Serpico introduced a point that I’d like to elaborate on: the difference between college football and NFL overtime.

The rules for NFL overtime are simple: the ref holds another coin toss for possession. Fifteen minutes of “sudden death” football are played; the first team to score wins. If no one scores after fifteen minutes, it ends in a genuine tie.

The rules for NCAA football overtime are not as simple, but they’re not complex. One team starts with the ball on the 25-yard line. If they can score on their possession, without giving up on downs or turning the ball over, then the opposing team gets a chance to do the same. If the opposing team scores as well, then they advance to another overtime period. However, if one team scores and the other doesn’t – or doesn’t score as much – that’s it; game over.

We saw an NFL OT game this weekend: Bears over Broncos. Chicago won the coin toss and then went on to sink a long bomb to Desmond Clark and get in field goal range. This shouldn’t surprise the Nerds in the audience: the team that wins the toss wins the OT period, and thus the game, fifty-two percent of the time.

However, we saw two NCAA OT games this weekend, and they were nailbiters both: Arkansas upsetting #1 LSU in triple overtime and Tennessee upsetting Oregon Kentucky in quadruple overtime. The diehard fans that stuck around to watch them to the end – and could you call yourself a serious fan and leave early? – saw some thrilling athletics, let me tell you.

Many pundits insist the NFL’s OT system is “broken.” There have been a number of suggested fixes – some outlandish and exciting (auction off the “kickoff” line on which the OT starts), some relatively straightforward (just adopt the college rules). Here at Nerds on Sports, though, we’re interested in the more fundamental questions.

For instance: why does the NFL have the OT system it does?

With any complex network of economic interaction, you can usually boil things down to their simplest by looking for incentives. Who has the incentive to do what? What sort of behavior does this policy reward? Presuming that the people involved are rational, goal-oriented and at least somewhat selfish, who benefits from an overtime period that cannot go longer than 15 minutes?

The answer: the sponsors.

Experts peg NCAA football revenues at around nine hundred million dollars per year. Not bad, of course, but stack that against the $6.5 billion (with a B) that the NFL raked in in 2006. And consider that the $900 million mentioned above is scattered among the two hundred and forty two teams of the NCAA. Each NFL team contributes more to the NFL’s pot than each college team.

The NFL is worth a lot of money, period. It’s worth more money than college football. That money comes from ticket sales and merchandising in part, but it comes primarily from ad sponsors on television. And you cannot schedule 8 major games on the same Sunday if there’s a decent chance that one of them could run 2 hours over in quadruple overtime. The sponsors would throw a fit.

I don’t mean to suggest that corporate sponsors are ruining pro football. Without them, it’d be impossible for me to watch my Ravens play while I sit here in frosty New England. But what I am suggesting is that if you, or the NFL Competition Commission, or any other vocal force wants to change the NFL’s rules for overtime play, they must first consider the biggest force keeping the rules the way they are. They have 6,500,000,000 reasons to make sure each game ends at a reasonable hour. You’d better have 6,500,000,001 reasons to change the status quo.

Share →
  • BedelBlitz

    Tennessee beat Kentucky in the fourth overtime. Tennessee was ranked 19th, so I don’t know if it qualifies as an upset either.

    Watching the OT games this weekend, got me thinking about changes to the college system.

    What do you think about instead of the “must go for two starting in the 3rd OT” rule that the starting line for the offense gets pushed back 10 yards for every OT. First OT – both teams start on the 25 yard line (same as now). Second OT – both teams start on the 35 yard line. Third OT – both teams start at the 45 yard line, etc.

    Thoughts?

  • It’s an interesting notion, but what would it be in aid of? The reason college OT goes so long is because neither team scores, or because both teams score. Shifting the “kickoff” point for both teams doesn’t reduce the chance of either.

    I also fear that after a couple of years, you’d see the real doghouse teams just killing the clock until OT7, at which point they’d start on their opponent’s 15 yard line. Then it’s the battle of the kicking teams!

    If I can alter the rule slightly: if an OT period goes by with neither team scoring, then we can shift the kickoff points up: the “clearly you’re not good enough” rule.

  • angryed

    How about “overtime” in “football”, I mean soccer?
    Ithink that it is ridiculous that they don’t at the very least make it publicly known how much penalty time exists. The current situation leaves everyone clueless as to how much extra time will elapse until the official ends the game….How about some transparency here?! –Of course, time doesn’t mean very much in soccer, since most of the time they stand around and kick it side to side in midfield (see the Simpson’s parody of soccer) AND what does it matter, there won’t me many goals in the whole match, and the game will end up being decided in that wonderful overtime adventure known as penalty kicks! yay! Premiership league football (and world cup games with high numbers ofhighly paid premiership doods) is probably the only watchable soccer on the planet, in my opinion, primarily on fast-paced teams who actually kick the ball forward, and generally towards that gigantic net at the other end of the pitch! Soccer highlight shows are very exciting, however- they tend to cut out the 95% of the game that sucks.
    GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!

  • No one person knows all the rules for soccer. The information is parcelled out among all the refs, like the formula for Coke.

%d bloggers like this: