Football is mostly standing around

Via Pharyngula, I came across this fascinating graphic from a study commissioned by the Wall Street Journal that shows how time is distributed in a typical 192-minute American football game. It turns out it is only 11 minutes or less than 5% involves actual play action. I think the instant replays (sometimes five or six at different speeds and from different angles) give the false impression of there being more action than there really is.

football playing time

Baseball is not much better, having just 18 minutes of play out of a total of 178 minutes or about 10%

Having grown up on rugby, when I came to the US I was amazed at how slow football was. It was highly amusing to see some football players being given oxygen after just one run when rugby players seemed to be in motion the whole time. I initially thought that rugby action must be at least around 80-90% but it turns out to be much lower but at around 44% is still much higher than football. I suspect that soccer has a greater percentage of playing time since the rules are simpler and there are fewer set pieces but I could not find any data.

I suspect that even notoriously slow games like cricket would have a greater percentage of action than American football. In cricket, one would have to count just the time from when the bowler begins his run up to deliver until when the ball is dead. But I could not find any data for this either.


  1. machintelligence says

    I always get a chuckle when the announcers, near the end of a long drive, feel obliged to point out how tired and winded the defensive team is. The fact that the offense has been out there just as long seems to escape them.
    *At least in Denver they do have an excuse, since the home team is acclimated to the altitude.

  2. thompjs says

    In US Football every play is a nearly 100% exertion. It is hard to recover from those efforts over and over.

    However, if you at a NFL game the TV timeouts really disturb the flow of the game.

  3. says

    Yet many fans of the game have no problem putting down soccer as “boring”, despite players actually moving for most of the game, because a 0-0 tie is a possible game result.

  4. fentex says

    In cricket, one would have to count just the time from when the bowler begins his run up to deliver until when the ball is dead.

    I think this is an unfair criteria for asserting when a game is being played – quick discussions between overs on tactics, subtle repositioning by fielders between balls as they make judgements on the batters intent, the bowlers consideration as they return to their mark about what to do, the batters observation of fielders and calculations on required run rates, possible options given the bowler they’re facing, what they can expect of their partner and what end they wish to be at after the ball is bowled.

    These are all part of playing the game and occur between moments the ball is bowled and comes to rest.

    Likewise in Rugby the time approaching a line out is time spent considering options, planning on how best to exploit current field position, time the captain and players are redeploying for a planned move. The time spent considering whether to kick, tap or scrum is playing the game.

    Just counting the moments of motion is a poor criteria for delineating game time

  5. Mano Singham says


    The catch is that you need to find some criteria that makes the time measurable. Strategizing time is hard to differentiate from dawdling.

  6. Anthony K says

    I initially thought that rugby action must be at least around 80-90%

    If you’re a quick as a lock, you can catch a few z’s while the props set up.

  7. AnotherAnonymouse says

    So, 11 minutes of play takes more than 3 hours on tv and always–ALWAYS–pre-empts something actually worth watching.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    I suspect that soccer has a greater percentage of playing time since the rules are simpler and there are fewer set pieces but I could not find any data.

    Very close to 100% of the 90 minutes. Opening kick-off to final whistle is usually about 130 minutes, so about 70%, including half-time and stoppages.

  9. kraut says

    I used to play soccer from the age of six or seven on, just for recreation, and soccer is a game where you strategize on the run, how to pass, anticipate the opponent – a game that is moving most of the time.

    I never found any excitement in the stop and go game they call football in the states. I also used to play field hockey, which is similar to soccer but faster, played on a smaller field with less personnel. Even as a backstop, you keep moving along.

  10. mnb0 says

    Many years ago I read in a Dutch newspaper that the percentage of playing time in football (not handegg) is indeed about 70%, but RobS’ calculation is wrong. Official time is two times 45 minutes, to which on average two times 5 minutes extra time is added by the referee (the literal translation from Dutch is injury time). So it’s about 70 minutes out of 100 minutes.
    Kraut is right. Level of play is so high these days that players have to anticipate constantly. Especially defenders have to remain focused all the time. Strikers like Gerd Müller and Romaro de Souza mercilessly punished any nonchalance so you can be sure that modern strikers do too.

  11. Suido says

    Comparing stop/start games like baseball/cricket, which have very defined action moments, to football of any kind is going to reflect unfavourably on cricket or baseball, and seems nonsensical. Even tennis is going to have very poor ratios due to the time taken to prepare for a serve – 20 seconds seems to be the average I’ve seen during the current Australian Open. Viewers know these games are stop/start, and have that expectation in mind when choosing to watch the sport. Stop/start sports have a definite advantage in having regular periods for analysis and disection of the play, rather than commentators having to talk over action – and by commentators, I include any viewers wanting to discuss the game.

