At the heart of the biggest conversation going on in baseball right now, there is one conversation we’re not having.

We hear all about the games being too long. It’s item 1 or 2 on every listicle in the wake of Rob Manfred’s ascent to commissioner-in-waitingness. It's the subject of countless hot takes (3 balls! 7 innings! No mound visits!). It’s the subject of countless lukewarm takes that don’t deserve exclamation points (just enforce the rules on pitchers). And it often gets spliced with the discussion on pace of game, which would be a worthy one were not all the evidence presented in the form of game length.

But as we discuss this back and forth and back and forth, there’s one thing missing from the conversation: Nobody’s really talking about how long games should be.

And I mean what I say: a serious conversation about how long games really should be, not how long they used to be. That’s one direction this always goes. Another direction is to look at other sports, and if the popularity of sports on this list tells you anything about where baseball should try to align itself, that’s a credit to your inference ability over mine:

  • Golf: 4 1/2 hours
  • College football: 3 1/2 hours
  • Stock car racing: 3 1/2 hours
  • Pro football: 3 hours
  • Pro hockey: 2 1/2 hours
  • Men’s tennis: 2 1/2 hours
  • Pro basketball: 2 1/2 hours
  • College basketball: 2 hours
  • Pro soccer: 2 hours
  • Boxing: 1 hour
  • Horse racing: 2 minutes

So not a look at other sports and especially not a comparison with how long games used to be, but a really stripped-down look at how long games should be. If we were writing the rules from scratch and given the current media climate and tastes of the consumers, how long should baseball games be?

As strange as it is to think about 140 years into what we think of as baseball, there is some precedent for considering this question, precedent in a place that has some reputation for eschewing convention.

Las Vegas had a serious collective sit-and-think about length when it came to its entertainment offerings. Stage shows, which are very successful in lots of places, tend to run from about two hours to maybe 2:45 for the big blockbusters on Broadway. Concerts run whatever they run too. Maybe three hours if the opening act can carry a long enough set.

This kind of thing didn’t work for Las Vegas, where they have a reason to get you in and out on a tight schedule. Therefore, the shows in that town are now an hour and a half. That’s it. They start on time, they end on time, and if you’re not back on the casino floor before 8:31, they did something wrong.

But how about for baseball, where there is less control and we’d only be looking for a targeted length?

My answer would be a little complicated. Most baseball games start at 7 p.m., which is a sensible time that I think I’d want to keep. It gives the 8- or 9-to-5ers and even the 8- or 9-to-6ers time to get to the game and maybe pick somebody up on the way. But if you’re going to get to work again the next morning, you’ll probably want to be home by about 10:30, so you’re looking at a 2:30 game plus a liberal exit strategy and commute. With 14 of the 30 teams in the Eastern Time Zone, this also gives the majority TV viewer one time zone west (eight more teams) where they can go to bed at a still-reasonable hour.

So 2:30 would be a great place to start the conversation, but there are a couple of problems. I don’t want a 2:30 game in the afternoon. Most teams play Sunday games at 1 or 1:30 p.m. local time, and I think that for day games, I would like to see a four-hour average game. If that’s my afternoon activity—either at the stadium or in the background of a Sunday afternoon at home—four hours is a nice way to take me up to dinner time and whatever is going on at night.

Also, an average of 2:30, unless you radically change baseball to put in a clock, can lead to some awfully short in-stadium experiences. A friend from my home town of Albany, N.Y., took the train down to the Bronx to watch last Thursday’s Yankees game against Houston. He got the shortest Yankees home game since 1996 and a 2:07 activity that got dwarfed by the three-hour trip each way. This game-day experience, while not at all reflective of the majority of fans, is something to keep in mind with every concern about attention span and effort to decrease time of game.

Also, this is just an average. There is a huge deal of variation here. Even ignoring rain delays and the 10 percent of shortest games and the 10 percent of longest games, baseball carries more than an hour window on the length of games.

Percentile 2010 2014
10 2:25 2:37
20 2:33 2:46
30 2:40 2:52
40 2:46 2:58
Median 2:52 3:04
60 2:58 3:10
70 3:04 3:17
80 3:14 3:27
90 3:27 3:41
Mean 2:55 3:08

So after all this, where should we be placing the target?

