Charts of the Week – Popular Sports and Game Action

Photo take by SteelCityHobbies

Since the NFL kicked off its season two weeks ago, we have an unusual situation where most professional sports leagues are playing at the same time.  The NBA, NHL, and WNBA playoffs are approaching their final stages.  College football, the NFL and MLS are playing regular season games while the MLB is nearing fall playoffs. 

For a sports fan, the pandemic made spring and summer a difficult stretch, as there were virtually no live sporting events.  Now, there may be too many.  We are a nation that loves sports and football is King among them.        

In high school, football clearly attracts the most participants, followed by track and field, then basketball.  Over the past decade, the distribution of participates across the sports are about the same.[i]

Source: Vox

Football’s popularity continues at the professional level.  Starting in 1937, Gallup Opinion Surveys asked Americans “What is your favorite sport to watch?”.   Football gradually overtook baseball for the top spot, drawing the highest percentage in the time series at just over 4 in 10 Americans.  Baseball remained in second place for many years but recently was eclipsed by basketball at 11%.  Soccer shows notable recent growth, rising from 2% in 2008 to 7% ten years later.     


Despite the popularity of football, relatively little on the field action occurs during a typical game.  For most of the game players are rising from the turf, walking back to the huddle, receiving a play call from the sidelines, and then lining up once again.      

The final graph below breaks down TV broadcasts of various sports by the minute, showing the time devoted to game action (ball or puck in play), nonaction (game stoppages and commentary) and commercials.  In football, only eighteen minutes of game action occurs across a 3 plus hour NFL broadcast – 8.6%.  Game action is a bit longer in baseball, but broadcasts are longer as well.       

Thus, game action represents less than 10% of an NFL broadcast.  Very short bursts of action, with a great deal of waiting in-between, characterizes football.  The average football play is approximately 4 seconds.

Soccer represents the other extreme.  Game action dominates broadcasts and there are comparatively small number of commercial minutes.  The NBA appears reasonably balanced across the three categories.       

Source: FiveThirtyEight

In sum, watching our favorite sport every weekend includes exposure to a lot of commercials and constantly awaiting the next play.  While watching players and coaches strategize can build suspense, it often does not.  We seem to like our sporting event comparatively long, full of commentary and inactivity, but punctuated with short bursts of high drama and movement                  

That leaves a lot of time for commercial interests to introduce their products and for fans to talk with friends, drink, and eat favorites like chicken wings and pizza. 

And perhaps that is the point.  Football is well suited for American leisure time – plenty of social activity, food and drink, and the occasional heart-pounding play.   

[i]   See the latest 2018-19 NFHS numbers

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