    Comparing football flavours makes more sense, but (much as I hate going in to bat for gridiron and mixing metaphors) the rules of gridiron quite plainly state that time between plays counts towards the game clock, similar to time between a rugby tackle and the playing of the ball – to a spectator, not much is happening, but to the teams on the field they are getting back into position for the next sequence of action. Setting up scrums in rugby is a clear example of “action time” where the clock is ticking but very little of substance is happening for the spectator to appreciate.

    Soccer also has this, in the form of periods of minimally contested passing in the backfield, as midfielders and forwards try to manouvre themselves into favourable positions for attack. However, for a TV viewer, that manouvring is often off screen and can’t be appreciated, instead you just see backs playing a game of keepings off from the opposing forwards – not exactly action. This example, and rugby scrum setting up, shows up the weakness of the above chart analysis – not all action is equal. This ‘non-action’ time is analogous to the time between plays in Gridiron, which is not counted as action in the above graphic.

    Basketball and australian rules football would be more similar to soccer in terms of ‘action’ time, and basketball’s shot clock probably means it has a higher percentage of ‘attack’ action rather than ‘holding time’ action that either soccer or aussie rules, though time-outs might balance that out.

    In thinking of better ways to analyse the comparable viewability/enjoyability of different sports, I keep coming back to the thought that any analysis will inevitably be apples to oranges – any sport could come up with a metric by which that particular sport is the most exciting. Even in cricket, it is difficult to compare the different types of games – in Tests, bowlers tend to be more exciting, as quick wickets capture the attention much more easily than a typically paced century. In limited overs formats, the balance is reversed, as quick run scoring is more important than wickets.

  12. scenario says

    What percentage of the time in a given sport is spent by players in an all out effort?

    In games like soccer, not every player is running all out all of the time. When your team is on the attack, the defense tends to stand back and stay in position. Much of the time at a walk or a slow jog. So the pattern for any individual player is something like, slow walk, fast walk, jog, run at top speed, then back to a slower speed. The cameras are on the few players who are actually running and ignoring the majority that are not.

    In American Football, every player should be exerting effort at near maximum capacity nearly every play. Lineman are essentially Sumo Wrestlers who can run. Wide receivers and defensive backs are sprinters.

    Two different types of sports, changing pace sports vs maximum effort then stop sports.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    mnb0 @11: You’re right, I overestimated the time, and I’m not even sure how! With half-time included, it would rarely last 120 minutes (maybe I was including post-match chat time). I don’t get your 70% though. Only 70 minutes of action during the 90+?

  14. leni says

    I noticed a long time ago that even when they are moving nothing happens.


    So, 11 minutes of play takes more than 3 hours on tv and always–ALWAYS–pre-empts something actually worth watching.

    I know! And then delays everything scheduled after it so they can go into overtime to do more nothing. And then talk about like it means something for another fucking hour afterward! Which also pre-empts pretty much all other programming.

    I hate American football. There aren’t that many things in this world I truly despise, but football is one of them.

    And why is this bullshit “news”!

    I’ve said this before, but when I heard rumors of the “gay bomb” my first and clearest thought after “Why would anyone even invent such a thing?” was to wish that they’d drop it on the god damned Superbowl. Yes. I kinda rooted for the terrorists. That is how much I hate football.

  15. Jim H says

    Haha, I love all of the football hate in these comments. Very counter-culture of everyone, good job!

    This “study” is bogus. For people who play the game, or people who actually know what they’re watching, the action never stops. The shots of the cheerleaders, TV commercial breaks, etc. are what we see because that’s what the producers at the network are choosing to show us. The 11 or so minutes of “action” are when the ball is actually in play. Once the play is over, the play clock resets to 40 seconds and begins ticking, and this is considered “down” time. But, this is when teams are making personnel substitutions (this involves running on and off the field, not “standing around”), coaches and coordinators are consulting about which sets of plays to relay to the QB (the offense’s game manager) or LB (usually, the defense’s game manager), and players on and off the field are conversing about the play they just ran, and about the opponents’ strategy in general. Right before the snap, the players are all “standing around,” right? No, the QB and center (who hikes the ball to the QB) are reading the defense, yelling out assignments, and making adjustments. The defense does the same. Then the ball is hiked, and you get your few seconds of “action.”

