Is it time to cut time?

How long is a piece of string? It’s a question we’ve heard a thousand times, and as we know there’s no one answer. A piece of string has no set length. The same question could be asked in reference to a game of football, and I’m not just talking about footy, I’m asking you to think globally, all football codes included.

I bring this up because late last year, the AFL canvassed the idea of shortening each quarter by two and a half minutes, Adrian Anderson telling us that it had become a “major talking point at league headquarters.”  Cited as potential reasons for this move were increased hamstring injuries, television broadcasters preferring a “tighter package” and of course, us, “the fans.” But where does Australian Football sit within the context of other sporting codes, in particular ‘the footballs?’

Let’s take a look.

Rugby League and Union, along with World Football and Ireland’s Gaelic football each share the same format of two halves with injury time added to the end of each half. Rugby has 80 minutes of playing time, world football 90 minutes while Gaelic football is noticeably shorter, playing two 35 minute halves. Each has typically two to three minutes of stoppage time added to the end of each stanza.

Now here’s an anomaly. American football has the least amount of playing time, yet the longest match duration. There is 60 minutes of match play divided into 15 minute quarters. Yet the game in total typically lasts between three and four hours, due mainly to the numerous stoppages in play, team timeouts and wait for it….media timeouts! Yes, advertisements. Time is also kept more precisely than the football codes mentioned above, with a countdown clock stopping as the play stops.

Australian football also operates this way in terms of format and timekeeping, though there is 80 minutes of playing time divided into 20 minute quarters. Our take on football typically sees ten or so minutes of injury/stoppage time added per quarter, extending the game by  a further 40 minutes; the same time it takes to play a whole half of rugby. But it hasn’t always been this way.

The match many historians point to as the ‘first’ match of Australian football, (in reality it was a stepping stone towards Australian football rather than a game of Australian football in itself) was the meeting between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar in 1858. It took just on five weeks to complete.

Play began at midday of the first Saturday, yet as evening brought the day’s activities to a close, the scores remained locked at one goal apiece. Play resumed a fortnight later, the deadlock remained. And again, until finally the match was declared a draw. Historian Geoff Blainey in his book “A Game of Our Own” estimates that each Saturday saw approximately five hours of play, giving the match a grand total of 15 hours playing time. Things had to change.

For the next decade or so, as the game slowly morphed from a rugby-ish type scrum into something slightly more recognisable, it was generally accepted that the first team to kick 2 goals would be declared the winner. But a re-writing of the rules in 1869 saw a time limit of 100 minutes imposed, a playing time for top level Australian football which lasted until 1993. It was also around this time also that our code of football was divided into quarters rather than just halves.

Cutting quarters from 25 to 20 minutes in 1994 wasn’t necessarily about shortening the game. Until 1993, extra time was only added after scores or for injury stoppages. Simultaneous to the shortening of quarters, the AFL also increased the number of things which could stop the clock, such as around the ground stoppages and the ball leaving the field of play. Therefore, quarters continued to run for around the same amount of time, and the change was barely noticed.

While a move to 17 and a half minute quarters would equally be a minor adjustment for fans, it’s the decision making process that has me scratching my head. I’d like to think that a reduction in playing time was a noble cause; to prevent fatigue related injuries, to prolong careers and look after the players. And it may well achieve that.

However I fear that this issue is being driven by television broadcasters. AFL operations manager Adrian Anderson said as much. “The views of broadcasters, looking for tighter packages, was “relevant” as the league starts eyeing the clock.” Anderson also mentioned clubs and fans as important stakeholders in the AFL’s decision making process. “The real driver of this is the fans.”

Now, as much as we, the humble fans, pump our ‘hard-earned’ into the football industry, television, with the astronomical fee it has paid for the rights to broadcast, is surely the AFL’s biggest stakeholder. It’s just the way that it is.

Television has already determined so much of what Australian football is today, both good and bad. Some clubs jumper colours and designs were altered in the 1970’s so that they would be more striking for colour television. The VFL began to televise Sydney matches on a Sunday once South Melbourne relocated north. This eventually led to the VFL/AFL commanding the whole weekend, severely wounding the strength of the grassroots Victorian Football Association, to whom Sunday was home.

Whenever a goal is kicked, the umpire takes the ball back to the middle of the ground and waits awkwardly for a light to inform them that the television ads have finished and the ball may now be bounced. Not as blatant as gridiron’s ‘media timeouts,’ though in essence the same.

My club will this year play just two matches at the traditional 2pm Saturday afternoon slot, once sacred. But how can you televise live games if they’re all played at the same time? Early and twilight timeslots can be difficult to navigate in terms of attendance, however again, it suits the broadcasters.

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. Not all of this change is bad. I love night football, in particular on a Friday. I love that there is football on all weekend, with games bleeding into one another. There’s coverage like never before. I’m just aware that television is responsible for a lot of this change.

And can there be too much of a good thing? In this age of instant gratification and information overload, we have more than ever before, but could it be that we actually have less?

We can immerse ourselves in footy all weekend from the comfort of our living rooms, but in doing that have we lost the sense of community that was found in football? What about the excitement and anticipation of your game being shown on the Saturday night replay? Sure I can now watch it all, but that doesn’t give me the same ‘high’ that I used to get.

I used to find it enthralling and dramatic to watch other matches, played simultaneously, play out on the scoreboard simply as ‘F’ v’s ‘C’, and afterwards blending into the melting pot of footy colours converging upon Flinders Street station as fans made their way home from Melbourne’s various league grounds. I know that change is inevitable, yet it’s worth considering that with less available….more was treasured.

It’s a small thing, just two and a half minutes missing from each quarter. Yet it would be significant in that if changed, it would be just the second time that the length of Australian football matches has changed since 1869, and quite possibly at the request of the games broadcasters. When the AFL talked of speeding the game up, cutting 10 minutes of playing time isn’t what I thought they meant!

Do football fans find that the game goes for too long? It’s not a complaint I’ve come across, but perhaps I’m not searching in the right places. Is a twenty-twenty style format something that Australian football needs to secure its own future much as cricket sees it as it’s lifeline? Or would you, the fans, prefer that we fall into line with world football and rugby, a shorter game played in two halves? Ross Lyon brought it up as an option whilst still coach of St. Kilda last year. That would really neaten up the product for television networks!

Thankfully, there will be no official rule changes for season 2012, Adrian Anderson proclaiming that “it was time for a year of consolidation in the rules.” (Insert a sigh of relief from footy fans here!) The AFL however will seek to reduce the game time by asking umpires to increase the speed in which they throw in and bounce up the ball around the ground, as well as reducing the time taken between scores and recommencing play.

To me this is welcome news, it appears that the league will trial a common sense solution to the ‘problem’ we have with excessive game length, before pulling the trigger. May this be a new precedent at AFL headquarters when it comes to rule changes. But watch this space.

What would you like to see happen? How long should a game of footy be?

About John Carr

First and foremost, I'm a Richmondite- 5th generation and dyed in the wool. I love the club, but also have a love for the game itself, and love to explore the cultural and social aspects of Australian Rules football. I am married with 4 kids, and also have a love of music, and run a small recording studio


  1. Mick Jeffrey says

    Same quarter lengths, but time on only added after 10 minutes of game time have been played per quarter.

  2. John Carr says

    I could live with that. Would mean quarters would run 25-27 minutes I guess. Not a huge shift.

  3. Will fans get a 12.5% reduction on admission? I think not.

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