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Something college football broadcasters should learn from the NBA

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Generally, your sports league should try to be like the NBA.

AllState Sugar Bowl - Clemson v Alabama Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Every sport could learn a thing or two from the NBA, the major league where TV ratings are rising and attendance is solid. And on at least one subject, no sport could better benefit from studying the NBA than college football.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver on what happened when the league was able to study its own data on when viewers checked in and out of games (emphasis added):

S+B: How do you apply that data?

SILVER: From last season to this one, based in large part on the data we gathered, we changed the format of our game. We went from a possible 18 time-outs to 14 time-outs, we standardized the length of the time-outs, and we shortened halftime by a few minutes. And we made additional changes to the commercial format, because we were able to see exactly where we were losing fans.

S+B: Where were you losing them?

SILVER: Not surprisingly, we lose the highest number of fans when we move off live action, especially at halftime. And we lose fans at every commercial break. So we’re experimenting, with Turner and ESPN, with not leaving the arena completely during commercial breaks, and instead having a split screen, where we stay with the huddle at the same time we show an ad. It’s a trade-off for our marketing partners. On the one hand, they’d like the full attention of a viewer. On the other hand, they might prefer to keep all of the viewers and find ways to create connections with their products and engage directly with the game.

Our games are roughly two hours and 15 minutes, but the average viewer is watching for approximately 50 minutes. We know that the most efficient way to increase our ratings is not to find someone who isn’t watching at all, but to take those people who are watching an average of 50 minutes and get them to watch 55 minutes. And that’s where changes in the presentations — finding other ways to engage fans, creating other data fields for our viewers, or using different audio experiences like player mics, or different camera angles — can help increase our ratings.

Ask any college football fan for complaints about the viewing experience, whether at home or at the stadium, and roughly nine of 10 will concern game length. The average has increased to well over three hours per game, with some approaching five, with endless commercial breaks throughout.

Realizing that live sports are just about all certain cable companies have left, we’ve had a few ideas on how to make games shorter without cutting too deeply into ad time, but it appears the NBA’s finding it worthwhile to trim even that, if it means fans actually sticking around longer.

One obvious problem, as always: no one’s really in charge of college sports. Each conference and some individual teams all make up their own media deals, with no authority figure ensuring a positive experience for any participant. So it’ll be up to individual broadcast companies to see the signs and sacrifice some ad deals up front in order to have better engagement to show off in the future.

Or we’ll all just complain through the seventh hour of overtime Tennessee-Texas A&M anyway.