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A Better Football Poll?

The BCS has finally made its appearance and we now “know” that Ohio State is the number one team in the land.

Okay, we really don’t “know”. The BCS combines two things people don’t like: Computer polls and Human polls. Hostility towards computers picking teams is pretty widespread. And it turns out, some people aren’t too thrilled with the human polls either. Here is what Todd McShay of ESPN The Magazine (October 22, p. 98) had to say about the coaches and media who vote in the polls:

“… voters are right now irresponsible. Coaches can’t pay enough attention and end up having grad assistants vote. Media members have to focus on the teams they cover. It’s just insane that the NCAA doesn’t have a paid group of former coaches and players whose full-time job is to watch games, then rank the teams.”

What McShay is asking for sounds quite similar to the Harris Interactive Poll. The big difference is that it doesn't appear that the NCAA is paying for the Harris poll. So would the world be a better place if the NCAA paid for a poll?

Let’s think about this in terms of costs and benefits. McShay wants the NCAA to hire a group of former coaches and players to watch college football games. Let’s imagine the NCAA pays each coach or player $10,000 per year to do this job (which is a very low wage for a full-time occupation). If 100 coaches and players are hired, the NCAA poll is going to cost $1,000,000. That seems like a pretty substantial cost.

Now what are the benefits? Presumably we are now going to have a poll that is more “legitimate.” Experts are now going to focus their attention on watching all the games. And consequently, we are now going to “know” who the best team is in the land.

But is this really true? Here are just a few of the problems with this suggestion.

1. Even if these people are paid to watch football all Saturday, they cannot possibly watch all the teams. So every voter is still going to have gaps in their knowledge.

2. And even if you could watch all the games (which you can’t), the sample of games is too small to determine the best team. For example, who is the better team, South Florida or Ohio State? Voters now say Ohio State. Computers say South Florida. Who’s right? Right now Ohio State has played seven games while South Florida has played six. But these games were against completely different opponents. So not only is each sample too small to tell us much, we don’t even have two samples that are comparable.

3. Beyond these technical problems is an economic issue. Costs for a firm are justified because they lead, either directly or indirectly, to a revenue stream. But how does having McShay’s poll enhance the revenues of the NCAA? Will more people go to the games because they believe in McShay’s poll? Will this lead to more television viewers? One could even argue that having a poll that is less controversial would actually reduce the attention paid to the NCAA, and therefore reduce revenues.

In the end, I think it would be “insane” for the NCAA to follow McShay’s suggestion. In fact, the decision to let people provide free polls to the NCAA seems perfectly rational and reasonable. The current arrangement increases attention paid to the sport and hence boost revenues. And with a cost of zero, every member of the NCAA has to love these polls.

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