The fans watching a game at home won’t be impacted by the rule changes that the NFL implemented at its annual meetings in Florida on March 28, 2012. But those sitting in the stands at mostly sold-out stadiums around the U.S. this coming season are likely to be confused by at least a couple of the alterations, if not downright annoyed.
Instant replay will be further emphasized now that all turnovers will be automatically reviewed by the booth official, while the modified sudden death overtime format, which was previously utilized only for the playoffs — and which famously made its debut when the Denver Broncos stunned the Pittsburgh Steelers on the first play of the extra session in an AFC wild card game January 8, 2012 — will now apply for regular season games as well.
Both changes have the potential to extend the length of games and the amount of time fans are sitting around watching players mill about on the field. And fans already spend plenty of time doing that: According to a Wall Street Journal story from January 2010, there are only 11 minutes of actual action in an NFL game.
“To be honest, I’m not a fan of the booth review,” Jeremi Conaway, the vice president of Wanamaker Ticket Office in Philadelphia, told TicketNews. “It slows down the game. I feel it takes something away from the game. Games are long enough now with all the TV commercials. Stopping the game for every possible turnover — it takes a little bit away from the game … there’s no flow.”
This is the second straight year that the NFL has implemented automatic reviews of certain plays. Beginning with the 2011 season, every single touchdown was automatically reviewed in the booth. However, The Boston Globe reported on March 29, 2012 that the length of games increased by just one minute last year.
“It feels like it would slow the game down because you are taking what would be a challenge and taking it upstairs for confirmation,” Atlanta Falcons president and NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay told the Globe. “We didn’t see that in the scoring plays and we think in the turnovers, it will have the same effect. We like the way the procedure worked on scoring plays and we felt like this was a change we could make without adding game time.”
The new overtime format, which tweaks the sudden death formula the NFL used since 1974, will almost certainly do that — unless a team does what the Broncos did against the Steelers and scores a touchdown on the opening possession of the overtime. The Broncos, of course, beat the Steelers when Tim Tebow threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime.
Giving up a touchdown on the first series is the only way in which the team that kicks off to start overtime will not get the ball back and a chance to extend or win the game. If the team that gets the ball first kicks a field goal, the opponent can continue the game with a field goal of its own or win it with a touchdown. And if the two teams are still tied after one possession — either because neither scored or both kicked a field goal — then the sudden death rules apply and the next score wins. If the score remains tied at the end of the overtime period, the game is declared a tie (unlike in the playoffs).
“I don’t think it’s going to have that much of an impact [on attendance],” Conaway told TicketNews. “I still don’t like the rule. I think they [should] just do a straight 15-minute period, just like a regular period, and see who the better team is,” Conaway said.
Still, as convoluted as the new rules might appear, Conaway figures that they won’t deter fans from filling stadiums for 17 weeks a year. “If a team’s winning and putting a good product on the field, people are going to come and see it. [Rule changes are] the last thing people think about,” he said.
Last year’s attendance figures suggest that Conaway is correct. The NFL absorbed plenty of bad publicity during the protracted lockout, but no regular season games were missed, and NFL teams drew an average of 67,394 fans per game — a sizable boost from the average 2010 crowd of 64,978, per USA Today. Last season ended a three-year slide in attendance for the NFL, which, according to the Business Insider, went from selling 99.9 percent of tickets in 2007 to 94.6 in 2010.