Higher Rock Education - Economics Blog

Monday, December 05, 2016
I confess that I was very disappointed yesterday when the NCAA selection committee revealed that the four teams to compete for the NCAA National Championship in Division I football did not include my Penn State Nittany Lions. Just the night before, Penn State fans celebrated a great win against the sixth- ranked Wisconsin Badgers to win the Big Ten Conference. They earned a spot in the championship by winning the Big Ten East Division. Most of the experts agreed that the Big Ten was the best conference in the country, and the Big Ten East Division was the toughest division in college football largely because the Division included Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, three teams that were ranked in the top 10 in the nation. But, this blog is not about sports, it is about economics.

Businesses spend billions of dollars to increase the demand for their products. Advertising, market research, and public relations are investments aimed at increasing public awareness and boosting interest in a good or service. I believe choosing Washington over Penn State will ultimately hurt the demand for college football. Yes, I am a bit bitter, but please read my logic. Washington has a great team. They may even be the fourth best team in America. They only lost one game. (Penn State lost two.) Washington won the Pac-12 Conference, one of the tougher conferences in the country. My beef is with their out of conference schedule, and choosing Washington may provide an incentive for universities to play weaker opponents. Washington's out of conference schedule ranked 69th among 128 teams in Division I. Penn State's ranked 9th according to TeamRankings. Out of conference scheduling is the only criteria that a school can decide that is included in the ranking. All other components such as conference record are determined on the field of play. What incentive does choosing Washington over Penn State (or Oklahoma) provide? My concern is that schools will begin to schedule very weak non-conference schedules to improve their chances of losing fewer games. I believe Penn State would have been chosen if they had beaten Pitt, a top 25 team that also beat No. 2 Clemson. This year, it seemed football fans enjoyed more close matchups in the early season because coaches and athletic directors were told out of conference scheduling is a strong consideration. Choosing Washington over Penn State sends the message that wins are more important even if those wins are against very poor teams.

I am probably the typical football fan. I have little interest in watching a game where the teams are so unmatched that one wins by a 30 or 40 point margin. I like highly competitive games. I believe this year we saw more competitive non-conference games like a top-five matchup in Ohio State vs. Oklahoma early in the season. Oklahoma, like Penn State, may have been chosen over Washington had it not scheduled the game against Ohio State. They also won their conference and lost two games. In five years, I am concerned that there will be fewer competitive non-conference games than this year. (Schools schedule games five to seven years before they play them.) If those games are not competitive, the demand for college football will diminish, and fewer games will be watched. Ultimately college football will be hurt.

It is true that Ohio State was favored over Penn State because of OSU's out of conference win against Oklahoma. On September 17th, Ohio State convincingly beat Oklahoma 45 to 24. If Ohio State had lost, Oklahoma would have probably been selected. Clearly OSU was rewarded for its gamble, as it should have been. Will schools take similar gambles in the future?

While we may differ in the final four chosen, I believe most would agree that being rewarded for playing weak schedules diminishes the interest in college football, which in turn can harm the demand. The NCAA should reward teams like Ohio State that are willing to prove themselves on the field with tough out of conference schedules and discourage teams that play weak schedules. Furthermore, somehow this should be reflected in the rankings earlier in the season. For example, I believe that if Washington had been ranked lower than fourth before last weekend then Penn State would have been chosen. It was hard for the committee to drop Washington to a lower spot when they beat tenth ranked Colorado impressively (41 – 10) in the Pac-12 Championship.

Thank you for allowing me to vent a bit!

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