Population and the Long-Term Success of SEC Football

Submitted by Zone Left on February 11th, 2010 at 7:36 PM
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While it isn’t quite a mainstream media opinion yet, many of us are believers that population density plays a major factor in relative college football team strength.  In other words, the more people near a given school, the better the school’s football team should be—in the aggregate.  Obviously, there will be outliers.  Some teams that should be excellent are not, and some that should be relatively poor will be strong.  There are many factors that affect team strength besides population density, such as: facilities, historical strength, and the perceived ability of the coaches.  On national Signing Day this year, Robert Smith was the first mainstream media personality I’ve seen make the argument that the SEC was the strongest population primarily due to population and that the Big 10 had weakened over the past 40 years due to the United States’ generally Southern population shift.

The theory is that prior to the 1950s, Southern summers were simply not bearable to most Americans, so more chose to live in North and East than do currently1.  As access to air conditioning increased, population density in the Midwest and Northeast rose, and advanced communications (reliable telephone, teletype, and fax machines here folks) connected the country; people were able to gradually move to the relatively cheaper South and West without losing connection to business centers while remaining comfortable in the summer months.  This blog doesn’t deal with population trends, so I’m not going to speculate in-depth here as to why American’s moved, however, the move did occur.  According to Census data, the population center of the United States has gradually moved South and West from Clinton County, IL in 19602 to Phelps County, MO in 20003.  Data for the 2010 census obviously isn’t available yet.  This is a shift about 150 miles to the southwest. 

Other population trends bear out a shift.  I’m focusing on the Big 10, Big 12, and SEC conference footprints here.  None of the conferences existed in their present forms in 1960, but I’m using current footprints for simplicity’s sake.  2010 numbers are based on Census projections made in 2005.  These are likely close to accurate, although the projections may be lower for the Southern footprint as population movement is expected to slow due to the number of people unable to sell their homes while they are underwater on the mortgages. Tables detailing the population changes are below.

US Pop 1960

179,323,175

US Pop 2010

308,935,581


72.28%







Big Ten






State

1960

Rank

2010

Rank

% Change

Michigan

7,848,000

7

10,428,683

8

32.88%

Illinois

10,113,000

4

12,916,894

5

27.73%

Pennsylvania

11,343,000

3

12,584,487

6

10.94%

Ohio

9,739,000

5

11,576,181

7

18.86%

Wisconsin

3,964,000

15

5,727,426

20

44.49%

Indiana

4,677,000

11

6,392,139

16

36.67%

Minnesota

3,426,000

18

5,420,636

21

58.22%

Iowa

2,761,000

24

3,009,907

30

9.02%

Total

53,871,000


68,056,353


26.33%

% of US Pop

30.04%


22.03%


-8.01%







Big 12






Texas

9,617,000

6

   24,648,888

2

156.31%

Oklahoma

2,333,000

27

     3,591,516

28

53.94%

Missouri

4,331,000

13

     5,922,078

18

36.74%

Kansas

2,178,000

29

     2,805,470

33

28.81%

Iowa

2,761,000

24

     3,009,907

30

9.02%

Nebraska

1,414,000

34

     1,768,997

38

25.11%

Colorado

1,758,000

33

     4,831,554

22

174.83%

Total

24,392,000


46,578,410


90.96%

% of US Pop

13.60%


15.08%


1.47%







SEC






Florida

5,000,000

10

   19,251,691

4

285.03%

Georgia

3,949,000

16

     9,589,080

9

142.82%

Tennessee

3,573,000

17

     6,230,852

17

74.39%

South Carolina

2,392,000

26

     4,446,704

25

85.90%

Arkansas

1,788,000

31

     2,875,039

32

60.80%

Alabama

3,273,000

19

     4,596,330

24

40.43%

Louisiana

3,270,000

20

     4,612,679

23

41.06%

Mississippi

2,180,000

28

     2,971,412

31

36.30%

Kentucky

3,047,000

22

     4,265,117

26

39.98%

Total

28,472,000


58,838,904


106.66%

% of US Pop

15.88%


19.05%


3.17%

 

Interestingly, the Big 10 states still have more people than either the Big 12 or SEC.  However, the population gap has decreased dramatically.   My last diary (http://mgoblog.com/diaries/analysis-conference-strength-1969) posited that the only realistic way for non-statistical gurus to judge conference strength was based on number of teams ranked in the final Top 25 polls.  You can read my reasons there.  Based on the metric I used, the Big 12 footprint teams were stronger in the 1970s and the SEC won out from there.  Interestingly, this would mean that the conference with the smallest footprint was the strongest.  This metric may be skewed, because both the Big 8 and SWC’s strongest teams now make up the Big 12, so they did not knock each other off in conference play.  Furthermore, college football was much more regional in the 1970s than today—which meant the regional comparisons were even more difficult to make then than they are today.

If the SEC is the strongest conference—as most pundits and recent championship success suggests, then why is that the case?  Clearly, there is a confluence of reasons.  These include national success, perceived strength, facility quality, the level of import football receives from individual schools, and media attention.  Income and racial makeup may also play a role.  Obviously, the percentage of black college football players is much higher than the percentage of black people in the general American population.  Each SEC footprint state except Kentucky has over 1 million black residents6, which accounts for approximately one-third of American blacks.  If blacks are genetically pre-disposed to be better football players (which the racial composition of college football suggests) then the large percentage of blacks may give Southern schools a demographic advantage not indicated by their population.  NOTE:  This is simply conjecture based on data available—I do not purport to make definitive claims about the genetic pre-dispositions of any race.

Bottom line, what exactly may this mean for Michigan?  First, conference strength and perception are important for each team in the conference.  Everyone knows the MWC is a weaker conference top-to-bottom than the SEC, regardless of the strength of its top two or three teams each year.  This perception (and reality) leads top players to generally covet an SEC scholarship over that of an MWC scholarship.  If the same is generally true for BCS conferences, then the perception of a weaker Big 10 will generally hurt the Big 10.  However, this is generally an opinion. 

More interestingly, Sports Illustrated studied recruiting trends from 2004-2008 and discovered that “programs which draw at least 50 percent of their players from within 200 miles or from within their home state stand a far better chance of winning consistently than those that did not6.”  Michigan’s average distance for the period studied was over 547 miles, the third largest for a team that won 38 or more games (Oregon and Boston College had larger distances).  The inability to attract talent close to Michigan requires a greater emphasis on travel than most schools and means that Michigan must overcome recruits’ loyalty to hometown schools and desire to be close to home—which is not easy (Texas is the perfect example). 

Long term, Michigan will likely be forced to expend greater resources to acquire lower quality athletes than the local schools in talent rich areas.  Barring a dramatic change in demographics, Michigan will be more likely to regress to the mean performance-wise than schools in comparatively talent rich areas.

 

1.  http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/mvigeant/therm_1/ac_final/bg.htm

2.  http://www.census.gov/population/www/censusdata/files/popctr.pdf

3.  https://ask.census.gov/cgi-bin/askcensus.cfg/php/enduser/std_adp.php?p_faqid=712&p_sid=r86Oj3Uj&p_created=1096906167&p_sp=cF9zcmNoPSZwX3NvcnRfYnk9JnBfZ3JpZHNvcnQ9JnBfcm93X2NudD0mcF9wcm9kcz0mcF9jYXRzPSZwX3B2PSZwX2N2PSZwX3BhZ2U9MQ!!&p_search_text=population%20center

4.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1960_United_States_Census

5.  http://www.census.gov/population/www/projections/projectionsagesex.html

6.  http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/writers/andy_staples/01/20/recruiting/index.html

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