The “useful myth” of competitive balance

Regardless of whether you think paying college athletes is a good idea or a bad one, the argument you need to dismiss in its entirety is that paying players would be bad for competitive balance.  ‘Cause there ain’t any now(h/t MGoBlog)

Yeah, there’s a lot of math in that piece, but just skip to the conclusion and think about it for a minute.

But how would things look under a pay-for-play model? Would the imbalance actually get worse?

Maybe not. If anything, the economics of price competition argue that as you let schools use money directly as a tool in attracting talent, you may empower mid-level schools to splurge on a would-be starter who might otherwise accept an offer at a top-tier school and end up riding the bench. When stars and benchwarmers all get the same compensation package, there’s no way for a smaller school to show they really want a player much more than the big school, which is free to stockpile talent. Both schools can claim they want the player, both can send 700 letters in one day, etc. The best way to show you mean business and that the other school is just engaging in what economists call “cheap talk” is price competition.

So when you buy into the myth that price-fixing helps balance college football, you’re actually helping prevent that balance from emerging. Stop defending price fixing and you’ll let Bowling Green show that four-star nose tackle how much more valuable he is to the Falcons than he is to Alabama’s bench.

I keep saying it – what the people in charge in the power conferences fear the most isn’t spending money.  They’re doing that now anyway.  It’s losing the level of control they have over student-athletes.

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25 Comments

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25 responses to “The “useful myth” of competitive balance

  1. Competitive balance is never going to exist with D-1 as big as it is – pay-for-play neither helps nor hurts that. Currently, limiting the number of scholarships is the only way to manage competitive balance. An NFL-style draft is the only way to use talent to develop competitive balance in a P4P environment. This issue is a red herring to both sides of the debate.

    • Interesting… since only one side’s using it in the debate.

      • Regardless if what your stance is on pure P4P, I don’t think it either improves or devalues competitive balance. The best Jimmies and Joes go to the schools where they get the preparation at the next level and can show their skills on TV against the best. Therefore, the power schools will continue to get the best players regardless of economic benefit. A 4-star DT isn’t going to Bowling Green over Alabama for money unless he doesn’t think he makes it to the NFL. I would still rather have the coaching and development of Saban and take my chances on the roster management front than go to Bowling Green where my games are broadcast on the internet in half-empty stadiums that are barely larger than the high school stadium you played in. Maybe 1 or 2 per year end up at Vandy rather than Alabama because of a difference in pay, but if Alabama wants a player, Saban will find the money to pay in a P4P environment. That’s why competitive balance isn’t even relevant in the debate.

        • You are assuming that every big program operates like Alabama and that every mid-major is substandard at player development. A look at every NFL draft should tell you that’s not the case.

          There are nimble programs out there that would be able to undercut the big boys with direct player payment. Especially early on, while a number of ADs and presidents fail to adapt quickly to the new paradigm.

          • That’s fair, but the data would likely show that elite high school players (>4 stars) will gravitate to the power programs. I don’t see that changing in pure P4P. The players want exposure as much as player development. Alabama continued to recruit well even when Mike Shula and Mike DuBose were running the show in T-town. The mid-majors aren’t clamoring for P4P for competitive balance. I just don’t see balance as a long-term benefit of P4P – any benefit would only be short-term.

            • I agree with you about the elite players. But there are plenty of talented players who wind up on the bench at power schools who I think would be tempted by a good sales pitch and a check from the right mid-major, or lesser level team in a power conference.

              If nothing else, the bidding would force the big boys to revise their approach to recruiting.

              • DawgPhan

                Allowing bidding on services allows the schools to find the best use for their money. it also lowers the barrier to entry into the elite player market.

                Sure Bowling Green might not get the 5 star, but Rutgers and Maryland have lots of Big 10 money to spend these days.

              • “there are plenty of talented players who wind up on the bench at power schools who I think would be tempted by a good sales pitch and a check from the right mid-major”

                That assumes the transfer rules get changed in the brave new world for that player who’s riding the bench in T-town who now is moving to Bowling Green.

                • Sorry, should have phrased it better. Recruits choosing between a sales pitch and a check from a mid-major and choosing to fight the numbers game at a big program – some of them will take the first option.

