7.12.14

DISGUISING THE ZERO-SUM NATURE OF A TOURNAMENT.

The first major college football tournament is taking shape, and Bloomberg's Will Leitch suggests it may not last long in its current form, as the incentives are for something else.
[T]he most significant change, the pivot point around which the future of the sport may revolve, might have come in August, when the NCAA—in an attempt to stave off its increasing weakness and potential irrelevance—allowed universities from the Power Five conferences (the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC) unprecedented autonomy in basically making their own rules.  Schools from those conferences, profoundly more wealthy than smaller schools because of their massive cable contracts in a television industry that needs them more desperately than ever, had long been chafing under NCAA regulations, particularly when it came to compensating (or at least providing insurance and more expansive scholarships for) their athletes. After years of threats that those conferences would take their ball and go home to start their own leagues, the NCAA gave in and granted them their precious autonomy. It has only been since August, so there haven’t been many massive changes yet. But they’re coming.
Start with Alabama-Birmingham looking at the cost of continuing to play football and thinking better of it, and contrast that with Northern Illinois, still looking for an invitation to join the elite 64.
It’s about the long-term future of Northern Illlinois athletics. The “status quo” won’t work in this contemporary, aggressive NCAA culture. As the university fosters personal and professional growth among its students, faculty, and staff, NIU athletics must adapt, too.

The stakes Maintaining D-I status overall and, in particular, the FBS level in football.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Many NIU admimistrators and coaches pad their personal resumes and leave for other jobs. Just remember that one AD (Groth) initiated the Yordon Center project and a second (Jim Phillips) not only completed it, but enhanced the final product. Yes, personnel change, but program goals should not.

Facilities are critical in college sports recruiting. Few FBS programs have won more games than Northern Illinois in the last four-plus seasons. The Yordon and Chessick centers have been a major factor there. Frankly, where the Huskies need the most help rests in the Olympic sports, both playing venues and practice facilities. Review NIU’s history in both the Mid-American Conference all-sports Reese (men’s sports) and Jacoby (women’s) cups. It isn’t good and inconsistent at best.

Too many people think the “major” sports---football and basketball---define a program. Not the case, the most admired NCAA D-I programs are the ones competitive on a national basis across the board in all sports.  Stanford comes to mind as the prime example.
Translation: the basketball teams have been missing from March Madness since the turn of the century, and sports-only cable networks are now paying money to cover volleyball and wrestling and swimming (also missing since the turn of the century).  Back to Mr Leitch.
UAB looked upon the future of NCAA football and saw what it would require to continue to compete. It would require spending the way that those big schools do. Other so-called “mid-major” schools have looked upon the same landscape and pronounced it verily terrifying. UAB saw that, and begged off. No one has followed them yet. But some will. And the sport will never be the same.
Some specifics:
There are currently 38 bowl games, for 76 teams. These bowls generally don’t make money for the schools or the conferences—at least not enough to make their fans pay to attend them; more often than not, both teams return tickets—and are there mostly out of inertia, and the need for ESPN to show something the week in between Christmas and New Year's Day. With more teams in a playoff, the games will feel even more like a relic. If more teams go the way of UAB—or just accept that they can’t compete, and drop down to the FCS level—you might not even have enough teams to fill them. Which leads us to…
We'll get back to that. First, though, we have communities continuing to chase tourist dollars by setting up bowl games.  Northern Illinois has played in five consecutive Mid-American title games (how's that tourism working out, Detroit), winning three, most recently by routing Bowling Green with good offense and defense and a little bit of luck (how often does a defensive team recover a fumble and immediately fumble the ball back, thus resetting the down sequence?)  Their reward: an encounter with Marshall in the world premiere of the Boca Raton Bowl.  That might be a consequence of the current bowl system, in which the five power (the term of art used to be "automatic qualifier") conferences consent to invite one team (this year, is it Boise State?) to play in a New Year's Day bowl.  That despite the sports talking heads pronouncing anathema on the Northern Illinois trip to the Orange Bowl.

And there will be an expansion of the major college playoffs.  The first round is currently the major conference title games, in which teams have a strong incentive to run up the score so as to impress the selection committee.  Thus, for instance, Ohio State 59, Wisconsin 0 in the Big Ten title game.  Ohio State once put up such a margin on a Dave McClain team, but we might as well have been talking about Woody Hayes facing John Jardine with Greg "Grape Juice" Johnson and Rufus "Roadrunner" Ferguson, rather than Urban Meyer (Bowling Green regressed since he left) facing Gary Andersen with Melvin Gordon and Cory Clement.  And to fill time because there was no drama left in the game, the television broadcasters began speculating about an eight team tournament.

And thus another passage from Mr Leitch.
The other FBS teams, considering how impossible it has become for them to compete, might as well be playing an entirely different game. Thus, we'll see a winnowing of the college football ranks, with some schools, like UAB, shuttering their programs, and others frozen out, allowing the Power Five schools to form four or five Super Conferences of 16 teams a piece. This, with the assumed expansion of the playoffs, means we could see 16 playoff teams being chosen from 80 or even 64 legitimate contenders. That would make the regular season—long college football's hallmark—less impactful than ever. It would turn it into something closer to the NHL or the NBA, where more than half of the teams make the postseason. After all: The postseason is where the money is.
Perhaps that sounds familiar.
Maybe the old system, without any attempts to establish a true national champion, was better. Or maybe the conference realignments will lead to four major conferences of sixteen teams divided into two divisions of eight, then a tournament either of the conference division winners, or start the seeding for the playoffs right there, with the standout teams from the mid-major conferences exiled to the Mineral Water Bowl ever after.
But in the professional leagues, regular-season sellouts are still common (or am I generalizing, excessively, from observing the Bulls and the Blackhawks?)  The premise of Mr Leitch's article is that college football teams are having trouble selling out home games, that the conferences have trouble filling the stadium for those title games, and that seats are generally available for the bowl games.

And the extension of college football into January implies competition with the National Football League, which has itself extended its tournament unreasonably into February.  I remember enough of my industrial organization to be alert to the possibility of collusion, merger, or some sort of cartel in our future.

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