subscribers to the 2010 postseason package on MLB.com can select their own camera angles on the fly, choosing up to four to view at once from a total of eight options.

The elephant in the room is, of course, the time devoted to commercials that have nothing whatsoever to do with the game itself. The official game clock of an NFL matchup consists of four 15-minute quarters, or an hour of actual game time. The typical 174-minute broadcast includes about an hour of commercials, for which the NFL has strict regulations.

Broadcasters must take 10 commercial breaks per half of up to two minutes each, two of which occur at prescribed times. The other eight can be shown during regular stoppages of play (official timeouts, injury timeouts, etc.), but in the end it adds up to a lot of advertising. While baseball doesn't have a game clock to work around, a nine-inning game will have players switching sides 17 times, and every time a new pitcher comes out to warm up presents another chance to show sponsors’ messages.

Fans of all stripes are quick to point out that there's more to a game than what is actually happening when the ball is in play. Letting the clock run is a valid strategy in football, while the dramatic tension of a batter or pitcher trying to stall each other keep many on the edge of their seats.

For the doubters, the argument that baseball is just a bunch of standing around does have legs. But without a comparative study of how much “action” you get during a typical American Idol broadcast, it will be hard to convince the jersey-wearing couch potatoes to give up the remote.

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