Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Ranking the "game pace" of Ultimate

Lots of talk about the "pace" of Ultimate these days. There have been plenty of complaints over the years about too many arguments, slow resolutions to foul calls, too much time between points, etc. In general, there seems to be a sense, as Kevin mentions in my "11th Edition" post, that players would like to see Ultimate become more "fan friendly". There are also many discussions in places like RSD about getting Ultimate on TV and what it will take to accomplish that. I had some questions about not only "game pace" but also its relationship to TV, so I spent some of the past week doing "research". I timed football, hockey, basketball, soccer, and Ultimate games and developed a ranking based on the data. This post discusses those findings.

I think I need to start by saying that my sample size would not pass muster at even the most basic academic level, but I do think the numbers give a rough sense, enough to have a discussion, of what is going on in major TV sports. Here is what I sampled:

Soccer- 1st half of Chelsea vs Wigan from early Dec
Hockey- First period of the Bruins-Columbus game from Dec 26
Basketball-2nd, 3rd, and 4th qtrs from the Heat-Lakers game on Christmas Day
Football- 1st half of Eagles vs Cowboys on Christmas Day
Ultimate-2003 UPA Club Championship Open Final-FG vs Condors

Here is how I devised the ranking number:

What I was interested in was the time the ball (or puck or disc) was "in play". I measured the time the object was in play and then I divided that by the total time for the period. Hockey and basketball were easy as the clock runs when the object is in play, but for the other three, I had to get the data with a stopwatch. The result of dividing "in play" by "total time" results in a percentage. I then ranked the teams by this number. I also made some general (not comprehensive) notes about longest times that that the object was in play, etc.

Heat vs Lakers, Christmas Day

Each qtr is 12 minutes. I did time starts and stops in the action, but the main measurement was the start and finish time for each qtr.

2nd qtr- Began at 3:06pm, lasted 36 minutes
3rd qtr- Began at 4:01pm, lasted 28 minutes
4th qtr- Began at 4:33pm, lasted 31 minutes

Total "in play" time= 36 minutes
Total time for period= 95 minutes

Game Pace Ranking = 0.38

Notes: The average duration of time in which the ball was in play was roughly 25-30 secs, although there were a few periods of much longer sustained action, including a wild 2:44 span in the 3rd qtr in which there were no stoppages of play.

Eagles vs Cowboys, Christmas Day

1st Qtr- Began at 5:08pm, ended 28 minutes later at 5:36pm(the announcers remarked that this qtr moved very quickly)

Total "in play" time= 2:37

2nd Qtr- Began at 5:38, ended 43 minutes later at 6:21pm

Total "in play" time= 3:05

Total "in play" time= 5.7 minutes
Total time for period= 71 minutes

Game Pace Ranking = 0.08

Note: Longest sustained period of action was an 11 second kick-off and return

Boston Bruins vs Columbus Blue Jackets. Dec 26th.

Note: I don't have cable so I had to resort to the web stream of the radio broadcast. As such, I was not able to get to the level of detail of the other sports.

1st period- Began at 1:54pm, ended 32 minutes later at 2:26pm

Total "in play" time= 20 minutes
Total time for period= 32 minutes

Game Pace Ranking = 0.62

Note: Hockey had long periods of sustained action and, in general, just seemed to to flow along with very few stoppages.

Thanks to Marshall Goff as he had Tivo'd an English Premiership game. I appreciate his help.

1st half of Chelsea vs Wigan- Early Dec.

Total "in play" time= 30:47
Total time for period= 47 minutes

Game Pace Ranking = 0.65

Notes: Average sustained period of play was 32 sec. Longest sustained play was 2:35.

The ranking is as follows:

1) Soccer-0.65
2) Hockey-0.62
3) Basketball-0.38
4) Football-0.08

Observation: I am guessing to certain extent, but I find it interesting that there is an inverse relationship between the "game pace" ranking and the TV market share of the sports.

So, where does Ultimate fit in?

Game: 2003 UPA Club Champs- Furious George vs Condors

1st half= 60 minutes
"In play" time= 27:52

2nd half= 61 minutes
"In Play" time= 19:55

Total "in play" time= 47:47
Total time for period= 121 minutes

Game Pace Ranking = 0.39

Notes: Average sustained duration was roughly 25-30 seconds. Longest sustained duration was 57 seconds. Longest cumulative break was time between points, followed by long slow walks after a turnover, followed by arguments about foul calls.

