Picking Up the Pace Of Major Sports

IN today's fast-paced, time-conscious American society, sports are increasingly looking for ways "to get the lead out."

This has been evident in a handful of recent developments, including two in sports played against the clock - basketball and football.

First, the National Football League announced that beginning next season offensive units would have to speed up the tempo, with less time allotted between plays (40 seconds instead of 45).

Similarly, men's college basketball has decided to chop 10 seconds off its 45-second shooting clock.

Golf and baseball don't answer directly to the clock, but even here efforts are being made to shorten the playing time.

Golfer Nancy Lopez certainly had the point underlined during last month's Dinah Shore tournament in Rancho Mirage, Calif. An official of the Ladies Professional Golf Association approached her on the 16th tee to tell her she had incurred a two-stroke penalty for taking too much time on the previous hole.

Both the men's and women's tour monitor slow play, but the women voted over the winter not to have officials alert players when they are being timed. Thus Lopez was surprised by the penalty, which is assessed when the player takes more than 30 seconds for any normal shot.

Slow play is a concern within the recreational golf community, too, since it cuts down on course revenue and generally makes the sport less enjoyable. Citing slow play as the game's No. 1 enemy, Golf magazine has launched a "Pick Up the Pace" campaign in conjunction with every major association in the game. Whereas the British routinely play 18 holes in three hours or less, the magazine reports that Americans can't seem to finish in four. The campaign endorses the United States Golf Association's "pace r atings" and course designs that encourage faster play.

Despite its staid reputation, even major league baseball has begun exploring ways to speed up play. American League games last season averaged two hours, 53 minutes, compared to two hours, 45 minutes for the National League. Neither is acceptable, according to Bud Selig, chairman of the game's governing Executive Council. In response to fan surveys that show a dislike for long games, Selig says the majors would like to get back to 2-1/2-hour games.

One idea under consideration is a rule that requires a batter to keep one foot in the batter's box at all times, and a requirement that hitters who lead off the inning be ready when a pitcher completes his warmup tosses.

Another idea that has merit, and was suggested on a national call-in radio show, is to eliminate a relief pitcher's warmup throws. Most relievers, the caller reasoned, arrive at the mound after considerable practice in the bullpen. NBA season: Its reach may exceed its grasp

No pro sport seems more out of sync with seasonal reality than basketball. The National Basketball Association playoffs don't even begin until the end of the month, three weeks after the college season has concluded. This may be all right when major cities like Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago are represented in the finals by megastars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan - as was true in 12 of the last 13 seasons. But if the San Antonios and Charlottes of the NBA ever move more regularly i nto the postseason spotlight, the league could find it more difficult to sustain fan interest in May and June. World Cup TV cameras will seldom blink

Soccer, with its uninterrupted action, makes it difficult to conveniently break in with television commercials. To get around this during the World Cup matches in 1994, when the United States first hosts the month-long event, the plan is to dispense with conventional ads except before and after games and during halftime.

Once play has begun, only nonobtrusive corporate logos will appear on the screen, and then perhaps around a superimposed game clock, says Alan Rothenberg, chief executive officer of World Cup USA 1994. This decision means less ad revenue, yet organizers can't run the risk of TV missing a goal during a commercial.

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