A lime-green sea greeted me as I arrived at Spotless Stadium in Olympic Park. Scores of bucket hats were being passed out to raucous crowd members, who were raring to cheer on the Sydney Thunder in its last game in this summer’s Big Bash League (BBL), played against the Adelaide Strikers. Throughout the night, the packed crowd was a far cry from the often bare stadiums that faced the Australian team during their six summer Test matches.
This comparison struck me. Why are sports leagues paying more and more attention to the old adage that ‘a quick game is a good game’?
We can look to BBL and the rise of Twenty20 cricket to get an idea.
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) introduced Twenty20 — the shortest form of the game — in 2003 to combat decreased attendances in their other, more time-consuming ‘offerings’, namely, five-day and one-day matches.
Many major sports are now starting to follow cricket’s lead. One sport jumping on this trend is Fast4 Tennis, which requires only four, not six, games to win a set. Games are further sped up by requiring only five, not seven, points to win a tiebreak, removing ‘lets’, and introducing sudden-death ‘PowerPoints’ at deuce.
Fast4 was developed by Tennis Australia for global premiere in 2015 through an exhibition match between Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt, which received top-ten national TV ratings. This initial popularity was only the tip of the iceberg – growing enthusiasm developed for the format across Australia’s local tennis clubs after trials for some months prior to its TV launch.
Many fans — including some Hopman Cup fans who bemoaned its introduction to the mixed doubles tournament in 2017 — have howled at a format that they perceive as flying in the face of tradition. However, Tennis Australia, like the ECB, has sought to justify Fast4’s existence. According to Craig Tilley, Tennis Australia’s CEO, in 2015: “time today is precious and [Fast4]… is perfect for any player who wants to fit their tennis matches into a busy lifestyle”. In 2017, rising tennis star Nick Kyrgios corroborated Tennis Australia’s stance on Fast4, stating that “it brings the pressure points or big points earlier which is fun to play but also fun to watch for the crowd”. Tilley and Kyrgios’ statements give credence to the idea that Fast4 is designed to be a speedy and high-octane tennis substitute for the time-poor social player or casual consumer.
This move to shorten major sports is not exclusive to Australia. American baseball, football and basketball are all modifying their sports’ rules to shrink their ‘products’.
America’s Major League Baseball has sought to implement new rules for example, limiting mound visits and introducing pitch clocks – that effectively reduce time-wasting by coaches or players between pitches or for replay challenges. Driven by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s awareness that “pace of play is an issue that we need to be focused on”, this effort aims to accommodate the time-poor baseball fan, who, in 2016, has had to watch their team play 10.8 hours of extra baseball compared to the equivalent 2015 season. The National Football League has considered modifying referee review procedures, cutting penalty explanations and shrinking between-play advertising breaks in order to “make the game more exciting” and “keep the action moving”, to quote NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
As of January 2017, the NBA has also considered rule changes to clamp down on unnecessary strategic timeouts and player substitutions. This move would subsequently speed up the ‘last two minutes’ of each match — traditionally the most action-filled moments. Commissioner Adam Silver’s reason for these prospective changes: “people, particularly millennials, have short attention spans”
With think pieces regularly claiming that instant gratification is making us perpetually impatient, it could be said that major sports are simply adapting to the times. A supercharged explosion of action may be all that the modern sports fan will bother with.
Between time-precious tennis players, thrill-seeking gridiron viewers and goldfish millennial basketball fans, there is a uniting desire: to get as much action as is obtainable in the shortest possible time.
As the Western Sydney crowd reeled from Adelaide bowler Ish Sodhi’s six-wicket bonanza, AC/DC’s “TNT” blasted through the stadium speakers: “On your colour TV screen, out for all that I can get.”
Fitting, isn’t it?