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OK, so what's your college football master plan?
I'm fine with Oregon and Washington to the Big Ten. But I'm not sure how to solve for the equilibrium.
I’ve spent more time than I’d care to admit over the years thinking about college football realignment. I’m not even that big a college football fan at this point of my life. I just think it’s a really interesting optimization problem.
The big news this week is the complete and utter collapse of the Pac-12 Conference. Washington and Oregon are joining the Big Ten. The Four Corners schools — Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah — are joining the Big 12. UCLA and USC already agreed to join the Big Ten last year, so that leaves only Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Washington State behind.
I find myself left with a few perhaps somewhat contradictory thoughts:
1. As a Big Ten guy, I’m OK with this, and think Washington and Oregon are good additions.
Following the additions of UCLA and USC last year, I did a big feature for FiveThirtyEight on other Big Ten expansion candidates. The conclusion was that Washington and Oregon were two of five no-brainer additions, along with Notre Dame, North Carolina and Florida State. That analysis explicitly did not consider geography, which was already thrown out the window after the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers for the 2014 season and it gave up any pretense of being a conference of the Greater Midwest.1 Geography aside, Oregon and Washington are very good fits — big, public universities with good, popular sports programs that should expand the Big Ten’s revenue pie by enough to be worth whatever share of rights fees they get. (And they’ll initially only get a half-share of TV rights fees anyway.)
2. I’d be OK with Stanford and Cal also, though they’re more “optional” — and aren’t necessarily a package deal.
For what it’s worth, Stanford and Cal fall short of the “no-brainer” group, mostly because the Bay Area is a much smaller football market than it might seem (it has very low avidity for college football — more on this below). That’s especially so if it’s divided between the two schools and if the Big Ten already has the two biggest brands in California in the form of USC and UCLA. They’re certainly good cultural and academic fits, though2 and would be perfectly fine additions. The question is how big the Big Ten ultimately wants to be. Let’s not pretend they’re philosophically opposed to stopping at 18 teams; if Notre Dame calls tomorrow and wants in, they’d be in faster than a Raghib Ismael punt return.
My wild guess is that the Big Ten values Cal and Stanford more highly than my formula did, in part because they’ve tended to place more emphasis on major TV markets, even if they aren’t great college football markets. (See also: New York City). And my guess is that’s particularly true of Stanford, which is literally smack-dab in the middle of Silicon Valley and its corporate dollars. I don’t think it’s out of the question that the Big Ten would look to add Stanford as the 20th team if it can find a 19th team it likes better than Cal, such as Notre Dame or Florida State, which has threatened to get out of its ACC rights deal.
3. A lot of underperforming schools helped to doom the Pac-12.
From a Pac-12 standpoint, though — what a disaster.
I’m not trying to sound overly sentimental. In fact, I’m inherently skeptical of analyses that chalk it up to “greed” or TV dollars. That’s not to say that money wasn’t a big factor. It was the major factor. But in the long run, the aggregate amount of money in the system (e.g. how much networks are willing to pay for rights fees) ought to be reasonably well-correlated with the amount of fan interest in the sport. Yes, TV executives and university and conference presidents sometimes do dumb things. But concentrating the best college football programs in superconferences so that they play one another more often has some obvious appeal to fans. It at the very least isn’t inherently stupid, even if it trades off with other things that fans like about the sport.
And the Pac-12 left itself vulnerable with mediocre TV ratings. Over 2015-19, here’s how the various Pac-12 schools ranked in TV viewers per game among all college football programs:
USC — 16th
Stanford — 25th
Oregon — 26th
Washington — 28th
UCLA — 29th
Washington State — 39th
Utah — 41st
California — 47th
Arizona State — 50th
Colorado — 58th
Arizona — 62nd
Oregon State — 74th
There are a lot of weak performers there. Washington State Cougars football is not exactly a premium brand. They’re probably destined for the Mountain West Conference. And yet there were actually six schools below Washington State.
