Wednesday, July 08, 2009

A Thought on the Senate Hearings regarding the BCS

It's not often that I find something in ESPN the Magazine thought-provoking, but as I was leafing through their franchise rankings during Noddy last night, I was struck by their description of the L.A. Clippers. ESPN wasn't breaking any new ground in noting that the Clippers are one of the worst-run franchises in sports. In a free market, the Clippers would have gone out of business or would have been sold to more competent ownership years ago. Instead, the Clippers chug merrily along because they: (1) receive TV money from the NBA regardless of their performance; and (2) are protected from additional competitors in the L.A. market by the NBA restricting the number and location of franchises in the league. Donald Sterling can still make a pile of money while making boneheaded decisions in rapid succession.

This would not happen in other countries. If the Clippers were a soccer club, they would have been relegated years ago and a better-run team would have sprung up to capture part of the L.A. market. For instance, the English Premier League equivalent of the Clippers is Newcastle United. Newcastle is a reasonably large city in the north of England. The club have a famously devoted fan base that packs more than 50,000 bums into St. James Park 19 times per season. Unfortunately, Newcastle are run by muppets. They have gone through a series of inept decision-makers who populated the club with expensive albatrosses. As a result, Newcastle slid down the table gradually, going from a contender in the EPL in the mid-90s and a Champions League participant in 2002-03 to being relegated from the EPL this May. Newcastle were punished for bad management, whereas the L.A. Clippers are not.

My point is this: American sports are not now and have never been an exercise in capitalist, free market activity. Our pro sports leagues are heavily socialized, from the fact that there is no promotion and relegation to salary/spending controls to revenue sharing. If the BCS violates the Sherman Antitrust Act because it treats the six major conferences and Notre Dame better than it treats the five smaller conferences, then what do we say about the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball? If I were a wealthy man who wanted to start and fund a pro football team in Columbus, Ohio because Ohioans love football and their two NFL franchises are pathetic, I would not be able to do so because the NFL restricts the number and location of its franchises. My only option would be to find like-minded rich people/entities to start a competing league, an option that is also available to the Mountain West Conference if there was, you know, a major market for their product.

And while we're on the subject of the BCS, I heartily co-sign on
Tony Barnhart's evisceration of Orrin Hatch's position. Here is the highlight for me:

Fact: Utah was not DENIED a chance to play for the BCS national championship. Utah had as much a chance to play for the BCS title as any other school. But 175 people voted in the Harris Interactive and coaches polls, two of the three components in the BCS formula. The 114 people in the Harris poll voted Utah seventh. The 61 coaches in the USA Today poll also voted Utah seventh and no coach—NONE—voted Utah higher than No. 5. Of the 114 people who voted in the Harris Poll only five voted Utah No. 5 or better.

Fact: Even the coaches in Utah’s league, the Mountain West, did not step up for the Utes when it counted. Joe Glenn of Wyoming had Utah at No. 5. Rocky Long of New Mexico and Gary Patterson of TCU had them at No. 7. Kyle Whittingham, Utah’s own coach, had his team at No. 5.

It's a little hard for Senator Hatch to make a compelling case that the Utes were screwed when their own coach did not think that they were good enough to play for the national title. There we go again, expecting logic from a grand-standing politician who is trying to score points at home.


Indivision said...

"It's a little hard for Senator Hatch to make a compelling case that the Utes were screwed when their own coach did not think that they were good enough to play for the national title. There we go again, expecting logic from a grand-standing politician who is trying to score points at home."

I think this is missing the point. Who misjudged the Utes is irrelevant. It still remains that the Utes were misjudged by the BCS system and were consequently not afforded the full opportunity to establish merit on the field.

Since merit on the field is the primary way that programs capture more market share, the case of the Utes demonstrates that the BCS is flawed toward the purpose of providing merit-based access in football terms (rather than economic terms).

Michael said...

Two responses:

1. The voters had Utah pegged exactly right before the bowls. Utah played a demonstrably inferior schedule to the other contenders (save for Alabama) and had a number of close calls. If a truly top team would have played that slate, it would have dominated it. That's why Utah '04 had a better case than Utah '08. The only difference is that there were three major conference teams that went unbeaten in '04, whereas there were none in '08.

2. To use a legal analogy, statements against interest are not considered to be inadmissible hearsay because we presume that someone isn't going to lie when making a statement against himself. When Utah's coach voted his team fifth in the country after the regular season, we have every reason to think that he wasn't lying or mistaken. He saw his team every day, he knew their limitations, and he knew the caliber of opponents that they played. Turning Utah into a national title team after the win over Alabama is the worst form of overreacting to the most recent piece of evidence.

Indivision said...

You haven't addressed my point. The Utes were not afforded the full opportunity to establish merit on the field.

If the subjective voters were right, Alabama would have won that game. The voters were wrong. That some of the voters included Utah's coach is irrelevant to whether or not it is an example of the BCS system getting it right.

If there was a play-off system, such misjudgments, at least for the top ranked teams, would not be possible.

Michael said...

