Bedtime and the timing of major sporting events

Dr Kevin Kniffin

Posted: June 20, 2014

Tagged: events / fans / leagues / television

Sports fans in North America enjoyed lots of high-profile viewing options in the past week – World Cup soccer, NHL Finals, NBA Finals, and the Men’s US Open Golf championship.

In light of new research published this week that shows that kids who play competitive youth sports tend to demonstrate more leadership, self-confidence, and self-respect as adults (1), it’s interesting to note – if one assumes that watching sports helps to encourage playing sports – what time of day the different events were being played in relation to when children are typically awake (or asleep).

The FIFA Men’s World Cup, for example, has a schedule this year that doesn’t have a single game that starts past 6 pm on the East Coast and 3 pm on the West.  While obviously different across the globe, it’s notable that the almost all of the games will be played during times when children in North and South America tend to be awake.

The NHL and NBA Finals, on the other hand, presently tend to be scheduled in ways that maximize revenue – through prime-time scheduling – but exclude tens of millions of people who need to be asleep by certain times of the day.

For the NHL and NBA, one needn’t go back far into history to know that the sports previously had trouble even getting live national broadcasts that weren’t tape-delayed and saved for late-night.  And so, it’s obvious enough that start times like 8:22 pm are better, at least, than 11:30 pm.

It’s notable in this light that for the National Football League (NFL), America’s most popular sports league at the moment, the Super Bowl kickoff in 2014 was 6:30 pm East Coast time – a pretty good example of timing that’s inclusive for the whole family.

Major League Baseball has a lot of history with respect to timing in response to fans’ schedules and, for the 2009 World Series, they proudly moved the opening pitch to 8 pm after a number of years when play was not starting until 8:30 pm or later on the East coast.  By 2013, this past year, though, games were starting 7 to 15 minutes later on weekdays and weekends alike.

Among the reasons it’s interesting to compare and contrast the timing of events in relation to kids’ schedules, a recent op-ed by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz in a Sunday issue ofThe New York Times (link: showed that boys between 8 and 12 years old are most imprint-able with respect to likelihood of becoming a lifelong fan of a given team – he compared New Yorkers becoming fans of the Yankees or Mets.

More specifically, Stephens-Davidowitz found that boys, at least, tend to “imprint” (as fans for the rest of their lives) upon their favorite Major League Baseball team most effectively if the team wins a World Series Championship around the time that the boy is 10 years old.

While there’s certainly more work to be done to develop the findings that Stephens-Davidowitz presented in the newspaper – including the question of whether girls show similar patterns to boys for more recent cohorts, the basic idea makes sense and it seems to be a credibly valuable insight.

If one takes a relatively short step from Stephens-Davidowitz’s report and figures that same “critical learning period” exists in relation to the coarse-grain question of what sports a child is likely to like, then it’s clearly the case that major leagues and events should keep in mind the long-term consequences of their schedules.

In the meantime, while teachers in the Americas might struggle keeping attention of students who are trying to follow Cup games during the schoolday, the trade-off is that the students won’t be falling asleep after trying to stay up til midnight to see who won the last night’s game.

IKniffin, K. M., Wansink, B., Kniffin, K. M., Shimizu, M., and Wansink, B. 2014. Sports at Work: Anticipated and persistent correlates of participation in high school athletics. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, in press.

About Dr Kevin Kniffin

Kevin Kniffin (@KevinKniffin) teaches Leadership and Management in Sports for business majors at Cornell University.  Kniffin’s research articles have appeared in outlets including Group & Organization Management, Economics Letters, and Human Nature.  Kniffin has consulted for a wide diversity of organizations in addition to recently being certified by USA Hockey as an entry-level youth coach.