    Using these terms shows just how little the “study” coordinators and the people who latch onto it actually know about the game. Believe it or not, the players and coaching staff may not be brilliant academics like the rest of you, but the lot of them are damn smart. It’s as much a mental game as it is physical, and anyone who says otherwise has no idea what they’re talking about (they never played it) or they’re getting in their dose of contrarianism for the day (again, they never played it).

  16. cafink says

    I am not a sports fan at all, but football is one of the easier to watch sports, in my opinion. I *like* that it isn’t just wall-to-wall action. Tabby @3 dismissed the idea of soccer being boring because the players are moving for most of the game, but I don’t find mere moving around to be very interesting. Yes, there’s a lot of “down time” in football, but that time is used to draw up plays and strategize. That there is time to stop and consider plays makes football a more thoughtful, interesting game, in my opinion.

    A commenter on that Pharyngula post invoked a very good analogy: Chess has only a few seconds total of piece movement out of an hours-long game, but do we think of chess as a similarly “boring” game? (Well, I suppose there are people who do, but I’m betting that most of your readers are not among them.)

  17. says

    Notice how every time, every where, that someone lightly criticizes football, in any capacity, a stalwart defender of the faith has to drop in and accuse the critics of being uppity snobs and/or phony counter-culture wannabes. It’s like it comes off a script. “It’s obvious that anyone who thinks such things knows nothing about the game/has never played the game/is just trying to appear non-conformist.”

  18. Jim H. says

    @18: Hyperbole much? I never called anyone an uppity snob, a phony, or a wannabe.

    By the way, the comment that got me to write up my first comment was the one where someone said that they hate football (an American institution, for better or worse) so much, they actually want to drop a bomb on the super bowl, and that they “kinda rooted for the terrorists.” That’s not “someone lightly criticiz[ing] football,” it’s inflammatory and frankly disgusting. By most definitions of the word “terrorist,” that string of comments was terroristic rhetoric. Ironically, if a bomb strike actually did hit the super bowl, most people prone to making a comment like that would be some of the first to lament the horror and talk about how senseless it is. If you’re the type of person who wishes harm on a stadium-full of people because of your distaste for the activity held therein, you’re literally no better than “the terrorists.”

  19. Guess Who? says

    @15: yes, exactly as you said. My cable package has umpteen gazillion sports packages that we’re forced to subsidize in order to get basic cable. I would be thrilled if all program-pre-empting sports were moved to the all the many cable channels that specialize just in sports. That way, the people who just want to watch their programs can watch them. How many good shows have been cancelled because they’ve been excessively pre-empted by some bullshit talking heads spouting puerile nonsense for two hours after the game ends? Fox is notoriious for pre-empting programs, then cancelling them claiming that nobody’s watching. Nobody’s watching because nobody feels like staying up until 2 am on a work night to watch.

  20. says

    Yeah, I’ve been playing some gridiron football recently in video games, and it’s a much more fun way to enjoy the sport. No one’s brain is being broken (which I have to admit, for me ended the idea of gridiron football as a thing I could watch; Y(L/100km)MV, of course), and the game goes as fast as I want it to, with one really annoying exception: the whole “let’s run down the clock” thing that happens late in games. I don’t get how the game is improved by the ability to oh-so-excitingly watch the clock tick for 20 seconds or so, for down after down, in the last ten minutes. Especially when it’s a close game, because it’s frustrating to play as well as to watch.

    I understand why it’s good strategy, I just think it’s poor game design. This is one place where Canadian football has the better rule, I think; there is only one timeout per team per half, but with three minutes to go in each half, the clock goes to an auto-stop mode. When the play stops, the clock stops. It starts again when the play starts again. It means there’s no endless succession of timeouts and thrown-away balls and all the other silly gamey tricks that US offenses have to work with. You put the ball in play, and let the skills of the players sort it out.

    But the timeout thing aside, it can otherwise be a lot of fun to play/watch, if it’s a version of the game not subject to the whims of television. The endless TV timeouts, the lengthy halftime, showing six replays of every play from every angle, it’s made the game really hard to watch on TV (I don’t have cable, but when I go to the US for holidays with my partner, her family are often watching US football of one sort or another).

    I would bet that going to a game at a small college, or a high school/junior league/minor league game, would be a much better entertainment than those which are run on a TV schedule.

