Meditations on the 12th Game

This FanPost is an attempt to determine the effects of the recently added 12th regular season game on college football, paying particular attention to the decision of the Pac-10 conference (hereafter PX) to institute a round robin (hereafter RR).

For those who don’t want to wade through the data and analysis below the fold and would prefer just to comment, I’ll quickly sum up the conclusions I reach:

  • The average number of bowl teams in the PX has increased slightly since the introduction of the RR
  • The average number of BCS eligible at-large teams – defined as 9+ wins in the regular season – in the PX has increased slightly since the introduction of the RR.
  • The average number of wins has increased slightly since the introduction of the RR.
  • Generally, the PX has a smaller increase in bowl and BCS eligible teams and average number of wins compared to every major conference since the introduction of the RR.
  • The PX has increased its bowl win pctg., going from .442 during 1998-2005 to .706 in the last three years. 
  • The approximate revenue increase from dropping the home-away RR in favor of two home games against lower division teams is appreciable but does not reach the ceiling a better television deal would reach.
  • In my opinion, the key to a superior TV contract is through the "West Coast Advantage" of the RR, which attractively differentiates the conference and would help to negotiate a contract comparable to that of the SEC/Big10.

To refresh, of all the discussion topics at CGB this summer, perhaps the most passionate was the one questioning whether or not the Pac-10 should continue the round robin schedule. Local Jahvidtician Avinash started the discussion with a post, "Should the Pac-10 End Round Robin Scheduling," that elicited almost 500 comments. This is turn prompted Pac-10 blogger Ted Miller to offer his judgment – while linking directly to CGB! – on the matter in "Should the Pac-10 end round-robin scheduling? Of course it should." Indicating CGB’s ever-increasing influence on the sporting world, Matt Hinton, proprietor of Rivals’ Dr. Saturday blog, subsequently linked to both CGB’s and Ted Miller’s pieces while respectfully disagreeing, "Don’t listen to the cynics, Pac-10 idealists." Verily, CGB has arrived.

Avinash, Miller, and even Hinton all agree on the facts. Quoth Miller:

So the Pac-10 should end round-robin scheduling, a practice that only insures the conference suffers five additional losses a season, which hurts national rankings and strength of schedule ratings, which then combines to hurt the conference in the BCS standings.

Most objections to the round robin follow a similar arc: Pac-10 teams miss out on revenue opportunities in the form of additional home and bowl games, particularly at-large BCS appearances, due to half the conference having an additional loss. This hurts the conference’s overall exposure and its national perception.

We can group the objections to the RR in three very loose categories – bowl appearances, national exposure, and revenue opportunities. I will begin by dealing with the topic of bowl appearances.

Avinash, Miller, and Hinton have a point. The last time the PX sent two teams to the BCS was in 2002, which was also a year that most teams played a 12 game regular season and the PX did not have a round robin. (Several teams, including National Champion tOSU, played 13 games in the regular season.) Moreover, the PX sent seven teams to bowls that year, and could have sent an eighth had Cal been eligible for the post-season.

2002 might simply have been a case of an excellent PX. In 2003, it was able to muster merely 6 bowl eligible teams despite identical conditions to the preceding year. In 2001 and 2004-2005, when only an 11 game regular season was played, the PX had only 5 bowl teams.

Evidenced by the statistics available on the ESPN conference web pages and at The National Championship Issue’s Non-Conference Games post, the PX has averaged no fewer bowl teams since 2006 then they did before.



Not only that, there has been no drop-off in the number of teams eligible for BCS consideration (defined as 9+ wins during the regular season).



What explains the lack of any discernible effect? The threshold for victories has not changed, but the threshold for losses has. Though true that the round robin produces five guaranteed conference losses (as well as five guaranteed wins), it is very nearly irrelevant to the total number of bowl teams because the expanded schedule provides a safety net for that extra loss. This explanation, while valid, does not tell the full story. We would expect PX teams to possess a lower average win total if more teams were going 6-6 or 5-7 due to the round robin. Instead, however slight, the opposite has occurred. (Note this table applies purely to regular season wins. Conference championship and bowl games are excluded):



(For those who wish to examine the underlying data supporting these conclusions, I have uploaded it as a Google Doc: AvgWinsSupportData. I would recommend exporting it from the Google doc because navigating that spreadsheet is incredibly unwieldy compared to using MS Excel. Finally, I have done my absolute best to ensure there were no errors. Should any materialize, please let me know and I will fix them.)

The RR-as-damaging-to-the-Pac-10 theory would hold that the PX would have the smallest increase in wins among the "Big Six" conferences. In truth, this label applies to the ACC (though distinguishing between 1/100th and 1/10th of a win is a somewhat pointless exercise). On the other hand, conferences generally regarded as being subordinate to the PX in quality, such as the Big Ten and Big East, saw some of the largest increases in average wins.

This is not to say the RR has had no effect. Rather, whatever its extent, the effect is hidden. Without the RR, the average wins, number of bowl teams, and BCS eligible teams would probably have shown a significant increase, similar to that of the SEC or Big East. What I take away then is that the RR has not caused the PX to regress as some have claimed, but it has prevented it from the rapid and noticeable growth other conferences have experienced. Though speculation, I attribute the fact that the PX has averaged as many bowl teams, BCS eligible teams, and wins in the RR era to a substantial increase in the quality of its teams.

Which brings us to the second point: exposure. In placing the same number of teams the PX has maintained its level of exposure. But look at the difference in what it has done with such exposure. From 1998-2005 Pac-10 teams were sub .500 in their bowl games. Since 2006 they’ve gone 12-5, good enough for a .706 win pctg. When the nation is watching, PX teams, toughened up by their rigorous non-conference slate and round robin conference schedule, win. 

