Do sports fans want shorter games, more action, or a higher action to time ratio?

Baseball has taken significant steps this season to shorten the game through new features like a clock for pitchers and batters. A growing consensus over recent years has suggested fans want shorter games. College football is considering shortening games. However, in the absence of data I have encountered about what fans actually want, I wonder if it is really about shorter games. These might be two other options that sports fans in America want:

-More action. Studies have shown sports like baseball and football actually do not have much game action across the multiple hour experience. Pitch clocks make the action happen quicker but do not necessarily mean there will be more balls in play or runners on base. Baseball has moved in recent years to more three true outcomes: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. These involve limited action.

-A higher action to time ratio. Perhaps what fans want is not shorter time but more action within the time of the game. Shortening the time with no change to the action would provide a higher ratio. Shortened times plus more action would further increase the ratio. Other sports have more flow or continuous action, like hockey or soccer (though many American fans might consider these action low-stakes or boring action). Or, watching a condensed game where the time between all pitches or all football plays is removed can be an interesting experience.

I suspect there might be plenty of experimentation in the coming years regarding finding formulas for sports in order to retain or attract the attention of fans. This will also happen with ongoing interaction with other forms of entertainment that offer different experiences and timelines.

Baseball games average 17 minutes 58 seconds of action

Surpassing football games, one analysis suggests baseball games average 17 minutes and 58 seconds of action:

By WSJ calculations, a baseball fan will see 17 minutes and 58 seconds of action over the course of a three-hour game. This is roughly the equivalent of a TED Talk, a Broadway intermission or the missing section of the Watergate tapes. A similar WSJ study on NFL games in January 2010 found that the average action time for a football game was 11 minutes. So MLB does pack more punch in a battle of the two biggest stop-and-start sports. By seven minutes.

The WSJ reached this number by taking the stopwatch to three different games and timing everything that happened. We then categorized the parts of the game that could fairly be considered “action” and averaged the results. The almost 18-minute average included balls in play, runner advancement attempts on stolen bases, wild pitches, pitches (balls, strikes, fouls and balls hit into play), trotting batters (on home runs, walks and hit-by-pitches), pickoff throws and even one fake-pickoff throw. This may be generous. If we’d cut the action definition down to just the time when everyone on the field is running around looking for something to do (balls in play and runner advancement attempts), we’d be down to 5:47.

I’m sure some might quibble with the methodology. Yet, the findings suggest two things:

1. A significant amount of excitement about sporting events may have to do with the time between action rather than the action itself. Sure, we care a lot about the plays but the fun includes the anticipation between action as well as the conversation and analysis that takes place then. In other words, sports involves a lot of patience.

2. The “feel” of the action may matter more for perceptions than the actual measurement of action. Football and other sports include faster action and more players moving at a time, giving an image of more total action. This particularly shows up on television. Perhaps it is more of a question of do fans prefer group action or more solitary action?

The “Trolley Problem” in virtual 3-D

A psychologist has taken a classic experiment, the “Trolley Problem,” to the virtual realm:

Virtual reality, however, is emerging as intriguing new tool because it enables researchers, to some degree, test a subject’s claim by simulating just about any given situation. Recently, Carlos David Navarrete, a evolutionary psychologist at Michigan State University, applied the technology to shed light on how people might respond when faced with an ethical conundrum.The Catch-22 bind he chose to put his subjects in is a popular philosophical thought experiment known as the “Trolley Problem.” The classical version of it goes a little something like this: You’re a train worker who observes a runaway train moving down a track where five people are about to get run over. You can pull a switch that diverts the train onto another track but you would end up killing one person who happens to be walking on the alternative track unaware. What would you do? Think about the situation in a pragmatic sense (saving more lives) and pull the switch? Or do nothing, which can be viewed as a wash-your-hands-of-any-responsibility decision.

The virtual simulation version was devised by wiring up test subjects with eyewear that generated a 3-D re-enactment of such a scenario. Attached to their fingertips were electrodes that measured their heartbeat and other indicators of their emotional state as they were forced to make a difficult decision. Using a joystick, users can either re-route the runaway boxcar, killing a lone hiker, or do nothing and let the it kill the group of five hikers…

While the findings corroborated with the results of a previous study that relied on self-reported methods, the experiment also showed that participants who did not pull the switch were more emotionally aroused. This means that their inaction might not be so much a conscious choice but a result of freezing up during highly anxious moments, which is akin to a solider failing to fire his weapon in battle, Navarrete said. Perhaps if they had remained calm enough to process what was happening, the percentage of people who would have pulled the switch to save five and let one die might have actually been greater.

Several thoughts:

1. The finding about emotional arousal reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s summarizing in Blink: humans make different decisions in emotionally charged situations.

2. The article is set up by suggesting that this kind of virtual research helps get around the issue facing the social sciences that people say one thing and then do another. While I don’t disagree that this is a problem, people’s stated beliefs and attitudes are still consequential. Take a story I blogged about a few days ago: people may be getting married at lower rates but majorities still aspire to get married, reinforcing a social norm. We need data on both actions and beliefs.

3. I’m tempted to ask whether people’s responses in this virtual world are different than if they were in the real situation. Is there a larger body of research that suggests these virtual experiments are truly better than typical research experiments?

4. Whenever I have presented this experiment to students, they tend to find to find it interesting. Also, since this one is fairly straightforward (one life for five), introducing variants to it such as having to push a large man onto the tracks to stop the train, thus giving the bystander more culpability, can change people’s responses.