Game Pace Rankings with Ultimate:

1) Soccer-0.65
2) Hockey-0.62
3) Ultimate-0.39
4) Basketball-0.38
5) Football-0.08


1) Based on this data and on my observations in watching all of these sports live in the past two months, I don't think Ultimate is unduly slow or any less "fan friendly" than other sports. I am not saying that it wouldn't benefit from a higher pace, I just don't think we are asking for an unreasonable amount of patience on the part of the spectator.

2) I think this data suggests that Ultimate would translate pretty well, in its current form, to TV. There are ample breaks for commercials and instant replay.

3) Is asking for Ultimate's pace to increase and become more "fan friendly" in the live setting at cross-purposes with the requirements needed to get it on TV?

I spoke a bit with my brother (a college div 1 rowing coach) about this post, and he felt that Ultimate shouldn't worry about TV. He thought that the focus should be on making it fun to play and then go from there. His suggestions for Ultimate: professional uniforms and very well run events.

Hopefully, the data (however small the sample) in this post speaks to the fact that sports viewed live or experienced on TV place very different and sometimes conflicting demands on the experience and that we need to be careful about our assumptions when it comes to looking at other sports as possible role models.


Julian said...


Interesting stuff. I love unscientific studies.

This comment is a bit tangential, and I don't want to derail the conversation, but I would rather see Ultimate become more player-friendly instead of more fan-friendly. Not that it's particularly player-unfriendly in its current incarnation, but shouldn't we be worried about whether Ultimate is the most fun to play, not the most fun to watch?


gcooke said...

Hi Julian,

Thanks for the comments.

I don't think your comments are tangential at all. They actually tie very neatly into both my 11th edition post and my Imitate or Differentiate posts.

I think the question you pose is an important one and does gets into the territory of "what do you want Ultimate to be?"

As I mention in my post, there are many assumptions and answers, but not many questions like yours, floating around out there. I know I find it helpful to consider that there are many questions out there like the one that you ask....as these issues are complex.


parinella said...

Terrific idea. I was surprised that soccer was as low as it was (even though it was the highest), since you always hear about the non-stop action.

You should probably include the intermissions from the other sports in determining the pace rating for them (plus halftime for ultimate).

There are two other factors. All the sports but football have significant amounts of neutral-court play where the defense drops back and a few of the offensive team bring the ball up (pull and first pass in ultimate, which for a HnH team might be 50% of the time the disc is live).

The other factor to consider is intensity. To improve fan-friendliness, you need to remove down time without affecting the level of intensity. Hockey does this by allowing teams to change on the fly. So keep in mind that reducing the down time in ultimate _could_ reduce the intensity as well.

luke said...

i think the biggest knock is that frisbee is 'non-professional.' uni's, and a clock between points, active line judges, and 2 on field empowered observers (powers tbd) would go a long way. that whole 'walkin' around after the point gig' is a mustard/water cocktail. also, you've got these tournaments where everyone is sort of lollygaggin' around, no sense of urgency, and then all the sudden, the hard cap goes off? hard cap'd tournaments should have hard rules for time between points.

spew ends.

gcooke said...


I was surprised, as well, by how low soccer was. I talked with Marshall about this and he thought it might have to do with how aggresive the English premier league is. The ball is frequently going out of bounds, etc.

I think the idea of including intermissions has merit. A good example of this is hockey. Very exciting and fast moving, but there are those two damned intermissions. I think hockey's rating would be the most negatively impacted by including intermissions.

It seems important to say that my ranking does not claim to be a commentary on excitement, or, as you discuss, intensity. When I discussed the rankings with my wife (not at all a sports fan), she said "Yeah...but soccer is so boring". She even had a few good things to say about football...very much in the line that while football's action is limited, the intensity is extreme.

Lastly, regarding:

"To improve fan-friendliness, you need to remove down time without affecting the level of intensity."

I think I agree with this, but I am not sure. Take football, for example, the amount of down time greatly increases when a game is televised. While each play remains constant in terms of intensity, the overall experience, when viewed live, is less intense. I think my point here, though, is more that "fan-friendliness" in the live setting is something that has no relation, according to my data, to how popular a sport is...here in the US.


gcooke said...


Thanks for your comments.