Yes, the Utes did get a chance to prove their merit on the field. They had the chance to beat a 3-9 Michigan team by more than two. They had a chance to beat a mediocre Air Force team by more than seven. They had a chance to beat Oregon State and TCU without needing major comebacks in the fourth quarters of both games. By repeatedly playing close games against inferior opponents, Utah missed the chance to make up for playing a weak schedule.

Indivision said...

The BCS, by policy, does not use rankings based on points. They go by wins only.

If the voters calculated what winning by such and such amount in certain games correctly, Alabama would have won.

Had there been a play-off system, the results would not rely on subjective judgments.

Actually, in the system I would propose, the Utes would have either been a very low play-off seed or would have missed the play-offs completely. The difference is that that result would be based on purely objective results and thus not prone to non-football motives, miscalculation or bias.

Michael said...

1. Margin of victory is empirically a better way to measure team strengths. Alabama was a classic example last year. They were unbeaten at the end of the regular season, but their margin of victory wasn't great. Thus, their losses to Florida and Utah weren't that surprising. The fact that the BCS eliminated MOV in the computer rankings (humans still take it into account, so it's incorrect to say that it isn't part of the formula) is a shortcoming of the BCS.

2. There is a huge subjective judgment involved in every playoff system: the winner of the playoff is the "champion." Thus, the 2007 NY Giants were the "champions" of the NFL after being inferior to the Patriots for the entirety of the season. College football prevents that scenario from occurring.

Indivision said...

We're in agreement on point #1. Points-based formulas are the best way to go.

However, I don't follow how you are saying that there is anything subjective about the NFL play-off system. The opinion that the Patriots were a better team is subjective. The way that the Steelers earned the title has a purely objective basis.

It is not debatable whether or not they did what was required to win the title. That is what is missing from college football. Just about every aspect of the rankings includes subjective measurements thus leaving all rankings open to debate.

What's wrong with removing subjective measurements entirely? To have a bunch of outcome-invested individuals eye-balling the merit of the teams is more similar to gymnastics than the game of football. A touchdown is 6 points. It isn't given a judged score from 1 to 10.

Michael said...

What's subjective about concluding that an 18-0 team is better than a 13-6 team, especially when the 18-0 team played in a stronger conference and beat the 13-6 team on its home field in December? To buy into an NFL-style playoff system, you have to make the subjective judgment that the team that wins the final game is the champion, even if that team's overall resume is vastly inferior to the team that it beat in the final game.

Indivision said...

"What's subjective about concluding that an 18-0 team is better than a 13-6 team"

Because the only objective statement you can make about that comparison is that one team has a BETTER RECORD. It does not objectively follow that they are a BETTER TEAM.

"especially when the 18-0 team played in a stronger conference and beat the 13-6 team on its home field in December?"

And then lost in the CHAMPIONSHIP GAME. They didn't have what it took when it mattered most. The team that won did what they had to do. They rose to the occasion and earned the victory according to the rules of football. According to your logic, we should have judges that determine whether or not a touchdown should give a team 6 points, depending on whether or not it was a fluky touchdown.

"The ref has determined that, normally, Georgia would stop this team, therefore Vanderbilt is not going to be awarded the 6 points."


"USC dominated the first 3 quarters of the game. So, UCLA will not be awarded the win for coming from behind to outscore them in the 4th quarter. It was too fluky and they were not the best team according to their past records."

There is nothing subjective about buying into how the NFL play-off system determines a champion. In the same way that we accept the rules of the game of football to determine the score, we accept that the NFL has outlined objective rules that determine who earns the championship. It is clear and it is not debatable or dependent on any subjective measurements.

Michael said...

"They didn't have what it took when it mattered most. The team that won did what they had to do."

You don't think there's a subjective element in deciding which game "mattered most"?

And you should be careful with analogies. The NFL approach is for the Giants and Patriots to play for four quarters and then to declare that the winner is the team that won the fourth quarter, regardless of the results of the first three quarters. College football is the only American sport that doesn't reset all records to zero at the start of the post-season. Thus, it's the only sport in which the winner is the team that played the best over 60 minutes instead of 15.

Indivision said...

I should be careful with analogies? You should be careful with arguments.

No. There is no subjective element in the NFL play-off system.

What you seem to be arguing is that it is a subjective judgement to like a play-off system over a subjective-based system. That has nothing to do with whether or not the prospective systems rely on subjective judgments to determine outcomes. In this case, one does and the other does not.

Your comparison of the NFL play-off system to the game of football is a false one. The fourth quarter is played the same, regardless of the outcome of the first three quarters. How a team does in the regular season determines seeding, home field advantage, wild card positions and whether or not a team is in the play-offs at all.

Besides that, I wasn't making an analogy between play-off systems and the game of football. I was just applying your logic that subjective judgments are a better way to determine merit in sports than objective rules.

You pointing out that very few, if any, other systems rely on subjective judgments to determine merit doesn't help your position. In fact, of people polled on the subject, the vast majority of them believe that the BCS is broken.

Which leads us to the question, why defend the BCS? Is it because you are an SEC fan and you recognize that the BCS system is advantageous to the SEC, due only to size of its fan base?