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The BCS and bowl matchups

2008 September 29
by Skip Sauer

Al Roth’s foray into sports economics, “Unraveling Yields Inefficient Matchings: Evidence from Post-Season College Football Bowls” is pretty interesting (pdf). Roth is perhaps the foremost economist interested in the process of match-making, and college bowl games provide an interesting set of matchups to study.

While every fan with a laptop or a mike piles on the BCS system of matching teams for every conceivable sin, Roth and his co-authors do what economists are paid to do: examine the data in light of a) relevant theory and b) a potentially important policy change: the implementation of the BCS system in 1992. Roth et al. find that the matchups improved. Roth is more interested in the efficiency of kidney exchanges, doctor-hospital matches etc., but in the bowl system study, he and his colleagues provide “as far as we know, the first direct evidence and measurement of the inefficiency due to early transaction times in a naturally occurring market.”

That’s a good example of using the availability of sports data to attack an economic question that might be less tractable elsewhere. But the results are also relevant to the debate over how the bowl system should be structured. Here is Roth’s interview on the topic at Working Knowledge, a daily newsletter from the Harvard Business School. Roth’s answer to the opening question suggests he has no dog in the BCS fight.

Q: “What led you to research football teams? Are you a sports fan?”

A: “I’m a matching fan.”

While Roth agrees with most commentators (presumably) that “the current organization of bowl games leaves much to be desired” his anecdotes and analysis are informative and cut to the heart of the problem:

Q: What particular changes do you see in the design of matching?

A: For football bowls, the Bowl Championship Series helps to delay bowl matchups until the completion of all the games in the regular season, so that the top teams can more often be matched with each other in a championship game.

We all have our gripes with the BCS, but when it comes to matchups, it really is as simple as that.

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