Play or Match?

When someone asks, what is the length of an AFL match, it can be answered in two ways. The person asking the question could be wondering how long does play go for in the game or they could want to know if they were going to a game, how long would they be there for. This would produce two totally different lengths of time. To answer these two questions we have to first look at how a game of Australia rules football is structured.

Time Periods

An AFL match is into four quarters, much like a game of American football would be. The two halves are separated by a half-time break, which is 20 minutes long, while the first and third quarters are followed by a shorter break, known as ‘quarter-time’ and ‘three-quarter time’ respectively. These shorter breaks are 6 minutes long.

During the half-time break the players will normally exit the arena into their change rooms, whereas throughout the shorter breaks the players will generally remain on the ground.

Quarter duration

Each quarter of AFL goes for 20 minutes. Two officials that aren’t on the field known as ‘timekeeper’ will set a timer for 20 minutes. They will blow a siren to commence the quarter and once the timer has run out they will sound the siren again to indicate the end of period.

Play for the quarter will end immediately at the sound of the siren, however if a ball is already in flight beforehand it can still register a score. Also, a player who marks the ball before the siren sounds will still get the opportunity to kick the ball for a goal.

So this answers the question of how long play will go for in a match, however the total length of the match is a little more complex. This is because of something called ‘time on’.


What is ‘Time On’?

While the playing time of a quarter is 20 minutes, unlike something like soccer, the clock doesn’t count up and also doesn’t just continue to run. The timekeeper will stop the clock for stoppages.

Stoppages occur frequently and for a number or reasons including goals and behinds being scored, injuries, the ball going out of bounds and the umpire call for a ball (throw) up.

This means that while a quarter will contain 20 minutes of play, in real-time it can fluctuate significantly. On average a quarter will last around 30 minutes.

Interestingly, while the timekeepers count the time down, the scoreboard at the ground will display a clock that counts up and will run continuously from the start of the quarter, so fans in the crowd won’t know how long is left in the quarter. This that will the clock counting up, any time after 20 minutes appears to be time that is added on, known as ‘Time On’.


Different Leagues

The AFL (Australian Football League) is a professional sport and is the most popular competition in the country, however there are a lot of different leagues at different levels.

These competitions may have variations in the length of each quarter while others may not have ‘time on’ at all. For example, the AFLW, the national football league for female players, will play 15 minute quarters instead of 20.


Match length

As we have found out above, despite the length of play in an AFL match being 80 minutes, the variable length of quarters in real-time mean that duration of a match is not fixed.

Given that the average length of a quarter can span around 30 minutes and the duration of breaks totals 32 minutes, from start to end an AFL match will last around two and half hours.

Shorter Half-Time?

In 2020 the AFL floated the idea of reducing the length of the Half Time break from 20 minutes to 10 minutes but eventually decided against it. The criticism was that AFL is quite a long game relative to other sports around the world. 

What about AFLW?

The recently established women’s version of the AFL, also known as the AFLW has rapidly increased in popularity since it’s inaugural season in 2017.  

The quarter length for AFLW games is 17 minutes but the time on component works a little bit different. In the first 15 minutes of the quarter, the clock will only stop for goals and major injuries. The last two minutes of the quarter, the clock will stop for all stoppages.

The breaks for AFLW are also a bit different with quarter time and three-quarter time spanning 6 minutes, while half time is 14 minutes long.