Shorter college games would mean less football, and that's bad

The length of games didn't keep the first playoff from being a ratings bonanza. (Getty Images)
The length of games didn't keep the first playoff from being a ratings bonanza. (Getty Images)

Sixty-eight commercials.

The next time you complain about sitting through a four-hour college football game, remember that TV has to get theirs. The average televised college game has an average of 68 30-second spots.

That's 34 minutes of "football" guaranteed before a ball is even snapped. You may not notice. If you have the right commercial-cutting recording device, you may not have to notice.

But that's the first thing to consider as college football games get longer. Those ads aren't going anywhere. The game is so popular on the front end (ratings) that it has to pay for itself on the back end (ad sales).

This past season, the average game length crept up to 3 hours, 23 minutes. That's six minutes longer than 2013, the largest one-year increase since 2007.

Do you care? You shouldn't. While the NFL has perfected the art of shoehorning its games into three-hour windows (almost), the college game has largely taken a laissez faire approach. Hands off, what will be, will be.

And we love it.

"I'm not so sure [game length] matters at our level," Ohio State AD Gene Smith said. "Particularly here and the majority of Power 5, the experience is unreal. Our tailgaters, for a 3:30 kick, are here at 5 a.m. And they don't leave early. We could actually have a blowout and they're still there."

That's nothing at Auburn. For a Saturday game, the RVs start rolling in on Wednesday. The point is, we love long games. The college game live is more of an experience than perhaps any other sport. You can have your Green Bay. There are at least eight of those in the SEC alone. Plus, it's loads warmer.

Overall attendance may be down slightly but it's not necessarily because of game length.

"We're asking people to sit in seats that are little less friendly than coach [class on an airline], for a trip that's a little longer than a West Coast jaunt," said marketing guru Guido D'Elia, whose branding efforts changed the game-day atmosphere at Penn State. "Only you're sitting out in the friggin' weather."

The impact of technology on attendance is a whole different argument. There's HD, sky cams, mega casts, all-22 views. Those that stay at home largely don't care about game length. That was proven during the first College Football Playoff, when the games became some of the highest rated in cable history.

Live sports continue to be the ultimate reality TV. They're truly unpredictable, unscripted and unrehearsed unlike Housewives of Beverly Hills. They are DVR proof. Try recording a game. Then try staying off your phone, tablet or radio long enough to preserve the moment.

"It's not just the length of the game. It's the alternative to the comparative experience," D'Elia said. "That is, me and you and a bunch of our boys sitting in a room watching a 65-inch screen having the beer we want, in the mug we want with the chips we want, telling the jokes we want."

It didn't used to be that way when the only way to see the game was to attend. Now virtually every FBS game is on a TV or tablet somewhere. To compete, the schools and the marketers have to make college football more like a concert than a contest.

Key phrase: Fan engagement. It's one thing to sell tickets. It's another to have butts in seats paying for parking and concessions. D'Elia said one Penn State study showed it takes 2.37 families to replace a season ticket holder family from a couple of decades ago. Friends split up tickets. They don't go to every game.

"It's no longer carte blanche: I'll go no matter what," D'Elia said.

Attendance might be slipping, but some fans say the time of games isn't a factor. (Getty Images)
Attendance might be slipping, but some fans say the time of games isn't a factor. (Getty Images)

LSU fan Denis Simon is on the other end. The Tiger grad has had eight season tickets since 1999. He says it's hard to sit through a nonconference blowout but there's a reason folks travel to LSU without a ticket just to tailgate. The game's still the thing even when you're not actually witnessing it.

"The time of the game, I think you nailed it, it doesn't bother me at all," Simon said. "I'm going out there for the full experience. The game is the highlight."

The NCAA rules committee caused a major freak out last year when it merely considered a proposal for a 10-second run-off before a ball could be snapped. That was the idea instigated by Nick Saban and Bret Bielema, ostensibly in the name of player safety.

In 2006, timing rules were changed with disastrous results. The game clock started when toe met ball on kickoffs. It kept running on change of possession. The result was shorter games but also less football.

Clearly, no one wants to see that. Part of the college game's charm is watching an Oregon or Baylor able to run 90 plays. In 2014, teams ran an average of 71.95 plays per game. That's the highest number since 1982.

It's simple math: In this age of record offense, that means more scoring which means more stoppages. In the end, that's entertainment.

"Who thinks the games are too long?" asked Rogers Redding, national officiating coordinator and secretary-editor of the rules committee. "The fans don't."

The creep up to four-hour games is now as inevitable as the $10 million coach.

If you want shorter games, it's actual football that's going to be cut. The rights holders certainly aren't going to give. Merely eliminating a couple of those 68 spots would cost $60,000-$300,000 in lost ad revenue, according to one media consultant.

"Saving two minutes is not an equitable trade off for that amount of money," the consultant said. "You can't have a major impact on time reduction just trimming around the edges."

It's not just commercials. It's the promos coming in and out of those commercials. It's a college halftime that can be twice as long the 12-minute NFL counterpart. It's the sometimes interminable reviews.

"Part of the reason is they pay for the rights is to promote their [other network] inventory," D'Elia said.

The college game has become a little bit like Taco Town. The essence of it is wrapped in layers of (commercial) crap.

And we love it, or at least tolerate it.

Just don't blame TV, that consultant countered. Those 68 spots have been in place for at least 15 years. Minor moves such as a running clock after first downs suggest one unsavory "fix:" To shorten the length of games, there has to be less football. No one wants to see that.

"The rules committee is reluctant to do anything to shorten the game," Redding said.

Besides, we've already voted with our eyes and our wallets. Can the nice, crisp average four-hour game be far behind?

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CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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