                • You raise an interesting point, though, with this. Assuming Bowling Green can write a check to cover the cost of school and living expenses, a kid transferring could afford to sit out a year. Wouldn’t that make transferring an easier proposition for some kids?

                  Bet coaches would hate that with a passion.

            • Bulldawg165

              I agree with you to an extent, but these are 18 year olds we’re talking about. Do you know how often they make short-sighted decisions? I’d be less than surprised if quite a few talented players chose mid-majors over BCS teams because of small differences in pay. Sure, not all of them, and probably not even a majority, but certainly enough to make a difference.

              • Maybe, but I just don’t see a school that can’t fill their stadium and doesn’t have a lucrative TV deal making a play for a player by offering them more money than the school from the power conference with the 80,000+ seat stadium and the millions from the conference’s TV deal.

              • ..but these are 18 year olds we’re talking about. Do you know how often they make short-sighted decisions?

                What does it say about those that are supposed to be looking out for the good of the 18 year olds when all the people in charge of their sport are running around making short-sighted decisions (cough Rutgers cough Maryland cough) chasing the almighty buck? Better to let the adults make the short-sighted decisions and not those poor children. :)

          • Dog in Fla

            The mujahideen vs. the big boys will be great warfare entertainment for everyone

  2. FarmerDawg

    This is not completely on topic, but an administrator for a school was quoted the other day saying free room and board, and tuition is enough. There is another place where all these things can be yours with a lot less responsibility…… Prison.

  3. Bulldawg165

    This touches on something you brought up awhile back, Senator… Sure, major programs bring in a lot more revenue than mid-majors, but a lot of these major programs also have cash tied up in their overly expensive facilities, too, while a lot of mid-majors may not.

  4. south fl dawg

    What the people in charge of the power conferences fear most is having to take a cut in pay. When the number of staff you can hire starts getting affected and you’re sitting there with a bloated salary doing nothing but riding the wave of TV deals, you have to get nervous.

    • James

      I agree with this. It’s not control, I don’t think, it’s the size of the pre-investment surplus. Which can currently only go to marketing (I’d argue stadium improvements qualify) and admin salaries. Their jobs are a lot harder and a lot less personally lucrative you the funny money goes away.

  5. James

    One thing: It’s unclear to me why the assumption is that, without a salary cap, bowling green can offer just one person what alabama can offer everyone. So maybe that 4* can actually get paid more to ride the bench. Maybe that works even more in favor of the power schools. I don’t think there’s much of an impact either way, but I don’t see how this is some kind of secret weapon for the non-elite.

    If there is a salary cap, it’s unclear to me how the NCAA is going to get away with that legally. They already tried that with coaching salaries and got sued. I suppose if every player in the ncaa is in the same union there can be some kind of collective bargaining, but this basically guarantees fragmentation in D1, since bowling green and alabama aren’t going to want anywhere near the same price point. Which, ultimately, means that 4* still isn’t going to bowling green.

    • Alabama can’t offer everyone. It has to adhere to the 25/85 rule just like every other D-1 school.

      The question becomes is BG willing to offer a kid ‘Bama sees as more marginal more money than ‘Bama.

      • James

        Right, I don’t think I made my hypothetical point very clear. I meant offer every one of their 85 players more money. Or more practically, Alabama can offer their 5th string LB more than BG can offer their best LB, because Alabama, in total, is able to pay so much more to players than BG.

        I mean this to be analogous to the fact that the yankees pay nine players more than anyone on the astros. And that the second highest paid astro would be the 15th highest paid yankee. And this is in the league that actually has revenue sharing; I’m not aware of any proposals that would make the SEC share TV money with the MAC because of some kind of luxury tax.
        http://espn.go.com/mlb/team/salaries//name/nyy/new-york-yankees
        http://espn.go.com/mlb/team/salaries/
        /name/hou/houston-astros

        I realize that the math here might not work out perfectly because of team size, and that BG could conceivably pay just 2 or 3 guys a ton of money, and therefore be able to beat Alabama’s budget by not paying 85 players, like Alabama likely would. But I also think even if there are 1-2 exceptions per small market team the impact here is effectively nothing on actual competitive balance.