Slaughter or showdown? College football conferences don’t always give fans what they want

December 19, 2013
Laura Bailey,
Laura Bailey, (734) 647-1848, or Stefan Szymanski,

A football. (stock image)ANN ARBOR—Unlike college bowl games, regular season football conference schedules pit too many powerhouses against patsies and not enough evenly matched games that fans prefer, says a University of Michigan sports economist.

Stefan Szymanski, professor at the U-M School of Kinesiology, and colleague Jason Winfree of the University of Idaho created nine 13-team mock “ultimate” college football conferences that have equally matched teams.

By running various simulations, they found that aligning conferences based on team quality—the best teams playing the best and the worst playing the worst—made games more exciting and could increase the audience for college football by up to 5 percent.

People want to see the best play against the best. Stefan Szymanski

Some fans may pass up a potentially one-sided game between teams of uneven quality, but may be more likely to watch a game between teams of the same caliber—in hopes of seeing a thrilling, gridiron nail-biter.

“The underlying claim is that the overwhelming fact of college sports, and all major sports, is that people want to see the best play against the best,” Szymanski said. “That is definitely not happening now in college football. This (conference alignment) would produce better matchups and more exciting games.”

According to Szymanski, these results hold true even though there would be fewer rivalry games—although attempts could be made to preserve those rivalries.

Szymanski said that roughly 90 teams have jumped conferences since 2010—with good reason.

“That’s enormous,” he said. “It’s happening because teams are aligning themselves with better matchups.”

And because teams are seeking bigger audiences and television revenue. But conference-jumping means teams are already moving toward aligning themselves with like-quality teams, he said.

These findings appear in the working paper, “College football scheduling.”


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