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The NBA’s experiment: offering fans a shorter game

Dan Weissmann Oct 15, 2014
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The National Basketball Association will run an experiment this week to test the premise “Less is more.” A preseason game pairing the Brooklyn Nets with the Boston Celtics will have just 44 minutes of play, instead of the usual 48. 

NBA officials mentioned “our schedule” as one motivation behind the experiment. That is: Lots of games often means lots of injuries. Maybe shorter games could mean less wear and tear on players’ bodies.

Then again, maybe not, says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. “If for instance, it’s the case that LeBron James, out of a 48 minute game plays 37 minutes, we don’t know if he’ll play proportionately fewer minutes” in a shorter game.    

In other words, the coach is already asking himself:  “How many minutes can I play LeBron without worrying too much about injury?”

“If that number’s 37,” says Zimbalist, “it could still be 37 in a 44-minute game.”

There is the possibility that fans — and TV networks — would prefer shorter games, says Glenn Wong, who teaches sports management for the University of Massachusetts business school.

Two hours is something that fits well in terms of fans  and in terms of TV slots,” Wong says. Typical NBA games last significantly longer.  “I think there’s a certain trend toward reducing the length of the game.”

In particular, the final minutes of an NBA game can drag. The 44-minute game would also cut one of three mandatory ad breaks in the fourth quarter. But what slows down those last minutes, really, is part of how the game gets played. The NBA’s own website lays out how teams use intentional fouls to stop the clock.

“You can just keep fouling people, and fouling people, and fouling people and extending this,” says David Berri, a sports economist at Southern Utah University, “and hope something’s going to happen.”

A 44-minute game doesn’t address that problem.

“I think you could say that the game in terms of actual chronological time is too long, and you could take steps to address what’s actually making it go longer,” Berri says. “But just giving people less product — that just doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.”

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