While I think keeping tabs on the time between points is positive in the live setting, there are many examples of major sports just shutting down the action in a very similar way. This happens all the time in televised football. The teams come out on the field, but everyone sits and waits while the TV guy in the red shirt gets the ok from the TV truck to start the action.......and we find this acceptable.

From my perspective, the feeling of being a spectator waiting for the next pull and waiting for the red shirt TV guy to get off the field is pretty much identical. So, I guess my point is: if such stoppages are similar, why are they acceptable for football?


parinella said...

The extra time in the stoppages are a necessary evil in football. There is a natural break required to change lines or rest or reassemble elsewhere on the field (maybe check a Div III football game, since that's the highest level not televised). Ultimate has a natural break time, too, but that is exceeded by the whole field-rush celebration every single point. If you wanted to decrease time between points without actually enforcing the limit, I would just ban field-rushing after a goal, just like every single other sport.

Tarr said...

While this is obviously a pretty rough study, it does demonstrate that Utimate's pacing is probably not the problem. I think that if ultimate was ever broadcast on live TV, you'd have strict timing between points, on turnovers, and on time outs, you'd have guys feeding throwers the disc after out-of-bounds passes, and so on. So the "pace" would probably be a bit faster - nowhere near hockey and soccer, but probably a bit ahead of basketball.

Has there always been this much clamouring for "fan-friendly" changes? I find it somewhat bewildering. Yes, we all love our sport and think it is phenomenal, and it has some semi-objective aspects (float and arc of a disc, layouts) that seem to set it apart. But getting on TV is driven by marketing. Quite simply, our sport is too inexpensive to play and has too small of a base to generate large commercial revenue.

As George said (quoted), the focus should be on making the game fun to play. Well, that, and growing the game at the youth and league level to the point where the average sports-fan on the street is familiar with the basic idea of the game and doesn't think of it as a punchline.

Rich said...

I love this study. As a big football fan, I find that football games do drag on forever on TV, with commercials after a score, then again immediately after the kickoff, etc. I imagine that this is why the networks love football so much.
I would, however, argue a little with your methodology for determining in-play time. In the modern era, with no-huddle offenses and formation shifts prior to the snap, I would argue that play is going on from the moment the huddle is broken, not from the moment of the snap. Dependent on score, team strategy and situation, this can vary greatly, but as an example, watch a Colts no-huddle drive during the playoffs. It has far less downtime for the viewer. I'm not sure what kind of difference this will make in your calculations, but it should bring football up a little farther away from 0.

I suppose that the ultimate corollary to this is the movement of the new offensive team prior to a turnover. The initial cut in an offense often starts before the disc is tapped in, thus providing viewer interest even during a so called 'not in play' time.


Jackson said...

This was an interesting observation that you made, and I appriciate that you took the time and effort to do this. However, I think there are a lot of other factors that play into fan-friendliness that I'm not sure how to quantitize.

For example, say a foul is called in ultimate, and it takes everyone 5 seconds to stop, reset, and restart play. As a fan, my interest is not reduced. But I will start to be annoyed if this starts happening every 10 seconds.

Another example is that longer stoppages may become more acceptable as the significance of the stoppage increases. A play in football that results in a touchdown is very significant. If it is unclear whether the player caught the ball before going out of bounds, a long stoppage may result to challenge and review the play. I would be willing to accept this long stoppage, because the outcome will be very significant. I would be less willing to accept a similarly long stoppage on a holding call on an incomplete pass at midfield.

The things that I feel may be hard to quantitize are relationships between:
-length of each stoppage
-frequency of stoppages
-significance of each stoppage

And, as others have mentioned, it will be difficult to quatitize intensity of live play; but it might be possible to semi-objectively measure percentage of live play at low intensity vs. high intensity.

Finucane said...

Gotta agree with rich about the entertainment value of football right before the snap. All sports have this, to some degree, though, and George's effort was tricky enough without having to make judgments about when the slow walk to set up a free kick ends, and the exciting jockeying between guys protecting their balls begins.

gcooke said...


Well said.....thanks for that perspective.


gcooke said...

Rich, jackson, Finucane,

Thanks for the comments. I am grateful that you appreciated the data...even with the obvious limitations.

I agree with your suggestions and on the intangible/unmeasureable parts that make sports exciting...even when the ball is not in play.

