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College Football Playoff and Competitive Balance

The college football playoff will consist of LSU, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma. Since its adoption, the college football playoff system has been dominated by a handful of teams — Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, etc.

In any given year, this is great news for the NCAA as the games feature high profile teams with passionate fan bases. The downside is that the system seems to prevent any but the top echelon of teams from playing on the game's biggest stage.

Why does this matter?

Short Answer: Competitive Balance.

The best (only) way to create a passionate fan base is through winning. The iconic brands in every league are usually the teams with the histories of winning championships. The Yankees in MLB. The Steelers, Cowboys and Patriots in the NFL. The Celtics and Lakers in the NBA. But, what about the other teams? A potential issue for leagues is preserving the interest and fandom of teams who do not play for championships on a regular basis. This one of the things that sets sports apart. The most dominant teams need for their competitors to remain viable. Sports events are jointly produced so the Globetrotters need the Generals to stay in business.

It also becomes difficult for new iconic brands to be created if most teams are locked out of the playoffs. What does it take for a team to become iconic. Lets shift to the NBA for a moment. Were 6 NBA championships and Michael Jordan enough for the Bulls? Has Golden State reached iconic level after the past few years? Debatable. What is clear is that a one year run (Toronto Raptors) is not enough. Again, we can ask whether this matters but i suspect that its beneficial for leagues if there is some renewal in terms of the brands that develop national (and international) followings.

These points highlight the importance of competitive balance. In both the long- and short-term its important that the underdog has a chance. Part of fandom is the notion of hope. Fans need to have a reason to invest their time, money and passion in teams. Without some level of competitive balance it is hard for hope to persist.

What makes college football different from other "professional" leagues is that there are almost no mechanisms in place to preserve competitive balance. There is no reverse order draft. There is no salary cap. There is no mechanism in place to level the talent between Alabama and Connecticut.

If anything, the playoff system reinforces the dominance of the elite teams. These teams are featured in the most watched games and can sell "playing for championships" to recruits. The elite teams already have the biggest stadiums, the highest paid coaches, and the most rabid fan bases. Now they also get even more prime time coverage.

Does this mean that the "lesser" teams are locked out? Not structurally (though UCF might disagree), but it appears that the college football playoff has made the climb even a little tougher.



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