On the other hand, teams from the ACC and Big 10, using the extra game simply to pad their resumes, fall flat. Thus their respective bowl records went from a respectable .521 to a disastrous .385 and tough .539 to a catastrophic .273. Can anyone deny that all those extra bowl teams have hurt their conference’s reputation by consistently getting blown out?

A seeming anomaly is the Big East’s record in bowl games. The BE’s win pctg is due in part to its 6-0 record over the last 3 years against non-AQ competition. Also worth mentioning is the BE’s round robin conference schedule, plus each team’s tendency to schedule at least two AQ OOC opponents.

While the sample size is still small, it seems clear from at least the PX perspective that the round robin functions as a quality control. Only deserving teams reach the postseason and when they get there, they tend to win and win over quality opposition.

Finally there is the question of revenue. This section is the most speculative, but accepting that limitation, one can make a strong case that the round robin schedule actually holds the greatest potential revenue.

First, I’ll discuss the facts. 

The 2009 BCS Media guide (pdf) details the payment schedule for participating teams from AQ conferences:

Notre Dame is guaranteed 1/66th of the net revenues after expenses, or approximately $1.3 million. Notre Dame will receive $4.5 million when its team is a participant.

The share to each conference with an annual automatic berth in the BCS (ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC) is approximately $18 million. When a second team from one of those conferences qualifies to play in one of the games, that conference will receive an additional $4.5 million.

These figures have remained generally consistent over the prior five years so it is logical to project roughly that same amount heading forward, as this document makes clear: BCS Five Year Summary of Revenue Distribution 2004-2008 (pdf).

Similarly, we can project with reasonable accuracy the revenue a home game will bring. The National Championship Issue looked at every non-conference home game played by every I-A team, filtered the average by AQ, non-AQ, and I-AA affiliation, and then compared the average attendance. For the Pac-10 in particular, the results were striking:



Assuming similar attendance for a conference opponent as for an AQ OOC opponent, these figures allow us to reasonably estimate the difference in revenue between playing a home-and-away with a conference opponent and hosting a patsy two years in a row. Worth keeping in mind is the following information from the Seattle Times regarding PX conference games:

In a policy that dates to 1985, visiting teams are guaranteed a minimum of $125,000 and a maximum of $200,000 from the ticket receipts for conference games, the home team keeping the rest. Almost every game results in each school writing its opponent a check for $200,000, making it a virtual wash for everybody.

The lone exception to that is for rivalry games, which was at the heart of the recent controversy over whether to move the Apple Cup to Qwest Field.

For each school's rivalry game, the gate is split evenly.

As this is a Cal-centric blog, I will use Memorial Stadium’s capacity and single game ticket prices as the example. I chose the single game ticket price because I could not find a specific breakdown of the type of season tickets sold, and the "most popular" package, the Reserved plan, is only about $.60 less per game in 2009 than if you merely bought a single game ticket, so long as you ignore the elevated ticket prices of the USC game. Other schools who will have USC rotate off the schedule also charge more for that game, but including that would be a point in favor of the revenue a round robin would bring in and run contrary to the conservative nature of these estimates .

A word on the assumptions used. Because TNCI’s calculations of average attendance for each classification was derived from all ten schools, I chose to extract what that figure represented as a percentage of the average capacity of all ten schools using the figures provided on wikipedia. I then applied this percentage to Memorial’s capacity to find average attendance at Memorial for a BCS conference opponent, and then used that figure as the base in applying the percentage decrease depending on the opponent’s conference affiliation that TNCI discovered for the Pac-10.

Thus, we see that for Memorial stadium, the average attendance against BCS opponents is 68,684 (95.66% of its capacity), the average attendance for non-BCS is 54,398 (79.2% of its average BCS attendance), and the average attendance for I-AA is 49,521 (72.1% of the BCS total). Using the posted single game ticket price of $51 and a $500,000 payout, that works out to a revenue increase of only $1,045,694.45 against two non-BCS opponents and $548,282.44 for two I-AA opponents. If the conference placed an additional BCS team then add an additional $450,000 to that total. Nothing to sneer at, unless you compare it to the potential riches of an exclusive television contract of the sort that the SEC worked out with CBS and ESPN.

The SEC did not disclose the terms of deal they received from CBS, but their arrangement with ESPN was for $2.25bil over 15 years. That works out to about $12.5 million per team per year assuming equal revenue sharing, a practice at least the PX employs. And that doesn’t even take into account what each team earns from the CBS deal. To put that into perspective, Mississippi St, easily the worst team in the SEC, will make more than double this year in television revenue what USC made last year (figures courtesy Seattle Times):



And now for some speculation.

The Pac-10 could get a television deal like that, but it needs something to differentiate it. The round robin is the thing to do it. The story lines of a true round robin are so much more compelling. Every week there's a game in which the entire conference race could change.

The Worldwide Leader loves to promote college football by saying "Every game counts." Well the Pac-10 takes those words and makes them real. Taking away the round robin would hurt the Pac-10's quality by sending inferior teams to bowl games. It wouldn't yield as much money per school as a national football/basketball television contract would. And it would take away the most dramatic regular season in the country as well as the chance to publicize it for all to see.

The opinions expressed in a FanPost are, in every way, reflective of the opinions of every California Golden Blogs Marshawnthusiast. Moreover, they are reflective of every employee of SBNation, including Tyler "Blez" Bleszinski.

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