I've argued before that a salary cap will not drive competition to be more balanced. Leaving aside the fact how important truly balanced competition is in the grand scheme of a sport, what really matters when it comes to determining competitive balance is fan interest. Fan interest (i.e. demand) is the primary determinant of the ability for teams to generate revenue and, thus, to obtain resources. Expenditures on coaches, players, facilities, etc. are little more than symptoms of that fan demand.
Demand, in turn, is a function of the usual suspects like the number of consumers, average income, availability of substitutes, etc. When there is an imbalance in the overall level of fan interest, this leads to an imbalance in revenues which, in turn, leads to competitive imbalance. Expenditure imbalance and competitive imbalance will be correlated, but they are both functions of an underlying cause: an imbalance in fan interest.
I've got another post up at The Sports Economist. In this one I look at the NFL's decision to suspend part of its revenue sharing system and the impact of salary caps and revenue sharing on competitive balance. I also look at Big 12 football as a reference point.
In business, entrepreneurs look for opportunities. Whether the opportunities are in the form of creating new products, serving new customers, or cutting costs, entrepreneurs exploit them at the cost of the competition. But in the end the entrepreneur's customers and the entrepreneur himself gain. This is capitalism.
So it is in sports. Coaches and players (and athletic administrators*) search for opportunities posed to them by their opponents. In recent years the spread offense, an offense in which the offensive linemen are are set with a large gap between them, became the sexy offense. The idea was to spread the defense farther out in order to open more passing lanes.
Mizzou installed the spread in 2005 after having recruited a young quarterback named Chase Daniel, a stocky QB out of Southlake Carroll in Texas. Daniel, shunned by the powerhouse colleges because of his height, ran a version of the spread in high school that was created by his HS coach Todd Dodge (n ow the head coach of North Texas). Mizzou installed that version of the spread and Daniel and his offensive teammates lit up the scoreboard like a frat boy at a tailgate over the next few years.
But, at some point, we'd expect the spread to lose favor. For those of us who don't play the game and who don't have the keen eye that the coaches and the players have, it's usually a hunch we have. Things change.
But coaches and the players, like the entrepreneurs in markets, are always looking for an opportunity to win an extra game. So they develop some new wrinkle in their offense or defense and try it out. If it's successful, they try it again. And the beat goes on.
So when is the spread offense going to be phased out? Well, according to J. Brady McCollough of the KC Star, the time may be now.
But Mangino and his staff can’t help but notice the different way
other Big 12 North teams are winning games during KU’s current
four-game losing streak. Last weekend, Kansas State ran the ball 43
times, threw it 16 times and beat Kansas, which threw it 41 times.
Later on, Nebraska ran it 43 times, threw it 14 times and beat
Oklahoma, which threw it 58 times.
The Wildcats and Huskers,
with their ground-oriented offensive philosophies, are now the
frontrunners to win the North in what had become during the past two
seasons a wild, point-crazy Big 12. KU and Missouri, with their
high-tech spread attacks, are both cellar-dwellers at 1-4.
and more, teams in our conference are slowly but surely fading out of
the spread offense,” Mangino said. “I think it goes back to the old
adage that coaches want to run the ball, control the clock and play
great defense. What did Woody Hayes say? ‘When you throw the ball, a
lot of bad things can happen.’”
Woody probably would not have
understood what was happening in 2007 and 2008. Teams took risk after
risk and didn’t pay for it very often as defenses sat back on their
heels and tried to react to what offenses were showing them. In 2007,
the Jayhawks were out in front of it all with their no-huddle scheme,
which allowed players to line up and look to the sideline for play
calls. For most of two years, KU’s offense played dictator.
When Mizzou lost games during the Chase Daniel era, it was usually to teams that had a strong defensive line. They lost to Nebraska in 2006, Oklahoma, twice, in 2007, and Texas and Oklahoma, again, in 2008. There were other losses of course, but that was a pattern that cropped up. If a team is able to get adequate pressure on the QB with 3 or 4 lineman, it allows them to keep 7 or 8 back in coverage. If the linemen are strong enough, it can force the offense to keep a RB or a TE in to help block, leaving fewer receivers to be covered downfield. Even a QB with the field vision and arm accuracy of Chase Daniel has a hard time when 4 or 5 receivers are being covered by 7 or 8 opposing players.
So are we witnessing the death of the spread? One season won't tell the story. But if the passing stats fall over the next couple of years, we can point to 2009 as the year the spread died.
*For evidence of the dynamics of entrepreneurship in athletics, one need only point out the fine book Moneyball
by Michael Lewis. Hakes and Sauer (2006) examined MLB data and found that the opportunity found by the Oakland A's was soon exploited by other executives in MLB.
USA Today has an article suggesting that the imposition of the salary cap in the NHL before the 2005-2006 season has improved competitive balance. Stacey Brook argues "not so fast my friend." Stacey has done the heavy lifting and argues that competitive balance has been improving over the past 30+ years, most likely to a larger pool of people with the skills to play hockey at the NHL level.
One explanation for the lack of effect from a salary cap has to do with Rottenberg's Invariance hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, players tend to play for the team that values them the most. A change in property rights regarding who has the final say over where a player plays does not alter team valuations (the value of the players' marginal contribution to his team, assuming teams maximize profits) and thus does not alter where player play. The salary cap essentially shifts the ability to capture value from players to teams, but does not per-se change players' values.