July 28, 2003
How the College Game Can Offer Lessons to MLB
The sky is falling! The Huns are at the gates! Dogs and cats have been eyeing each other lustily! There's a competitive imbalance problem, where 28 teams entered the season with no chance of finishing within 40 games of .500!
OK, enough of that. The notion that Major League Baseball has a competitive imbalance problem has been so thoroughly discredited in these and other forums that I'm not going to waste too much time on it here, although some of the supporting data below touch on it tangentially. It's actually a worthwhile question to note that the extended playoffs might have pushed things to the point where MLB has a competitive balance problem, which in the NFL is known as the parody of parity. It's possible that it's currently too difficult for a well-run club to sustain prolonged excellence, not because of some silliness about market resources, but because the playoff marathon frequently randomly robs the best teams of chances at deserved high-revenue World Series shots. I think we're in the range where this is a matter of individual aesthetic choice, though, so we'll leave that discussion for after the incoming (duck) round of playoff expansion. In the meantime, I want to show you what actual competitive imbalance actually looks like on a large scale, identify some of the causes, and discuss just how big a problem competitive imbalance actually is.
College baseball has a considerable amount of competitive imbalance. There are factors that have nothing to do with baseball that have a great effect on the quality of team that a school is likely to field, variables like weather (which, due to the early schedule, influence the amount and type of practice a team can get), enrollment, tuition, and how many games the football and basketball teams have won lately. With my External Factors Index, I've done some analysis on this stuff; you can create a single number which has a .82 correlation with results in my rating system (which only considers on-field results). It's certainly possible to overcome these factors--which Rice was nice enough to demonstrate by winning this year's College World Series--but the issues do exist.
Because these factors don't change much from year to year, the same teams tend to win every year in college baseball. The following chart is taken from a larger study I did on measuring predictability across several major and minor sports:
Sport CB NFL .29 MLB .55 College Football .64 NHL .66 NBA .69 College Basketball .79 College Baseball .87
CB here is the correlation from year to year (over the last five years, in this case) for all teams in my sport-neutral rating system. In other words, it's a measure of how a team's quality of results is likely to remain close to the same from year to year. College baseball is easily the most predictable sport from year to year listed here (college hockey actually turns out to even more predictable, but there are sample size problems there, and it doesn't affect our baseball discussion here).
Now, it's been said that using World Series titles as a barometer has ceased to be a good idea because, with 30 teams, even on a strictly rotating basis, somebody wouldn't be due until 2032 at this point. Try that thought exercise with 287 teams, and you'll quickly realize that waiting for that Marist national championship may be a losing proposition; even if the NCAA shifts the schedule back and the school triples the budget, they're still penciled in to win in 2179. Just as major league teams have learned to focus on division championships as a more reasonable goal to pass around, most of the colleges have learned to focus on conference championships.
Even with that limitation, though, there are some truly hopeless programs out there; for example, Virginia Military has not won the Southern Conference title since some time before 1954 and has seldom been above .500 in conference during that stretch.
So, what causes programs to not compete? First of all, one thing that MLB doomsayers have right is that it's important for everyone to have sufficient resources to compete, although they vastly overestimate the difficulty of overcoming small (as in less than a couple orders of magnitude) differences. Most of the schools frequently thought of as conference doormats--Vanderbilt, Duke, Northwestern, Rice in the old Southwest Conference (hey, look, foreshadowing)--are small, academically-selective, private schools competing with large state schools. This is not, however, destiny. Stanford is private, extremely selective, and small by Pac-10 standards, but they choose to compete in all but the high-dollar sports of football and men's basketball (and occasionally succeed in those as well). There's no condemnation of schools who choose to participate but limit the dollars spent--enough people, me included, have problems with the excesses of high-dollar college athletics that I'd never condemn a school administration for limiting the money available to the athletic department--but it does affect the on-field results, and such schools are probably better off seeking like-minded schools as conference rivals. Does this factor affect the major leagues? No, all major league teams are sufficiently capitalized and have no legitimate external pressures to limit outlay as long as profits grow appropriately.
Secondly, college programs have to recruit all of their players. Essentially, all high school players are free agents. Because of scholarship limits, very few players receive full scholarships, so the major enticements that schools can offer are playing time, developmental opportunities, and the chance to play for a winner. That last factor can loom large at 18, so winning programs have a much easier time recruiting top talent, which just continues the cycle. This can be broken, usually by a new or visionary coach, but it's definitely a factor that must be overcome. Does this factor affect the major leagues? Very little--the amateur draft wipes out the choice of playing for a winner entirely at that level, so the only time a pro team must "recruit" is in signing free agents or worrying about vetoes from potentially traded veterans. The evidence would appear to show that the only times that this matters is in the face of evidence of extreme mismanagement. The good news there is that the effect seems to be short-lived, as veterans seem to respond to signs of change (or more dollar bills waved) fairly quickly. The other good news is that veterans are not a good way to build your way out of failure anyway.
Let's grant a false premise for a second, though, and look at what the consequences would be if there actually were a competitive imbalance problem, since we have one to study here. Without conducting a strenuous attendance-based study, the anecdotal evidence appears to show that fans respond more to the perception of movement than to actual current quality. Vanderbilt had their best season in a decade or so this year under a new coach, which still only got them up to sixth place in the conference. Nonetheless, their fans seem to be responding with some excitement. The Atlanta Braves, on the other hand, have trouble giving away first-round playoff tickets.
One of my favorite Edward Tufte quotes is that people did not become stupid just because they picked up your book or came to hear you speak. Fans, even casual fans, are not dumb, and they can detect a plan in place. They also, as it turns out, do not necessarily require instant gratification. It is possible for a college program to overcome the difficulties we've talked about and build from a non-contending (or, in some cases, completely non-existent) program. Rice is the most obvious example at the moment, but we've also seen it in the past at Wichita State or Cal State Fullerton, for example. Looking at the past cases where it's been done, it appears that building a national contender, for the programs who succeed at it, takes five-to-seven years. The good news, though, is that the signs start to show up by Year Two at the latest, so you can generate a good bit of fan interest by that point in the process--remember, it's evidence of movement in the right direction you're looking for. The better news is that the bar for winning a World Series is actually a bit lower than that for winning a College World Series, since the talent level differences from the best to worst are much smaller and the playoffs are more random.
The best news turns out to be that the steps needed to overcome a competitive imbalance problem--invest in player development and facilities, put visionary people in place, and identify and use your unique advantages--are necessary (although certainly not sufficient) steps to take to build a winning team anyway, so granting the false premise turns out to be harmless; it really doesn't matter if there's a competitive imbalance, because the steps needed to overcome a competitive imbalance are good things to do in any case. Since handing stadiums to teams has almost completely ceased to work as a means of building a winner, it's time to answer cries of poverty with questions of what the plan is to overcome the team's problems, instead of with donated dollars in whatever form.