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Monday, October 01, 2007
For those who missed it, this past weekend was one of the wackiest weekends in a truly wacky college football season. On "Insanity Saturday," left and right, highly ranked and touted teams fell to lesser known and purportedly less talented opponents. Mighty Texas fell to Kansas State, defending champ Florida to unranked Auburn, West Virginia to (11-year-old) South Florida (on Friday), Rutgers to Maryland, Oklahoma to unranked Colorado, and Penn State to Illinois.
In a season that began with Appalachian State's unprecedented upset over Michigan, one can't help but observe the parity, or competitive balance present in college football.
The NCAA, a cartel if I ever saw one, has long argued that competitive balance justified its various restrictive trade arrangements, including limitations on broadcasts of television games as well as all manner of eligibility rules. The Supreme Court has endorsed the notion in the Oklahoma Board of Regents case:
Petitioner argues that the interest in maintaining a competitive balance among amateur athletic teams is legitimate and important . . . . We agree . . . . It is reasonable to assume that most of the regulatory controls of the NCAA are justifiable means of fostering competition among amateur athletic teams and therefore procompetitive because they enhance public interest in intercollegiate athletics.This notion should induce skepticism on a number of levels. First, as a historical matter, competitive balance in college football has declined markedly since the NCAA began to flex its authority. While individual rules might arguably improve balance, the overall effect of NCAA regulation of college sports seems to have been to the contrary.
Second, the notion that competitive balance should justify restrictive business practices in an antitrust calculus depends on the critical assumption that, in the absence of competitive balance, college football would lose its appeal to fans as a "distinct" product. This assertion is a bit hard to swallow. Fans do like competitive balance, but only within a limited range. That is, college football fans like it when teams like Michigan, Notre Dame and USC are good enough to compete with one another. But do college football fans really value true competitive balance, where teams like Appalachian State beat Michigan (and South Florida is, somehow, more highly ranked than Florida, Florida State, or Miami)?
Admittedly, it certainly is fun to watch an unheralded team beat a favored opponent. Boise State's victory last year over Oklahoma was the game of the season; although very few fans actually watched Michigan's loss to Appalachian State this year, the highlights were certainly popular on TV for at least fifteen minutes. But, overall, does "true" competitive balance make college football a more attractive product to fans? After all, after Appalachian State beat Michigan, App. State went on to lose to Wofford, and fans stopped paying attention. And certainly the "big" games Michigan will play later this year -- against Ohio State and Wisconsin -- would have attracted more viewers and (probably) advertiser dollars were Michigan a top-ten team as expected rather than isolated to rankings purgatory.
Although I've yet to see a good explanation for why this season seems to be a showcase for competitive balance, it will certainly provide a nice opportunity to see whether competitive balance is something fans really value.