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

Comments

aaamichfan

February 11th, 2010 at 8:05 PM ^

It will be interesting to see southern population trends in the next 15 years. Texas and Florida experienced a great deal of inward migration in the 1990's and 2000's due to the housing boom, energy sector, tax climate, etc. The Florida economy is currently spiraling downward, but Texas is doing relatively well because of energy. I assume the energy bubble will eventually burst in Texas, as it has happened in similar past economic circumstances. Assuming Midwest states are able to have some type of "economic renaissance", it will be interesting to see if people begin returning to the area.

turbo cool

February 12th, 2010 at 12:17 AM ^

If you're new to energy then I suppose that it would be easy to think there is a bubble. The energy industry is the underlying engine behind every other industry.

For example, Enron wasn't a bubble. It was a bunch of guys who were cooking the books in one room and in the other trading in ways that were not entirely out of the scope of the fairly immature and unregulated power market regulations at the time.

Sure people will get caught up in the next great stock or funds (see UNG) but energy isn't necessarily like the dot.com or housing bubbles. It is an entirely different (a much, much more powerful) beast.

aaamichfan

February 12th, 2010 at 1:21 AM ^

You're right, bubble wasn't the correct terminology there. My previous post was a gross oversimplification of a complex issue. It is more that we are currently exiting an extreme high point in the energy/commodity price cycle. The Gulf Region is awash with money, and current energy prices ensure that energy is still a profitable venture.

Within the next couple of years, I believe we are going to see a drop in demand coupled with high taxes being imposed by congress. This would cause inflated levels of employment in the energy sector to shink considerably. The speed at which it happens will be similar to that of a bubble bursting, although it will not be caused by asset prices reaching unsustainable levels.

I'm no economist, though. There are probably dozens of MGoBloggers who are more capable of offering quality insight than I.

turbo cool

February 12th, 2010 at 7:26 AM ^

Not sure what demand you speak of, nat gas, electricity, coal, etc.? Anyway, we just saw the largest drop in demand over the last 1.5 years due to the recession and industrial load took a big hit. That is the only way demand for energy falls in a major way (when the economy goes into the toilet). Other than that, demand almost always rises in energy. It can be curbed, but again, it just means you'd be reducing an increasing rate.

MichMike86

February 11th, 2010 at 8:08 PM ^

Nice work but couldn't this be summarized by saying that southern areas have more talent and therefore end up with better teams because of this? I understand that you brought to light the idea of the great journey southward for so many northerns but isn't my previous point all it boils down to?

RodRox

February 11th, 2010 at 9:11 PM ^

his is the exact type of post that forces me to sign on and comment. I just want to thank Brian and all the posters on this outworldly blog. This is pure amazing and I check it after cnn and before espn.com and my email EVERYDAY!

I live in Texas and the population shift, state economies are so very interesting to analyse. I myself am a medical resident, but I just see ALOT of growth in southern states lately. Texas as of late has seen incredible growth in many cities. Yea the energy crisis would be death sentence to cities like Houston, but taking Austin - so very diversified i doubt change happens.

Getting back to football. Its simple. I want Texas to join Big Ten and negate all of the southern advantage. Problem solved.

The Impaler

February 11th, 2010 at 9:16 PM ^

Early in the post you were talking about population densities as well as aggregate populations, which confused me. Are you arguing that SECs schools are having more success because people are living closer together in the South or just that there is a higher percentage of U.S. people living in the south leading to more talent rich recruiting grounds?

Bixler

February 11th, 2010 at 10:18 PM ^

One thing that occurred to me while reading this relates to your question about why the south produces more elite football players even though the population percentage is not higher than the north. I would suspect that the average age in the south is younger than in the north. I think many families have moved south and have produced more children, which in essence results in a more school age population.

I also have thought for a long time that water issues could result in more people and businesses eventually heading to the Great Lakes region. Unless they can figure out how to make cheap anti-salination plants, scarce water supply may result in a northward migration.

Zone Left

February 11th, 2010 at 10:25 PM ^

I actually looked at age when doing the research, but mean ages were within about four years per state--which may be statistically significant, but probably not too significant. School age children per capita wasn't readily available (or I couldn't find it due to personal stupidity).

Water will become an issue this century, and I believe that will increase the population east of the Mississippi and in the Pacific Northwest.

Thanks for the thoughts.

jmblue

February 11th, 2010 at 10:29 PM ^

I'm not sure what the school-age population figures are, but I don't know if that's the key. The bigger thing, I think, is that football is simply more a part of the culture of the South than anywhere else. Participation rates for high school football are higher there than anywhere else in the country. In Michigan and other Northern states, a lot of star athletes focus on basketball; in the South they're more likely to focus on football. Throw in the fact that the South has a much larger black population, and it's not that surprising that it produces more talent.

Slinginsam

February 11th, 2010 at 11:57 PM ^

Texas and Florida, I agree. Alabama and LSU, I disagree.

