Saturday, October 29, 2011

What is it about sports? Part 4 - Which team is best?

Having just seen the St. Louis Cardinals squeak into the postseason and then win it all, it reminds me of some thoughts I've had regarding postseason playoffs, especially with regards to college football.  There's probably a majority of fans who want to ditch the BCS one-game "playoff" and go to some sort of a playoff for FBS teams to determine a "true" national champion.

Given that virtually all other NCAA championships are determined by some sort of postseason tournament, there seems to be no reason not to make big-time college football the same as other collegiate sports competitions.  But I'm of two minds about this.  Yes, it would be nice to wind up with what would become an undisputable national champion, supposedly settled by performance on the playing field rather than something so heavily influenced by opinion polls and computerized ranking schemes.  Then FBS college football would become indistinguishable from pro football (except for the salaries!).  And that's the rub for me.

As we witness the degrading spectacle of FBS teams engaging in an orgy of "realignment," it becomes quite obvious, even for anyone who has been operating in a vacuum for the past 25 years, that FBS football has become all about the money that football generates.  Traditional rivalries?  Who cares, when big money is at stake?  After all, universities are businesses now - they long ago ceased to be primarily about education, anyway.  NCAA football is simply the low-paid minor leagues for pro football now, and all of the fun and tradition of amateur athletics is disposable in pursuit of the almighty dollar!  For the best athletes that universities can buy (and offer them a showcase for their talent in pursuit of a roster spot on a pro team), they rake in millions in revenue - which allows them to attract even more top athletes.  No one cares much about the majority of college athletes who don't go on to a career in the pros, anyway.  They're only along for fun and to support the play of the real playmakers - big-time collegiate sports is about revenue, not fun!

And just what does a playoff produce?  It inevitably produces a champion at the end, of course.  But the arguments go on about just which team is the "best"!  [My definition of "best" is to be offered below.] In the minds of some fans - the fans of the championship team - their team was best because they won the playoff.  Period.  End of story.

But as we have seen in the World Series of 2011, the outcome of games can be highly dependent on things that may have relatively little to do with onfield performance:  injuries, random bounces of the ball (or whatever), just missing or just making a play, the weather, coaching decisions, bad calls by the referees, the playing field conditions etc.  Athletic contests are a fine example of nonlinear dynamics and it becomes quite possible for the hypothetical best team to lose a game during the playoffs owing to one or more of these non-performance factors.  In fact, the larger the field of teams in the playoff, the more likely it becomes that the hypothetical best team will be beaten.  Although playoffs always yield a final, surviving champion, the determination of which team was best that year remains undone.  Arguments can continue indefinitely.  And that seems rather like the way things are now, using the BCS system:  a champion is determined but the arguments go on.

So here's my modest proposal for determining which FBS football team is truly the best.  Each team will meet every other team multiple times, under a variety of playing conditions, weather, roster status for all the team's top players, home/away/neutral field, and so on.  Just for the sake of a number, let's say each team will play every other team 100 times, and each game will involve different conditions.  Since there currently are 120 FBS teams, this will amount to a rather large number of games for each team [(119 x 100) = 11, 900 games, so the entire regular season of FBS football will involve 11, 900 x 120 = 1, 428, 000 FBS games].  I guess this means the end of Saturday afternoon college football - they'll have to play multiple games every day of the week to fit in the required games (see below).  But of course, college football has already spread to other days of the week!  After all, prime time TV revenue is important.

At the end of this expanded "season" (from 12 games to nearly 12,000 for each team), the 16 teams with the highest winning percentage (ties will be broken by some sort of tiebreaker rules) would then enter the championship playoff.  Each team would again play every other team in the playoff 100 times under a variety of conditions [for a total of 16 x 15 x 100 = 24, 000 games], and the team with the highest winning percentage would be declared the national champion (again with a set of tiebreaker rules).  Think of the revenue this scheme would generate!!  And the old argument that "If X played Y 100 times, they'd win PP percent of the time!" would actually be played out!

This "ensemble" approach to determining a national champion is a logical way to determine which team is actually the best, because the random, non-performance factors that seem to be so important to the outcome of a single game against an opponent would tend to even out over 11, 900 games.  I admit, there are some practical issues that would need to be worked out, such as the degradation of the playing fields from playing multiple games every day, or the fact that it would require each team to play 10 games, 7 days per week, for 170 weeks (3.3 years) to just to complete the regular season, or wear and tear on the players.  But these are just minor details.  What counts is the enormous revenues this would generate and the chance finally to know which team is best!  Once every few years ...

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