An average NFL game: more than 100 commercials and just 11 minutes of play

The NFL’s most popular play.
The NFL’s most popular play.
Image: AP/Jeff Roberson
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For five months of the year, the National Football League dominates Sundays in the United States; it’s more popular than church.

The NFL’s popularity is all the more remarkable when you inspect the fare it has to offer each week on television. An average professional football game lasts 3 hours and 12 minutes, but if you tally up the time when the ball is actually in play, the action amounts to a mere 11 minutes.

Part of the discrepancy has to do with the basic rules of American football. Unlike hockey or basketball, the 60-minute game clock in football can run even when the ball is not in play. That means a lot of game time is spent standing around or huddling up before each play begins.

The 11 minutes of action was famously calculated a few years ago by the Wall Street Journal. Its analysis found that an average NFL broadcast spent more time on replays (17 minutes) than live play. The plurality of time (75 minutes) was spent watching players, coaches, and referees essentially loiter on the field.

An average play in the NFL lasts just four seconds.

Of course, watching football on TV is hardly just about the game; there are plenty of advertisements to show people, too. The average NFL game includes 20 commercial breaks containing more than 100 ads. The Journal’s analysis found that commercials took up about an hour, or one-third, of the game.

Football’s stop-and-go nature makes it particularly prime for commercials, unlike soccer, which forces broadcasters to creatively insert ads during the 45 minutes of continuous play in each half. Broadcasts of NFL games in Europe, incidentally, include far fewer commercials.