    Because I think those above are right that my own favourite code of football (association, or soccer) has its main interest in the constant play, that the ball is in play generally about 70% of the time. The other time is when players are setting up for various set pieces, like kickoff, throw-ins, free kicks, corners, goal kicks, and such, or fetching balls, or making substitutions. And just as with gridiron, I can tell you as a former high-level athlete in soccer and ice hockey that there’s just as much strategizing and thinking about what’s going on in those games as there is in football or baseball or any other sport. If you want to be good at it, you have to think. The difference in soccer is that such thinking must be done mostly on the move, often with the ball already at your feet, and 21 other players watching you and waiting for your next choice.

    The “minutes in play” metric isn’t a very good one, though; ice hockey must be well over 90%, because of its use of a strict stop-clock: when the puck isn’t moving, the clock isn’t either, basically.

    But it still takes more than three hours to get through a 1-hour hockey match on television, while soccer at only 70% or so gets its 90 minutes pretty reliably into a 120-minute program slot.

    Oh, and one last factnugget: “extra time” in soccer in English means “overtime” in North America, specifically extra periods of play added on because the score is tied (under current rules, 15 minutes each way, often followed by a penalty shoot-out; all these are used only in the case of a knockout situation, in a league they’re just a draw); thus a game finishing after this extra time is shown as “(aet)”, meaning “after extra time”. “Injury time” is the time added on at the discretion of the referee, to make up for time spent making substitutions, looking after injured players, and so on, and is not marked in the official statistics in any way. A goalkeeper playing a full game is marked as playing 90 minutes, even if the game had two minutes added in the first and four minutes added in the second, not 96.

    My source: I’m a carded soccer referee, level 2 (two levels below pro), in Canada. I used to be a hockey referee, too, but got tired of having to deal with obnoxious jerks wanting to fight people all the time.

  21. says


    A.) If your comment was meant as a reply to another specific statement, yet you didn’t make any reference to a specific comment or commenter, how am I expected to realize that? It’s reasonable to assume that a comment that isn’t obviously addressed as a response to another specific comment or commenter is meant as a general statement.

    B.) Sure, I enjoy engaging in a little hyperbole now and then. But what I wrote in 18 wasn’t hyperbole as it wasn’t specifically addressing your previous comment. It was a generalization of a trend I’ve noticed in recent years.

    So you didn’t specifically call anyone any of those things. But your congratulations to others for being “counter-culture” for expressing their distaste for football came across as sarcastic. Was that meant in earnest? I can’t imagine why. Is there a glut of people trying to claim counter-culture cred by dissing football and hoping for kudos from football fans as a form of confirmation? Bizarre, if so.

    In my youth all it took was saying that one didn’t follow any form of sportsball to earn a whole flood of homophobic/sexist insults and slurs. So disliking football perhaps gave some minor counter-culture cred then, but times are different. Over the years I’ve come across more and more people who share my distaste of sportsball and who are no longer inclined to keep their opinion quiet, much less so to pretend to like something they don’t. (Probably not insignificantly this coincides with the growth of online communities.) So I don’t think being a non-fan is very counter-culture, and I don’t think anyone who expresses their distaste necessarily thinks so either.

    So, I think your sarcasm falls flat, ’cause it doesn’t even make sense. Likewise with the sarcastic “brilliant academics” comment, and the assertion that anyone who agrees with the characterizations in the study doesn’t understand the game. Theymay be using a different connotation for the phrase “down time” than you are. That doesn’t mean they don’t understand the game.

  22. leni says

    …so much, they actually want to drop a bomb on the super bowl, and that they “kinda rooted for the terrorists.”

    Yeah, that was me. Talking about an imaginary gay bomb.

    There is no such thing as a “gay bomb”, you know that right?

  23. steffp says

    @ Leni #23
    Nor is there a “flatulence bomb”. But why should a “cultural” football fan know about such nitty-gritty.
    Football is part of the American folklore (as opposed to culture), especially watching it on TV with a generous supply of 6-packs and friends. That’s not sports, it is watching sports. And in that respect, the above analysis is correct, as it quantifies the content that is actually watched. Whatever happens when the Superbowl is watched at home, it’s not sports, it’s passive consumption plus communication with friends, a folklore event like thanksgiving.
    The real game, as experienced by the players, the decision making process, does not lend itself to being filmed – the same problem occurs with live coverage of high-ranking chess matches. Which are incredibly boring, even with expert commentaries and analysis in the off. Real experts don’t watch such stuff – unless they are paid for – they prefer the list of moves, which allows concentration on the real novel draws.
    Professional sports needs such couch potato consumers to finance the ridiculously high salaries of some sports actors, by pretending that watching a game move is almost the same as performing it.
    But it’s not. It’s the usual “bread and games” for Mr. Omnes.

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