Attention spans aren’t what they used to be

The National Basketball Association (NBA) is considering shortening its games due to the decreasing attention spans of its up-and-coming fan base, the millennials, a generation born between 1982-2000 that is 83-million strong and represents 26% of the population.

It seems a small concession, given the NBA is one of the few professional sports leagues that enjoys a solid fan base. Baseball and football are hugely plagued with fan loss. But millennials follow basketball.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced in early January the league is looking at rule changes that would cater to millennial audiences. Greg Hadley’s story in the January 15, 2017 Sacramento Bee said the final 120 seconds of NBA games often drag out for nearly 10 minutes, largely due to intentional fouls and frantic play-outlining time outs, a time-honored, strategic tradition of a game’s final minutes.

Hadley cited a Chicago Tribune story that stated the final minute of the NBA game clock takes an average of 6.3 minutes to play. Both overall length of the 48-minute games and the format of their last two minutes are being given a fresh look for potential changes.

I don’t know what to say, except the day before I heard the news, I was in a furniture store and noticed many recliners are now the size of small beds and softer and fluffier than mattresses are. American sports-watching ritual has evolved to cushy furniture, drinking craft beers and impatiently channel surfing on big screen TVs. Sharp contrast to people sitting around on folding chairs in their pre-man cave garages, drinking PBR while listening to sporting events on the radio. Yet, we’re still bored.

Sports competitions have made the mistake of believing that since they are exciting, high-level athletic activities, spectators will naturally maintain interest. Imagine the embarrassment of discovering you are instead boring your arena and television audiences by not playing things out quickly enough. It’s like being told you are bad in bed.

Judging by lightning-fast commercials, professional sports might have taken the hint long ago that it was not quick or interesting enough. But it was probably too late to turn the tide by the time the major franchises discovered viewers were going to the kitchen and bathroom during play and remaining seated (on furniture more comfortable than toilets) during commercial breaks.

Just how long a stretch can the average American pay attention? Roughly eight seconds, according to a 2015 Microsoft study. Same as the minimal time a bullrider must stay atop his/her animal and slightly less time than a goldfish can stay focused. Yes, attention spans are now only eight seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. At that rate, we may soon be forgetting altogether about the food we dropped on the floor when we go to apply the five-second rule.

I say these things from a Baby Boomer perspective, coming from a generation notorious for over-considering everything. I have enough attention span to stink at multi-tasking and to have trouble tearing myself away from what I am reading, watching or working on when someone needs me to shift gears. Interruptions generally annoy the crap out of me. The multiple interruptions in the last minutes of NBA games feel like being stuck in heavy traffic.

If fans’ shortened attention spans are hampering sports, where marketers keep close tabs on their return on investment, how is attention span deficit playing out in relationships and workplaces, and at what cost? How can we hope to have quality interactions when we cannot sustain focus and interest much beyond “hello?” We’ve got to lengthen and strengthen our attention spans.

I Googled, my millennial son’s favorite web resource, for attention span-increasing tips. Of the several ideas mentioned, I noted these: exercise and hydrate more; determine what’s important; break big tasks into numerous small steps; work on one objective at a time; get rid of obvious distractions; practice sustained attention.

It’s a starting point. Plus, we all need to periodically put aside that most notorious of distractors, our cell phones, and sit still for a few minutes of person-to-person re-orientation (other than during forced times from battery failure). We could learn a thing or two from bullriders and goldfish.


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