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Cycles in Conference Dominance

A recent USA Today column tackled the question, why is AFC dominating the NFC? This year, the AFC won an unprecedented 70% of the inter-conference games with the NFC. Beyond this season’s outcomes, the AFC has won 5 of the last 7 Super Bowls. Strangely, the current trend follows 15 wins out of 16 years by the NFC. Before that, the AFC (and AFL) teams won all but three championships from the 1968-1983 seasons. Beyond the Super Bowl, the Cowboys were the only NFC teams really competitive with the better AFC teams during the 1970s. Aside from Buffalo, the AFC playoff teams would have had a difficult time advancing in the NFC playoffs over 1984-1997. This year, stronger AFC teams missed the playoffs altogether than NFC counterparts who made it to the second round.

Such swings in conference dominance extend beyond the NFL. The NHL experienced similar East (1970s) to West (1980s) to East (late 1980s-mid 1990s) and back to West (late 1990s-) fluctuations. In the NBA, the West handled the East during the late 1970s to late eighties, while the East controlled matters during much of the 1990s. In recent years, the East has fallen to almost minor league status versus the West.

What’s going on? Pure statistical anomaly is possible but does not seem to sync with such drastic swings. The USA Today article poses answers such as the residence of great quarterbacks, defenses, or head coaches. Even if these have legitimacy, they are not really fundamental answers – why would one league come to hold more of the better QBs or coaches?

Here is my stab at an economics-related answer – competition as a spur to performance, or more specifically, the relevant market in which competition matters most. Although AFC and NFC play four inter-league games per year, a team’s performance relative to divisional and conference rivals determines the major markers of success or failure – appearances in the playoffs and playoff wins. If teams in one conference come out with better players or coaches over two or three years (through skill or luck), this initial endowment may develop into a longer-lived advantage for the entire conference as intra-conference competition spurs the chase to keep with the team next door.

While such an effect may seem to be a stretch, I would appeal to common training examples. On an individual basis, training with other players who “stretch” one’s own efforts and abilities enhances performance more than training against lesser rivals. I can attest to this over 25 years of running even with my modest abilities.

One lesson may be that even though competition as a term runs throughout economics, economists may not fully appreciate the value of competition as a spur to performance. This kind of thinking or research is often left to psychologists or other professionals.