I think, based on your understanding comments, that it is clear that my ranking was not meant to serve as an excitement rating. Having the ball in play (see baseball) is not a direct correlation to excitement. In fact, that might be a major point to my post. Football is exciting DESPITE its stoppages. Getting rid of stoppages is not some kind of golden key to Ultimate's success.


Kevin said...

First off, this is a great post. You gave us a lot of thoughts to think about and spark discussions.

I didn't intend for fan-friendly to become a buzzword. Jackson and Luke, both touched on what I was trying to express when I talked about making the game more fun to watch. Their ideas would make Ultimate more fun to spectate without affecting game play.

Jackson's discussion on spectator expectations strikes me as important. When I sit down to watch a televised sporting event I know somewhat what to expect when it comes to making calls. However, in Ultimate the calls and time to resolution remain arbitrary. The pace of a game relies heavily on who's playing.

Either way, referees at top level of ultimate just make sense. I don't understand the opposition to refs. Writing refs into the rules won't affect 95% of the Ultimate being played. Casual players can keep playing the same way they always have and when they aren't playing bad Ultimate, they can have a more enjoyable time watching the elite level games.


gcooke said...


Your comments made me re-read Jackson's comments and I agree that stoppages of arbitrary length are difficult to deal with.

One thing about timing all the sports was that I was, of course, overly focused on the flow. I did find, however, that not "knowing" how long a foul discussion was going to go on for to be quite annoying. Its like as someone said above "Oh...here comes the commercial after the kickoff". We expect it. We can run down to the kitchen and get some some food, etc. There is a bit of resignation, but, in general, it is "acceptable". Same goes for foul shots in basketball. I do think that, in Ultimate, clear communication of the foul call (perhaps hand signals by the observers) and a set time for discussion could be beneficial.

In terms of refs (and the opposition to refs), that is, obviously, quite a loaded subject. I think there is pretty good commentary from some high level players in my "MLU: Players Perpsectives" post from this past July.


gapoole said...

As much as I love the SOTG-based system of running Ultimate, as happy as I am with the ability to call my own fouls, and as much I respect the expectation that players will not purposely cheat, I am nonetheless mostly convinced that Ultimate will, at some point in the future, require referees at the highest levels of the game. My hope, though, is that some balance can be struck between SOTG and refs, which should include a regulated enforcement of the rules, incentive to play by the rules, and the ability to call your own fouls.

I like the possibility of giving more powers to the Observer (more active calls from an objective viewpoint, like travels), but keeping fouls-calls (marking and receiver) a responsibility of the player, with disputes to be settled by an observer. People complain about the pace, and I honestly wonder why; if you have Observers, it should be foul-contest/no contest, and then the foul-caller can request the Observer. Even without Observers, it should be foul-contest: where do the rules say you can argue?

As for the pace-comparison, I would say that Ultimate is more exciting in general, a nice amalgam in terms of excitement and down-time. Points are often long, and posession changes without stopping. Walking to the disc is equivalent to the huddle in football, and is often rushed (fast-break situations, like basketball).

I think the biggest problem for Ultimate is actually that there is too little definite downtime, except between points. If it were to be televised broadly, I think you would see a faster pace during points (moved along by a well-oiled Observer system) and longer breaks between points. Say, a mandatory 3 minutes from score to pull, so you can fit in 3 commercials, plus a highlight-worthy replay in slow-motion.

gcooke said...


I just want to make sure that when you say "referees" in the first paragraph that you mean observers with more powers, like you say in the second.

Is this correct?


Thomas Gabriel said...

I think all this talk about changing things about any sport for holding the viewer's attention is rather moot.

As your wife noted Gcookie, "soccer is so boring" but its *obviously* not for people from Europe and particularly the UK. Your wife and many americans just haven't been 'conditioned' through your childhood to enjoy the particular sport known as soccer.

Another example of this is cricket, particularly in Australia, England and India, individual matches can last for DAYS, 6-8 hours a day and the whole test series will be spread out over 5 matches during a 7-8 week period. And the sport is about as attention grabbing as watching paint dry and grass grow

but people in these countries are conditioned for a love of it. (I obviously missed out)

On a quick aside, Cricket in Australia runs commercials frequently but actually CUTS them as soon as play resumes, so its nice to see the actual sport take precedent over the ads.

