The never-ending game: the travesty of TV timeouts in the NCAA tourney | Sports
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Friday, March 29, 2013

The never-ending game: the travesty of TV timeouts in the NCAA tourney

Posted by on Fri, Mar 29, 2013 at 11:48 AM

Brad Cook, musician, basketball fan and one-time Indy model
Well, sports fans, we are down to the final 12 teams standing in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Only one ACC team remains standing, Duke, and few outside Durham expect the Blue Devils to advance past this weekend. Syracuse and Louisville are also in the hunt, but no, they don't count as ACC teams yet.

As the games wind down, unfortunately, the necessity for viewers to actually watch the TV timeouts goes up. No more will there be four games on a time to skip between; instead, there's one game at a time, and if you plan to watch it live, you are going to be watching a lot of ads.

In regular season play, there are four "media timeouts" per half, plus coach timeouts, plus in the 2nd half the first coach time out automatically becomes a fifth media timeout. For this NCAA tournament, they are also making the first coach timeout in the first half a full media timeout. So we are talking about ten media timeouts in most games, plus additional coach timeouts.

How long are the media timeouts? I've been timing them on my DVR, and usually whistle to whistle there is between 2:45 and 3:00 of real time between the stop and start of play. That's a lot of coaches talking, players and fans standing around, trips to the bathroom, and mindless commercials airing.

Then there's halftime. Standard halftime for an NCAA basketball game is 15 minutes. In the NCAA Tournament, halftimes have been lasting 22 minutes or more.

Why is the NCAA (and CBS) blatantly breaking the rules of basketball by having Orange Bowl-sized timeouts?

That cha-ching you hear in your mind as the question is asked is surely the reason why.

Now, given the commercial imperatives of the NCAA, it might be reasonable to accept longer halftimes as the price for fewer TV timeouts during the halves. The problem with TV timeouts is not just that it forces millions of people to sit around the house losing brain cells while watching ads (or flipping to other channels, or tweeting, or whatever). It's that the frequent timeouts disrupt the flow of the game.

Basketball is designed to be a sport of two halves, not 12 three-to-four minute increments. And it's supposed to be a sport of stamina, flow and momentum.

Frequent TV timeouts take a dent out of all that. ESPN has understandably been pushing Jimmy V/early 1980s college basketball nostalgia with its documentary on the 1983 N.C. State Wolfpack. Back then, the golden age of college basketball, here were the rules for TV timeouts in tournament games: one timeout at the under 15 minute mark, one at the under 10, and one at the under 5. If a coach called a timeout, that automatically became the media timeout, so if a coach called a timeout at 17:30 to go, the next timeout wouldn't be until under 10:00. That allowed games to flow longer.

It also introduced an element of strategy into when timeouts should be called. As late as 1993, after the tournament shifted to the under-16, under-12, under-8, under-4 format, it retained the rule that a coach's timeout would count as a media timeout. In the 1993 final between Michigan and North Carolina, an early second half timeout called by Michigan after being unable to make an in-bounds pass led to a long, dramatic stretch of play with no timeout, fitting a championship game.

Ultimately, the NCAA is to blame. This again is a case of where the NCAA has been too weak rather than too strong. It needs to place stronger parameters on how CBS broadcasts the game, for the good of the game and the experience of the athletes. If this means taking a bit less money from CBS so be it.

My guess is that moving to fewer timeouts and better game flow would actually increase viewership and allow CBS and the NCAA to recoup revenue lost through fewer ads by higher ad prices. But even if that's not true, the NCAA needs to proactively return to a timeout policy that allows the games to be played the way they were intended.

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