No Time Like Overtime


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.