At the average length, which has gone up from 2:55 in 2010 to 3:08 through the first 1,946 games of this season? At the median, which has gone up a similar amount, with half the games longer than 2:52 in 2010 and 3:04 this year? Or do you aim it at the extremes? Try to have Manfred and Co. adjust it so that only x percent of games go over three hours or over four hours?

This is, with such a wide range of times, an extremely difficult exercise. But if we’re going to keep talking about changing the length of games, and if we’re going to continue to frame every conversation about pace of game not in time between pitches but its effect on length of games, we should at least have some idea of what we actually want.

Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.

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omg ... I thought college football games would average out closer to 5 hours than 3 1/2. I bet if you excluded the several more defense- and ball control-minded major conferences it might be -- or for sure would at least seem that way which is just as bad.
1. The elephant in the room in most televised sports is TV commercials. The other day they were talking game length with a pitcher on the radio and he said "you wouldn't believe how often I'm ready to go but I have to wait for us to get back from commercial."

Some local HS games are televised now and it adds a minimum of thirty minutes to the game.

2. I go to baseball games to leave my obligations behind, to relax. No chores, no sales calls, no things I have to do. I'd say the longer the better.

Now if you could just lessen the flashing signs and loud stadium "music"...
I second liptorkid's point about commercials, as I stated in a post to an earlier article by Zachary Levine. And I fear that this very controllable factor is only going to get worse in future in the scramble for greater revenues.
If games on average were clicked back to 2:45 or 2:50 I'd be a happy man.
Here in Pittsburgh the bad teams in the 2000-2010 years always played in that
range. And they in general were getting killed every night.
I'm firmly with K Goldstein on this: more of my favorite things is always better. Don't understand the opposite mindset - 'Gee, once the game hits 2:45 I lose all interest...?'
or are always better. stupid lack of edit.
Those with this point of view (and you can pretty much bet someone will always chime in with it) are inadvertently revealing that it isn't baseball that they like, it's sitting in a baseball park or sitting on the couch or both.

"I like baseball, and there's more of it! It's so SIMPLE! What are these people complaining about?"

We're talking about the average baseball game. There isn't "more" of it. It's a longer version of the same thing, which is almost always some combination of dull and inconvenient. I will stay for a 20-inning marathon because I like baseball, but do you really not see why that's different?

Okay, let's start here: How would you feel if the average 51-54 outs took 11 hours? Would you enjoy that, and if not, why not?
Not sure the need for the gratuitous couch-potato slam. For the record I don't own a couch. I do like sitting at the ballpark.

Some games are longer because the starters bomb and the managers go full LaRussa with the bullpen. Some are quicker, and by a large factor. You never know what you are going to get. That is part of the draw for me. I don't understand the hand-wringing.
kcshankd, you really don't understand why people think baseball games have gotten too long? I'll answer my own question, actually. You also noted that some games are longer than others and that you never know what you're going to get, which has essentially zero to do with the issue. So no.

I just don't buy it. I believe your point of view is designed to show how you like baseball more than the rest of us. I like baseball a lot, which is why I want the players to stop dilly-dallying and get to it.

I'm sorry to be argumentative, but it's a pet peeve.

As for the couch-potato slam, well, I'd say it was pretty minor. I would apologize, but I guess I just don't get all the hand-wringing.
But anyway, to be clear, it wasn't meant as a typical couch-potato slam. I just meant to say that there is a difference between watching baseball and trying to watch baseball but having trouble because there is too much nothing in the baseball.

But also, you didn't answer my initial question about the 11-hour game time average. At what length would the average baseball game become tiresome for you?
At what length would the average baseball game become tiresome for you?

I'm 41. It hasn't happened yet.

Ever watched cricket?
A new angle on pace of game! Hallelujah.

The in-stadium experience is something you rarely hear mentioned. Most of the longer sports (especially football and NASCAR) are all-day, weekend-only affairs. You drive in early, you tailgate, and at the end of the day there's a game. This doesn't really translate to a weeknight sport like baseball, though.
I don't think the problem is the typical three hour game. Sure some teams and some players could use to pick up the pace, and maybe a clock would help, but I doubt very much lowering the median length back to where it was in 2010 is an issue for the core fans of the game.