One demographic trend is that the chasm academically between the Big Ten and the SEC has narrowed in the last 50 or so years. The rising population in the South has made it more difficult to get admitted to some of those schools(UGA and Florida in particular).

Improved academics, great football, and better weather. We are fighting a losing battle long-term.

RodRox

February 12th, 2010 at 12:40 AM ^

You put it more eloquently. I've always wondered though, football aside, why are the deep southern states like Alabama, Mississipi, Ark, Louisiana so poor? I mean don't people up north want to move to warmer climate? may be its I-just-got dumped-the-record-breaking-snow-and-am-miserable in me talking.

May be infrastructure development would take 30 more years??

Dammit I still want Michigan to rock out no matter what. Go Blue.

jmblue

February 12th, 2010 at 7:53 AM ^

Well, many of the people of those states are descended from slaves and dealt with segregation not that long ago.

Keep in mind, though, that the official poverty statistics don't account for the cost of living, which in the South is usually dirt-cheap. I've read that when cost of living is taken into account, the poorest region of the country is . . . New England.

Search4Meaning

February 16th, 2010 at 7:34 PM ^

I have espousing this for years.

Alabama and LSU are beneficiaries because of their proximity to large, talent laden states surrounding them. Much easier to get a Texas boy to go to Alabama than Michigan.

Academics have improved in a few of the schools, but you still have a large number of Arkansas, Old Miss, Auburn, South Carolinas, Miss. State and Kentucky's that are still pretty loose on admissions. LSU, Tennessee, and Alabama are decent. Vanderbilt is the Northwestern of the SEC...

Michigan is fighting an uphill battle - it just needs to win.

florida wolverine

February 12th, 2010 at 6:34 PM ^

We will always get good football players no matter where they come from. All we have to do is win. If RichRod wins(hopefully), there will be alot more good football coming from Florida. Nothing beats tradition and Michigan is the biggest in football. Maybe Bill Martin had RichRod's southern ties in mind when hiring him. I think we are ahead of all other schools because we can recruit nationally. Bottom line: just keep winning to remain the leaders and best. GO BLUE!

BlueVoix

February 13th, 2010 at 5:16 PM ^

Interesting analysis. I disagree with those that say Michigan or the North are in trouble in the long run, principally because the last 50 years will not project in the same way as the next 50 years. For one thing, the fertility rates of this country have been plummeting since the 1950s. We're barely held at replacement rate as is. So you won't see the same kind of expansion in the South, though you will see increases in population in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida, owing to high Hispanic populations.

Additionally, things looked pretty awful for the "rust" belt back in the early part of the last decade, when expansion in the sun belt was out of control. Now, thanks to the recession, that area has a filthy number of foreclosures and unused development. We'll see where that heads over the next decade or so.

Search4Meaning

February 16th, 2010 at 7:24 PM ^

but I disagree with you.

Demographic shifts are in constant fluxuation, and the Rust Belt will eventually come back to some extent. I do agree with that.

I also concur that the shift will not continue at the same rate as it has - but make no mistake it will continue.

But recruiting will trail re-developement.

Additionally, the hispanic population will play football somewhere... probably close to home.

While you have given additional thought to this general thesis, and I appreciate thoughtful analysis, I believe that this is a MAJOR disadvantage to cold weather school recruiting.

The only question is how much of a disadvantage?

BlueVoix

February 16th, 2010 at 9:47 PM ^

I don't disagree that there are small fluctuations, but your notion of demographic shifts is a little off. Looking at 30 to 50 years isn't really the right method. Remember that 100 years ago, the great migrations out of the South would have to be considered major demographic shifts. While they are, by definition, demographic shifts, they do not constitute the end all, be all of those regions. Just because there has been movement out of the manufacturing core of the Northeast and Midwest to the Southwest and Southeast does not mean this will continue to happen by any means. If we want to claim a real, genuine demographic shift, we have to go much, much larger.

I don't disagree either that recruiting will lag behind as well. After all, many of our recruits from outside of the Midwest have made mention that they have family in Michigan, perhaps left over from the emigration that has been occurring. The real question is how long X family decides to stay in X location and how that will impact the ties to the original location.

Finally, it may appear to be a major disadvantage to cold weather schools, especially if you go by the line "I didn't like the cold when I visited Michigan." I think we've been hearing that line for quite some time. But if we're talking in an us vs. them sort of manner, Michigan may still be just fine if we continue to recruit nationally. If we're able to pluck recruits that realize "Hey, I may have to play in the cold in the NFL" out of Florida, Texas, and California, we'll be fine. But as talent diminishes in the region (if that is what happens), the Northwesterns, Minnesotas sans Brewster, and MSUs will struggle.

Search4Meaning

February 16th, 2010 at 8:24 PM ^

As you can probably tell from my interjecting of thoughts throughout this string; this endorses a personal, long-held belief that Michigan recruiting is going to be increasingly more difficult as time goes by.

Certainly Michigan has several strengths, but demographics are like the tide - relentless.