They say that "time waits for no man" – except perhaps if you’re a fan of American sports. The United States is the land of opportunity, and on the basketball courts and the playing fields here it represents an opportunity to freeze the clock and make the action last quite a bit longer.
I love most sports, and the ballgames across the pond from my native Britain are no different. But I do so wish they’d hurry up. Football – the one they play with their hands – lasts exactly 60 minutes on the clock but it takes over three hours from start to finish. Basketball is a game of four equal quarters and it should take just 48 minutes, but an average NBA contest lasts three times that – two hours and a quarter.
Only baseball is different – the "national pastime" doesn’t need a timekeeper because it marches to the beat of its own drum. As your Dad may well have barked at you on those long car journeys as a child, “We’ll get there when we get there!” Nine innings of three outs each will take as long as it takes, but for the record it could be three hours – unless they need extra innings and unless it’s the playoffs, when every sport takes even longer.
It didn’t use to be this way. Back in the 1970s and early ‘80s, NBA games were broadcast on tape delay, but things changed when they were shown live on television. Timeouts were already a part of the game, but a bunch of mandatory stoppages were introduced to enable even more commercial breaks.
I asked the NBA to explain them all to me but the length, volume and variety of these timeouts was too confusing to comprehend and many dedicated basketball fans don’t even get what they’re all for and why they’re taken. But what is clear is that in a tight game the number of stoppages can make the last two minutes of playing time go on for 20. I’m not joking.
My father-in-law is a lifelong New York Giants fan, yet he’d never been to see a game in person. He was an armchair fan and, for large parts of his life, a long-suffering one. A few years ago I took him to Giants Stadium because I assumed that he’d want to see a real game once in his lifetime, but I quickly realized that he was only humoring me.
On the drive across the Hudson River he laid out how these games have become made for TV – domestic viewers are distracted during the breaks by the analysis, the commercials, a spot of channel-hopping or the beer in the fridge. But at the stadium, there’s not much to do except wait.
It’s all very new to me. Growing up in Britain, I was raised on a diet of football – the game you play with your foot – which lasts an hour and a half. It’s two frenetic halves of 45 minutes and there’s no stadium clock. The only man really keeping count is the referee in the middle, and his watch never stops ticking. It doesn’t matter if the ball goes out of play or if there’s an injury, the flow of the game is largely uninterrupted and if necessary he just adds a bit more on at the end. Looking at it from a new perspective, it feels rather quaint. But it’s not perfect.
Take the legendary Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, who wasn’t just a master tactician and motivator but also a renowned manipulator of the big and little hands. His reputation was such that he could bend time as well as Salvador Dali could clocks.
Since injury time – additional time at the end of a game – is subjective and discretionary, it always felt as if his teams were given a bit more time when they were chasing the game at home. It was such a phenomenon that it even got its own name: "Fergie time."
Statistical analysis has shown that it’s not just Manchester United who benefit from Old Father Time when they need it. Generally big teams playing at home are likely to profit in such a way – referees such as Graham Poll have admitted that it’s easy to be influenced by the demands of the crowd.
Such situations inevitably lead to criticism of the referees when goals are scored deep into these additional periods, something that could never happen in American sports. In NFL stadiums, a massive stadium clock takes the guesswork out it and as long as you don’t mind all the interruptions for injuries, changes of possession and – of course – timeouts, then everyone knows where they stand.
Time waits for no man, so they say. It’s also known as an abstract concept and its abstraction can drive you to distraction. I guess it’s simply a case of what you’re used to.