'Shorter quarters' not the solution to game length angst

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Knee-jerk reactions are nothing new in AFL football. Neither are media "hot takes". Throw in some validation from a senior coach or two and you have the perfect ingredients for some major campaigning, whatever the issue.

These days, it can happen on almost a weekly basis. But the one group often conspicuously absent from all the lobbying often seems to be the football public. And I reckon we're starting to see it happen again.

The subject this time is the length of games. It seems to have been on the agenda ever since a Channel 7 executive a couple of years ago, panicked about the drop-off in TV audiences of one-sided games, suggested we needed to reduce the half-time break by half.

It wasn't lost on plenty of us then that the major support for that idea seemed to be coming from commentators employed by that same broadcast network, or its pay TV equivalent Fox Footy.

Now the actual playing time of quarters appears to be under fierce scrutiny, a push which had a major kick-along over the weekend when Saturday's Carlton-Brisbane game lasted 136 minutes, including one quarter lasting 36 minutes and another lasting 37.

Brisbane coach Chris Fagan's observation that the "game feels long at the moment" and throwing up the suggestion that it could have something to do with some unusually long injury lists, was naturally seized upon by several commentators as fuel for the fire.

Who is creating the fire, though? And is it actually the sort of dangerous inferno some would have us believe?

Fagan's comments were widely reported. Not so, though, those of the other coach involved in that 136-minute match, Carlton's David Teague, who noted that most of the injuries sustained in the game (which had dragged out the length) were impact, not muscle injuries, which diminished the fatigue equals injury argument.

He also noted his preference for the traditional length game. Last year's COVID-caused reduction to 16 minutes plus time-on, Teague said, made the game feel too quick. "I like the game being longer and testing you out over time and I think the defences open up through fatigue and I think that's great for the fans to see that," he said.

Which is a pretty significant point, isn't it? I'm yet to hear a football fan complaining about the actual game being too long, rather, they might lament about the time between goals taken for ads, or the time taken for umpires to nominate a ruckman. And while I acknowledge the efforts and sacrifice of those actually producing the product, aren't we the ones for whom it's supposedly being produced?

Of course games are feeling longer compared to last year, because after 18 home and away rounds and four weeks of finals, we'd adjusted to the shortened lengths. Now we have to adjust back again. It's only been six weeks. Will games still "feel long" come round 23?

And how much longer are they anyway? Sure, 136 minutes is a stretch, but you're going to get the odd anomaly in a schedule of 207 matches. I distinctly remember a couple of quarters in games of the early 2000s nudging past 40 minutes. We didn't lose our collective minds over them.

In fact, Champion Data tells us that the current average game length in 2021 is 124 minutes 38 seconds. That's only two minutes 19 seconds longer than in 2019. It's only one minute 39 seconds longer than the average game time back in 2010. Why weren't we talking about this allegedly major issue then?

And just why are games going longer? Well, it stands to reason it's because of the amount of "dead time" that has been added to the duration.

Ironically, it's the broadcasters themselves who are one cause, given permission to extend breaks between goals from 45 seconds to 50 to fit in more advertising. Score reviews add to the delays. So does setting up for the 6-6-6 rule, the warnings to sides which transgress it, the recalling of wonky centre bounces, and the increasingly silly-looking nomination of ruckmen.

If we're really so desperate to reduce the time between the start and finish of a match, how about we prune back some of that wasted time rather than cut the actual length of play?

Get rid of ruck nominations. Get rid of the 6-6-6 warning and just pay a free kick. This is the third year of the centre bounce rule, why should teams get away with it if they still can't get it right? Forget the recalled bounces and just call it the luck of the draw. Better still, get rid of the bounce altogether and give ruckmen an equal shot at a centre restart. There's another time-saver.

When you think about it, shouldn't all that added waiting time we're currently stuck with actually give fatigued players a few more chances to catch their breath?

As for those who think the younger generations have the attention span of a gnat ... if we remove that wasted time but keep the traditional game length, don't we end up with more action in a shorter time frame?

So there's two supposed arguments for shortening game lengths which don't stack up. Just like this whole latest push from those with vested interests doesn't stack up.

I'm not one to reflexively complain at any change, and there's little doubt this year's crop of adjustments to the rules have had a positive impact. But this latest suggestion doesn't. It's based on a tiny sample size. Flimsy evidence. And as I hope I've just demonstrated, it's just as easy to cut back the running time without eating into the actual play.

That, I'd be confident in saying, is what the fans would prefer. And makes this one occasion I certainly don't mind joining that well-worn chorus of voices chanting "leave the bloody game alone".

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.