Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ask FRB: What's the Best Sports Structure?

Dear FRB: You were pretty critical last week of the NCAA Division 1 football format. How about an example of a sports structure that works really well?


NCAA Division 1 basketball.

Yes, though the NCAA gets football spectacularly wrong,  it has somehow stumbled on to a great system for basketball.

To appreciate the beauty of the basketball system, imagine if you had to build it from scratch. Here is your mission: You have 345 teams of different sizes and finances spread all over the country. You must determine one champion in five months. And ideally you must keep the season interesting throughout for every team, big and small, by offering intermediate trophies or at least varying the format enough to prevent boredom.

That is a very tall order. Unlike with football, it's hard to imagine  sitting down with a pencil and coming up with a much better system than the one we have.

Some of the same aspects that make the football system so infuriating work exceptionally well in basketball. Having unequal conferences makes some football teams second class citizens who can never win a national title. In basketball, the conferences help to give everyone a chance to win something at a realistic level, yet still earn a shot against the top teams at the end of the year.

An overlooked facet of the basketball system is the variety teams and fans get as the season goes along.

Teams start by playing a couple months of nonconference games. These allow them to play games with local rivals and teams with similar talent levels, as well as be on either end of a mismatch or three. Frequently, teams will also play in a four or eight-team tournament, offering a chance for a trophy, and giving even the weakest team a chance to win, say, a seventh-place game.


After the teams have shaken off the cobwebs and given a sense of how good they might be, they launch into conference play in January and February. With the same opponents every year, this provides continuity. And no matter how badly the first two months went, everyone gets a fresh start.


Another fresh start comes in March, with conference tournaments. Just about every team in the country, no matter how wretched, gets one more chance to get hot, win a title, and qualify for the national championship. A far cry from football, where a team's season can be essentially over after one or two games.



We don't need to say much about the final stage, the NCAA tournament, which everyone knows is one of the most  phenomenally successful events in the country, attracting the attention of millions of people who don't know Samford from Stetson. More underrated are the other post-season tournaments, the NIT, CBI and CIT. Few casual fans pay attention, but fans and players of the teams in them get a chance for a few more precious games for their seniors and perhaps one more shot at a trophy.


The system is not perfect of course. The top teams too often play patsies at home in the early season.  FRB has a few beefs about the sacred NCAA tournament too. The overuse of the human element in selecting teams makes him uneasy. And 68 is an aesthetically unappealing number of teams, especially when it is so close to 64, that beautiful power of 2. But as a whole, it accomplishes most of the things its sets out to do effectively.


And yet this fine system wasn't created by a central planner. Though the NCAA runs the final tournament and sets rules about games and dates, many of the most interesting aspects of college basketball are structured by others. The in-season tournaments, conference play and conference tournaments, and the CBI and CIT are all structured by separate entities. This chaos has brought a successful working system. FRB is no doctrinaire libertarian, but he offers a thumb's up for the free market in this case.

1 comment:

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