Friday, August 30, 2013

It's the most wonderful time of the year

This is my favorite time of year--football season, which maybe isn't saying much since it extends for arguably half of the year. But specifically, I love autumn and college football. The period from now, August, until late October is a splendid few months.

As I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate the joy of anticipation. That's what makes this weekend special for football fans; for it is now that hope is alive. No matter how realistic, every team is right now a theoretical contender. And regardless of how many trophies will actually be won, every team and every fan has a chance to dream of joyous, fun, and celebratory moments big and small.

I thought I'd briefly pen a few thoughts on some of the current dynamics in college football as I see them. This is a look at the larger picture beyond this season.

Conference re-re-realignments:
I fully expect this trend to continue. The current arrangement does not seem like a stable, sustainable equilibrium. Large disparity among conferences whether true or perceived weaken the league-wide product. They also hinder participants' (individual teams') ability to specialize and innovate as appearing too different can be counter productive to input acquisition (recruiting) and output revenue (fan interest). Breaking old traditions is probably more difficult than was first appreciated when this process began. That is partially why it has taken so long with so many fits and starts and busted deals. Now we are much more used to the idea that old rivalries, etc. may not continue. The other major reason why it has been a clumsy process is the relative uncertainty as to the value to be gained through new arrangements. Because college athletic departments are not fully operating within a free market, profit-driven environment, this murkiness about value is compounded. 
Super division formation:
We've heard rumblings of this recently. It is no longer the subject whose name shall not be mentioned. The product of the league has been diluted through the addition of too many teams. There are currently 126 teams playing in the highest division of NCAA football (the FBS division), and this number has surged in the past 10 years. The range among these teams in terms of quality is stark. Throughout all divisions we see this growth in the sport, although not always the self-generated resources to support it. The artificial stimulus that fuels this at the lower division level is the expansion in the number of games and the revenue streams at the upper division coupled with the need/ability to "pad" schedules playing against softer opponents. Again, this dilutes the product. I think what will evolve is a super division of perhaps 60 elite teams and perhaps a promotion/relegation method as used in soccer. While this may make a more just system of paying players more palatable and hence to the extent that trend is an inevitability it self reinforces, I would not be fully satisfied in only these "semi-pro" players finally getting their just desserts. 
How would we populate the 60-team elite league? Rather than appointing a czar or council of elders, I would propose we assume all FBS league teams have a property right in the new league and auction off slots in it. The method I propose is that the highest bidders pay the "losing" 66 bidders for the right to be in the league. Single submission, silent bidding would be used. To elicit honest bids (paying close to what it is actually worth to the individual teams), the highest 30 bidders would each pay the average of their own bid and the corresponding lowest bidder equal from the bottom that they are from the top. So, the top bidder would pay the average of the #1 and #60 bid. The second highest bidder would pay the average of the #2 and #59 bid. After the 30th highest bidder, the remaining bidders would pay simply the amount of their bid. Yes, the order of bidding would most likely not match the order of amount eventually paid. That is the point.
Playoff format:
The coming playoff format for determining the league champion will strengthen these trends on net and have a positive feedback to push towards a larger playoff. The net economic influences are also in this direction. But I believe after about 8-12 teams the diminishing returns become dominant and the process stops. Another implication of all these trends is stronger schedules--more competition among equals. 
Player pay and safety:
Players will be paid. It is only a matter of time. The NCAA is on the wrong side of justice. The hypocrisy will eventually become too much. The O'Bannon lawsuit is a major catalyst for change, but it is not alone.
Similarly, player safety (concussions, et al.) is probably on the precipice of the most significant change since the NCAA was originally formed (for that purpose no less). Equipment improvements will not be how this gets resolved. Fundamental changes to rules, practice conditions and procedures, and as importantly fan/coach/parent/player attitudes about what is and what is not proper football will be what brings about ultimate resolution--more appropriately termed the new plateau as it will only be a new but not permanent equilibrium. The NFL's settlement of the concussion lawsuits for $765 million is not an end to the issues; it is a coming to terms that major change is needed and on its way.
Enjoy the season! Boomer Sooner!

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