A Crisis in Sports: Attention Spans

Credit: Mark Danielson/Flickr

We’ll always be fascinated with sports; it’s a constant. There will always be a sizable percentage of the population that cares about the NBA trade deadline, what the New York Yankees accomplished during winter meetings, and whether Dak Prescott is in fact the real deal. Part of our collective human nature is marveling at what only just a few can do better than anyone else alive.

But if you’ve watched an NBA game and waited 10 minutes for the final minute and a half to play out, or if you’ve sat through a 20-pitch at-bat only to watch a player pop up, you might be understandably underwhelmed. There is something to be said for sports lacking the requisite amount of drama and intensity to keep people interested at all times. Again, this is all understandable. But for millennials, and we assume subsequent generations, it’s also a cause for concern.

According to a 2015 study undertaken by Microsoft, average attention spans had dropped by four seconds since 2000—we are now capable of concentrating on a subject at a given time for just eight seconds—why is why the NBA, MLB, and NCAA are all going to their own mattresses to figure out how to keep consumers engaged as the strength and prevalence of the Internet of Things continues to grow.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced earlier this year that a study of end-of-game situations as well as game length has already been planned after the 2017 season concludes. Said Silver:

Obviously people, particularly millennials, have increasingly short attention spans, so it’s something as a business we need to pay attention to. … When the last few minutes of the game take an extraordinary amount of time, sometimes it’s incredibly interesting for fans, other times it’s not.

The same applies to MLB, which will begin testing a rule next spring training whereby teams playing an extra inning game will begin each frame of the at-bat with a runner already on second base (the hope is to increase scoring as well as more quickly break a tie game). And even college hoops is taking steps to address game length, unveiling a new format of play during this year’s NIT: team fouls will reset at the 10-minute mark (rather than at half-time), which effectively reduces the game from halves (a hallmark of college ball) to quarters, and in the process adding a boost of scoring to what could become a slog-fest.

Even golf isn’t immune to a lack of concentration, which is why this weekend’s Perth World Super 6 (in Australia) will debut a brand new format of competition—the final day of the four-day tournament will feature six-hole matches to trim the field from 24 contestants to a champion. If there is a tie, the competitors will hit a single shot to see which is closest to the pin, with the winner still in the title running. Stephen Ayles, chief commercial officer for the PGA Tour of Australasia, told the New York Times, “We’re trying to appeal to a wider audience, particularly a younger audience. The whole event is based on making it easier to watch for a different demographic than traditional golf fans.”

The hope is that by disrupting what is essentially a product with a built-in audience, these leagues will be able to expand its viewership exponentially. It’s not a bad solution: games take too long for seemingly no reason. But waiting has become a hallmark of our culture, as Deadspin’s Albert Burneko points out in a very apt observational piece on how we have become accustomed to waiting for ‘payoffs’.

Possibly a big reason why Americans get so agitated at the concept of ties in sports is that all of our goddamn sports broadcasts last forever. It makes sense. You watch two shitty blank-eyed numbskull quarterbacks flail around for a full third of the waking hours of the day, and by God you feel entitled to a resolution decisive-seeming enough to justify the expenditure of time. Okay, this experience was tedious and horrible, but at least one of the teams feels like a loser about it, so I’m not alone. Fix this by making sports shorter, so that we can all become comfortable with ambiguity, and therefore edge closer to enlightenment. Or anyway I won’t have to stay up until tomorrow to find out who the hell is going to the NLCS.