So how does this mysterious conditioning happen?
-In schools
-On TV
-In homes

That is where you need to focus if you want to have Ultimate on TV and with a bigger profile.

People need to have someone explain the game to them to have an interest in watching it. This is either fostered upon them by their peers or family in the home or their schooling does it. If you don't know the basics of a sport, its a baffling experience watching it and ultimately unsatsisfying to watch. I come from a culture that cares nothing for gridiron (American football). But I played it at school when I was but a wee laddy, albeit without the big wussy pads you lot wear and now find it tactically a very interesting game to watch, in those rare occassions I see it on pay-TV or live.

So thats the real challenge. Changing the way Ultimate is done for a bigger profile will probably not result in any increase in profile. Aim to start school programs and work from there. Its a long road but its probably the most achievable in todays environment.

gcooke said...


Thanks for your interesting comments and your perspective. It is refreshing to hear from someone outside the US of A.

I agree with what you have to say. I hope that my post does not come across as advocating for change or that, as I have said several times in my comments, that I equate game pace with excitement. I grew up a town in which the high school soccer team was higher profile than the football team (in the late 70's). Perhaps, as you suggest, that is why I love watching the sport and am constantly a bit miffed at it being dismissed in this country. We need not worry about my wife's opinions. She really has no interest in any sports whatsoever.......

I agree that chasing the tail of a goal like "higher profile" leads down a difficult path. It not only is an Outcome Goal(thus uncontrollable), but it also, in my opinion, leads to a frame of reference that is willing to compromise integrity for celebrity (I don't think I need to emphasize that we have plenty of role models here for that). I do think that the suggestion that you and others have made to focus on Youth Development is a positive goal.

...but is the talk of changing a sport to hold a viewers attention moot? I am not sure. There are plenty of examples here in the US of the rules of sports being changed to increase excitement and market share. Personally, I find many of such attempts to be patronizing, but that is the reality in our saturated sports market environment. Marketing the excitement of sports is very much in our face here in this country.

I know that WUCC's in Perth did not use observers. Is it a regular practice to use observers at Ausralian Nationals? My point is that there is visible and distinct pressure here in the US to continually evaluate and, perhaps, change the sport. People are voting on the 11th right now. The MLU held a tournament in July that specifically was created to maximize the excitement of Ultimate. The sport is small and change can be initiated quickly.


Thomas Gabriel said...

Oh, i didn't mean to say you were advocating changes but there are certainly people who have commented that seem to do so.

And yes, to go along with the example I gave, cricket changed its format some time ago, maybe in the 70s or 80s, and instead of having 'tests' they also had one-day series, where the amount of bowls or pitches was dramatically limited so that it fits a match into one day, and everyone wears brightly coloured uniforms instead of white....nevertheless, the tests remain and have been strengthened by the presence of one-dayers. Its still cricket, but different

The closet thing we have, which is still ultimate but different is...beach ultimate? Will beach ultimate, with its smaller field/teams/stall count etc and condensed faster action be the harbinger of regular ultimate to the rest of the world? I think it has potiential to be what you hook audiences with. And if its played mixed then both sexes have something to look at, what more could you want... :P

As for observers, Australians typically ain't interested in them, for a couple of reasons. Many don't think they are needed. I can think of only a couple of terrible beyond terrible calls that would have required an observer in my seven years of ulti here. Secondly, we don't really have the established volunteer base or cash flow to maintain observer services. Perhaps we could rustle up someone for the semis and finals at nationals but....why bother? The the last reason is that the Aussie frisbee community is small enough that most of the top, angry competitive people know each other and have played together, so why would you cheat your mates? Sure it still has happened but community pressure on some individuals and teams over the years has actually resulted in improvements in spirit from those teams and people.

Perhaps if Aussie ultimate gets so big that people don't know one another, or that an unusual bitterness begins between one state or another...but everyone here is trying to work to ensure things like that don't happen. So all in all, Australians are against observers.

Will there be some observers at WUGC in Vancouver? I doubt I'll be there playing but a lot can happen in a year...

gcooke said...


Again. Thanks for the perspective. It is interesting to hear about how things are going in your country. To a certain extent, I think the idea of being accountable to the larger community, in terms of the way players behave, still holds here....but as growth occurs....it is getting to be a long stretch.....


parinella said...

fwiw, I think the lack of Observers at Worlds is a WFDF thing, not at all related to who is hosting.