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When the NBA was only a few years old, professional basketball had become a stalling game. Take a lead and hold on. The only thing the losing team could do was foul, and games became hacking free throw-shooting contests.

Believing the offense needed a boost to speed up the game, Syracuse Nationals owner Danny Biasone pitched a novel idea: a 24-second shot clock.

The rule changed the game immediately. In 1954-55, NBA teams averaged 93.1 points, 13.6 points more than the previous season.

“Pro basketball would not have survived without a clock,” Biasone said years later.

Legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach called the shot clock “the single most important rule change in the last 50 years.”

Since then, most major sports have instituted rule changes to increase offense or kick up the pace of play — in other words, to make them less boring and move faster.

That effort has taken hold in today’s age of multi-tasking, 8-second attention span, multi-screen lifestyles.

Ratings for major sports have fallen, at least partly because fans are watching fewer and shorter sessions, according to industry research. With a multitude of choices available on various platforms, fans — especially millennials — are tuning in less often and stop watching faster.

The U.S. Open tennis tournament, the only one of the sport’s four annual Grand Slam events, along with Wimbledon and the Australian and French opens, used a serve clock for the first time this year.

“We are concerned about the pace of play, as all sports are,” said Chris Widmaier of the U.S. Tennis Association, which owns and operates the U.S. Open.

The NFL has had a play clock for years, although the league is looking at the timing of its commercial breaks after touchdowns and before kickoffs to keep viewers engaged.

Women’s professional golf sets a shot clock at 30 seconds. The PGA typically sets a 40-second clock.

Last year, for the first time in 22 years, the PGA Tour handed out its first pace of play penalty during the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

Even baseball, the most stubbornly traditional game, has bent to societal desire to cater to those who find a leisurely three-hour contest too taxing.

Limited mound visits and shortened time between innings is shaving minutes off the length of a game.

In July, the United Shore Professional Baseball League in Michigan, a small instructional league, announced a time limit – no inning will begin after the 2-hour, 30-minute mark.

The drive to speed up pro baseball, the only major sport without a time clock, has trickled down to Sonoma County college, high school and Little League fields, and even city rec leagues, who, while not on an official clock, are at least mindful of being efficient with time.

“We want that instant gratification because we’re training ourselves to get anything we want anytime, any piece of information anytime,” said longtime Santa Rosa high school baseball coach Derek DeBenedetti.

Whether that is a good thing remains debatable, but it’s today’s reality, in life and in sports.

Sports executives faced with declining ratings and an aging audience are rethinking how to market their games to younger viewers who want quick information in short, flashy bites, suitable for a social media like, retweet or share.

“A lot of it is about money and advertising. They want to get in more commercials,” said Dr. Joe Puentes, a local sports psychologist who has worked with Sonoma State University teams and now has a private practice. “Some of it is cultural, a push to maximize our time and be more effective. Culturally, we very much want to be efficient with our time.”

In that vein, Major League Baseball has asked former Orioles great Cal Ripken Jr. to help create strategies and initiatives to grow interest in baseball and softball at the amateur and youth levels.

That includes measures that speed up the pace of play.

Ripken this summer announced “Hit and Run Baseball,” a modified version of youth baseball, which quickens the game with fewer innings, batters and pitches.

The initiative encourages youth organizations to use “alternative formats” for games, practices and tournaments, according to MLB. Those recommendations include six-inning games, four batters per inning, three swings per batter and six players rotating positions each inning, with no outfielders.

Ripken insists the changes aren’t a blueprint to hurry up the game.

“It’s not trying to teach kids how to play the game faster,” he said. “It’s a way to get more reps, to present the game (in a way) that’s more fun, to get to make it more interactive for kids. It’s a teaching opportunity.”

At the same time, MLB is addressing slow play at the highest levels, to satisfy the perceived need for a quicker pace and to encourage greater interest from young fans. Baseball is, after all, competing with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and video games, in addition to other sports.

The league is encouraged by changes introduced in the past couple of seasons, including enforcing a 30-second limit for managers to decide on instant-replay challenges and requiring batters remain in their box during the at-bat.

The changes are working.

Through 2,194 games this year, the average nine-inning game was exactly 3 hours long, down from 3:05:11 in the 2017 season. (That’s compared with the average 2:46 in 2005.)

This year MLB moved again to quicken things up by limiting mound visits and setting strict time limits on between-inning breaks. So far this season, teams averaged 3.8 mound visits, down from 7.4 last year.

The most visible, and mildly controversial, change has been the new rule that allows for no-pitch intentional walks.

On notice, the umpire sends the batter to first base instead of having a pitcher throw four balls.

At the ending of MLB’s Owners Meetings in April, Commissioner Rob Manfred appeared encouraged by the improved pace of this season’s games.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, too, has sought ways to hurry up the end of basketball games, which can feel like molasses in winter during the final two minutes.

He said the league tracks the number of late-game timeouts “very closely” and that the NBA’s competition committee has been scrutinizing game length.

“It’s something that I know all of sports are looking at right now, and that is the format of the game and the length of time it takes to play the game,” Silver said.

“Obviously people, particularly millennials, have increasingly short attention spans, so it’s something as a business we need to pay attention to. … When the last few minutes of the game take an extraordinary amount of time, sometimes it’s incredibly interesting for fans, other times it’s not.”

In an oft-cited Microsoft study in 2015, researchers in Canada surveyed 2,000 participants and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs). The study found that since the year 2000, about when the mobile revolution began, the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds.

Seeing fans constantly on their smartphones during games is just further evidence that fans crave constant input.

But how does the increasingly digitalized lifestyle affect the brain?

“Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media,” the report concluded.

Multitasking is an important skill to have, psychologist Puentes said. “And it is also important to slow down and focus your attention. In today’s age, you have to be able to do bunch of tech things at a time, but it’s not ideal if you’ve lost the ability to slow down and focus on one thing at a time.”

Local recreational leagues have one-hour time limits for softball games, down from 70 minutes years ago, and games can’t go later than 10 p.m. But those limits generally are more budget-related than to save time.

In contrast, youth leagues worry little about the clock.

Chris Kirtley, president of the Santa Rosa American Little League, said a version of Ripken’s “Hit and Run Baseball” is played here.

“The thing with that is, you’re teaching development, but not teaching the game part, the competitiveness, when you’re limiting it,” he said.

Youth coaches say umpires, more than rules, are key to keeping a ballgame moving.

Ruben Candelaria of the North Bay Professional Officials association said often time-saving rules start at the college level and are adopted in the pros.

A Division I baseball umpire for 30 years, he has seen the attitudes of fans and players change.

“America is growing more and more impatient and baseball is just not for the impatient,” he said. “But in order to survive, all entities have to evolve. So what’s wrong with a little evolution? What’s wrong with teaching an old dog new tricks?”

That’s exactly what sports franchise owners are trying in their efforts to attract and keep viewers, particularly the valuable younger demographic.

If that means faster action and new viewing platforms, fresh concepts are needed, according to the McKinsey & Company consulting firm, which advises sports and gaming companies how to compete for fans in global digital markets.

New live-stream events — Facebook broadcasting an MLB game, for example — whip-around highlights, in-game fan commentary and multi-screen experiences are needed to target digital viewers instead of traditional TV watchers, its research found.

If that’s all too fast for you, well, get used to it.

“The train has already left the station in terms of the way our culture is,” Puentes said. “So I don’t know if there’s any stopping or reversing it. It’s trying to find the right balance.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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