On the other hand, I do think the length of extra inning games is an issue that that fans vote on with our feet: it is reasonable to assume that if you are playing a game with fewer than half, or around 16 innings with fewer than 10%, of your paying customers sticking around, then you are not providing an entertainment anymore. I am therefore interested in seeing the average (but not the median) lowered through some creative thinking about keeping games to 10 or 11 innings. I picked up the following somewhere, I think Tom Tango's blog but I'm not actually sure:

Teams play the 10th inning starting with a runner on first base.

Teams play the 11th inning starting with a runners on first and second.

Teams play the 12th inning (and rare subsequent innings) starting with the bases loaded.

Now your very longest games are over in four instead of five or more, and your typical extra inning game is shortened by 10-30 minutes.

I know this creates all sorts of record keeping problems - suddenly a run charged to a pitcher isn't a run anymore! We'll need new categories of runs! I can live with that. We can figure it out.
I don't think the length of the game is the specific issue, it is the amount of time in between where nothing is going.

There's too much time between innings. Pitching changes take too long - the manager meanders out of the dugout, motions to the ump, talks to the pitcher, the reliever grabs his jacket and makes his way to the mound, talks to catcher, does his warmups, and then, we can start play again. I love instant replay, but I don't need to see 2 umpires and club rep fumbling with headsets.

IMO, the problematic "amount of time in between where nothing is going on" is not the managerial changes nor the instant replay; it's the time between "regular" pitches. When the manager is making a change, at least there's some kind of reason for it and the game might even be at a key point, so there is something for the announcers and viewers/listeners to talk/think about. But when Clay Buchholz is staring in for a sign, stepping off the rubber, adjusting his hat, getting the sign again, etc., in the second inning with no one on base, well, we all run out of things to think about. Throw a pitch already! A pitcher is supposed to get comfortable during warmups, right?

I grew up playing American football but most of my kids played soccer/futbol. We watched a lot of World Cup together. For long periods of time, there were no major events happening, but it was still fun to watch because there was continuous action on the field. Sure, the continuity was aided by the fact that there are no commercial breaks, but the ball is in play all the time and there is always the sense that something could happen suddenly. There is NOTHING happening when a pitcher is wandering around the mound or a batter is standing with one foot out of the box, adjusting his gloves again.

I agree that it is difficult to compare an "ideal time of game for baseball" in comparison to an event that takes place once a week or once every few months. I can't comment on a comparison to pro basketball because, well, who watches the NBA anymore?
I just want to leave one thing here, and that is:

Baseball has been "in crisis" for going on 20 years. It's always something, and it's always highly publicized. For a game that is supposedly losing its relevance, it sure gets a lot of publicity, almost always negative, and yet...

It just seems to me that under Selig's reign baseball has always been in the spotlight for negative reasons at precisely the wrong times. I mean, hey, Mike Trout!
I agree the major issue is commercials. Seems to me every time they quicken the game, that time savings is more than made up for by more time for commercials. I am dubious we can solve this issue until owners are ready to set aside present revenues for potential future revenues. I'm not holding my breath.
I don't believe the problem is the length of the game so much as its pace, to which FlyingDutchman was alluding. There's so much unnecessary stoppage of play that could be removed without serious consequence to the competition.

Take the endless in-frame pitching changes, for example. My wife loses interest in MLB games right about the time the excitement should be heating up. That's because rather than build the drama steadily in the late innings, the game allows managers to interrupt it for minutes at a time. This is not how a wise entertainment business acts.
Two days ago the Red Sox played a game that lasted under three hours. It was their first one this month. They've played eight games lasting at least 3:41 in August. There are a lot of empty seats at Fenway Park in the late innings these days, even when it's a competitive game.
In your comparison of 2014 to 2010, I think you should list along side those times, the average scores of those games. The 2014 game has less scoring while ALSO being longer. The game is less interesting (less action) today for a couple of factors, but that is another article altogether.
The beauty of baseball is that time ceases to exist. There is no clock, and theoretically, any game can go on forever. This creates a special space in which your concentration sharpens, your body relaxes, and you are enfolded into a drama that has a definite beginning, middle, and end.

this is entirely different from real life, and it should be enjoyed to the fullest.

The people who complain about the time of games have a valid point, but it doesn't seem to stop them from coming to the games. Maybe we all need something to complain about, but we also need something that challenges our expectations and shatters our routines.