The West has considerably lower overall college football avidity than the South or the Midwest, which lowers both the ceiling and the floor for TV ratings. Maybe some of that is attributable to political trends — the West is pretty blue, and football is somewhat red-coded. Still, I’m not sure if it’s anything new. I grew up in East Lansing, Michigan but I spent a year in Palo Alto, California mid-childhood, and there is really no comparison between the sort of buzz that a college football game generates in the Midwest and what it does in California. (And that was for Stanford, one of the more successful programs in the conference. Side note: Look at the big difference in TV ratings between Stanford and Cal, bolstering my view that the latter may be dragging down the former in the Big Ten’s eyes.)
I think Conor Sen is right that people should think of these conference moves as being analogous to relegation in European football — a lot of schools in the Pac-12 really weren’t pulling their weight financially. Only in this case, instead of relegating the underperforming programs, the strong ones left them behind.
4. Nonetheless, having no major college sports conference focused on the Western United States feels like a weird equilibrium.
And yet somehow, this seems like a market failure. The Pac-12 schools had a lot of cultural similarities, a lot of historic rivalries, and a lot of geographic cohesion. Sure, you’re never going to generate the revenues that you do from football in the South or the Midwest. And, sure, the league had some weak performers. But maybe there were ways around that. Maybe, for example, the Pac-12 ought to have divided rights fees less evenly, so that the Oregon States of the conference weren’t free-riding quite as much off of the USCs. Or maybe schools such as UCLA and Oregon would have benefited from having one fewer conference game — 8 like the SEC plays, rather than 9 as the Pac-12 was playing — to have one more opportunity take advantage of their strong brands by scheduling a juicy non-conference matchup. The collapse of the Pac-12 seems somewhat overdetermined given the constraints of the current system and the incentives of the respective actors. But maybe those constraints are inefficient and the incentives could have been aligned better.
5. This is a tough optimization problem and it’s not clear what the equilibrium is or even if there is a stable one.
There are 133 Division I college football programs, each of which play 12 regular season games. You’re trying to schedule matchups with historic rivals, play a robust conference schedule, have one or two tough non-conference matchups3, and maybe schedule Southwest Delaware Polytechnic State University early in the season so you can get an additional home game that you’re guaranteed to win.
It’s not an easy problem, particularly given that the system is dynamic. If, for example, Cal and Colorado — historically pretty decent football programs — had been better recently, all of the sudden there’s much less deadweight in the Pac-12 and the center might have held.
One plausible objective for the sport as a whole is to maximize the number of marquee matchups — roughly speaking, matchups between Top 25 teams. But here’s the funny thing. For all the changes college football has undergone, the number of marquee matchups is about the same. Compare, for instance, the number of Top 25 vs. Top 25 regular season4 matchups in 1989 — an era of smaller, geographically tidy conferences but also lots of independents — to the number last year.
1989: Top 25 matchups 17 intraconference 5 interconference 7 conference team vs. independent 10 independent vs. independent --------------------------------- 39 total 2022: Top 25 matchups 38 intraconference 4 interconference 4 conference team vs. independent 0 independent vs. independent --------------------------------- 46 total
The topline numbers are actually very similar (46 vs. 39) especially given that there was one fewer regular season game in 1989. But the composition is totally different. Nearly all marquee matchups nowadays are played in conference, or are against Notre Dame. Before, there was more variety, mostly because of large number of formidable independent schools that scheduled aggressively. It’s understandable that programs group together into conferences to have more cartel bargaining power, but is the overall system better or worse? I don’t know.
So let me ask you, readers. You’ve just bought a new simulation game: College Football Czar. What system would you design? Go back to the 1980s? Implement relegation? Some kind of college football equivalent of the Champions’ League?
Let me know in the comments what you’d do. And let me know if you’re playing on easy mode (complete fiat power to do absolutely whatever you want) or hard mode (lots of annoying stakeholders and you are fired if you upset too many of them). Good luck!
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I’m an unrepentant Midwest Maximalist — that is, I think all the borderline cases should count as the Midwest — so Penn State in central Pennsylvania definitely qualifies. Hell, I’d go so far as to tolerate Oklahoma and maybe even Colorado and Syracuse as plausibly Midwestern. Could you talk me into Virginia Tech? (Blacksburg, Virginia). Maybe. But Rutgers? No.
Although Stanford, like Northwestern and USC, is private.
That is, excluding any conference championship games or any bowl or playoff games.