The Biggest House, and the Games of College Football Stadiums

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Fortunately for me, I am among the people who are relatively insulated from the consequences of the sequester-related budget cuts that are hitting America today -- cuts that took effect without even the pretense of negotiations from Speaker Boehner, whose intransigence was met with cheers from House Republicans.  Because I am so fortunate, I have the luxury of being able to indulge in what might be called "budget fatigue."  Washington's budget wars are exceedingly important, but I would really like to talk about something else.

So I will.  Last January, I wrote a Dorf on Law post in which I explained how I had come to feel disgust with college football, and how I had tried -- with limited success -- to stop caring about that obviously corrupt and dangerous sport.  The glorification of injury-causing hits, the exploitation of vulnerable young men -- all of it was just too much.  I was disappointed that I could not completely stop caring, but a lifetime as a college football fan turned out to be too much to overcome in a short time.  This past season, I still watched the games every now and then, but with the exception of the Ohio State-Michigan game (no longer the elite event it once was) and the BCS Championship Game, I have reached the point where I mostly keep track of the scores, watching a few minutes here or there of some high-profile games.

That change has turned out to be good for my soul.  Even so, I continue to be fascinated by the business of college sports.  Because I am suffering from budget fatigue, however, I will not go into serious financial analysis here.  Instead, I will ask a question that I find especially important from the perspective of a fan of (and degree holder from) the University of Michigan: Why is there no arms race among big-time college football programs, to build ever-larger stadiums?  (I guess it should really be stadia, but please.)

We should start with some basic facts.  Michigan's stadium has been the largest in college football for as long as anyone can remember.  When I was a kid, the stadium was a behemoth, a single-tier bowl with an official capacity of 101,001.  (There is some story about why there has to be that extra one seat, but I never bothered to learn it.)  The capacity rose to 101,701 at some point, and then it was increased in fits and starts, with a major stadium renovation about ten years ago (that turned the stadium into an eyesore, when viewed from the outside) that puts the current capacity at 109,901.  (With standing-room included, crowds regularly top 111,001.)  Michigan Stadium became known as The Big House, courtesy of sportscaster Keith Jackson, and Wolverine fans take great pride in that label.  The stadium has sold out every game for decades.

Meanwhile, there were a few college football cathedrals that were close in size to Michigan Stadium, but slightly smaller.  The Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, was one of the biggest, but it always lagged about 10,000 seats or so behind (currently falling further back in the pack, at 92,542).  The University of Tennessee's stadium has long held more than 100,000 fans.  Over recent years, the football factories at Penn State and Ohio State expanded their stadiums rapidly, both passing 100,000, and they are now the second- and fourth-largest college stadiums in the country.  Ohio State's situation was especially amusing, because Ohio Stadium was originally horseshoe-shaped, with an open end to the stadium.  "The 'Shoe," as it is affectionately called, eventually had to be turned into something non-horseshoe-shaped, in order to maximize seating capacity.  Yet the architects tried to make it still look "kinda horseshoe-ish," if you will.  The result, which readers can easily Google, is a ridiculous nod to horseshoe-ness, while still packing in as many bodies as possible.

Except that they could easily pack in many more bodies, if they wanted to do so.  There is nothing natural about the low-100,000's as a limit to the size of stadiums, from an architectural standpoint.  There are two stadiums in the world with capacities of 120,000 and 150,000, respectively.  Maybe those stadiums (which are in India and North Korea, respectively) are not built to the same standards (seat width, etc.) as U.S. stadiums, but I see no reason why Michigan or the Rose Bowl could not add second decks, expanding seating by as much as 40,000 or so people.  Most of the other large U.S. college football stadiums are already double-decked, but that merely shows that their original designs were not capacity-maximizing.

Even if there were some natural limit to the size of stadiums, one wonders why other universities have not jumped up to that level.  It was only very recently that the Universities of Texas and Alabama -- two super-elite programs that have been more successful on the field than Michigan in the last half-century -- barely passed 100,000 capacities at their home stadiums.  Florida, Auburn, Florida State, and Oklahoma are all below 90,000.  Notre Dame is barely at 80,000.

Maybe Nebraska's 81,067-seat capacity is explained by low local population, but I doubt it.  Certainly, however, it cannot explain why the University of Texas's stadium remains almost 10,000 seats smaller than Michigan's.  At Ohio State and elsewhere, conflicts over divorces and estates become ugliest when access to the family's football season tickets is at stake.  Given the explosive growth in the popularity of college football, and the huge amounts of money at stake, one must ask at least two questions: (1) Why do any elite programs leave their stadiums under-sized? and (2) Why does Michigan remain unchallenged at the top?

I suppose there is a formal game-theoretic model that one could develop here, but because such models must build in arbitrary assumptions, there are no definitive answers available.  It is all supposition, which I am happy to provide in a non-mathematical form.

I think the answer to both questions boils down to something simple: Even in a world with all kinds of money floating around, and hyper-competitive decision-makers involved, we either never reach what seems like the obvious long-run equilibrium, or it takes a surprisingly long time to get there.  (I realize that this is actually a bit of a non-answer -- at least to people who are committed to rational choice models -- but I am at least comfortable leaving others to ask what kind of competitive imperfections might prevent us from reaching equilibrium.)

Regarding question (1), we have seen quite a bit of stadium expansion recently (even Rutgers started pouring money from New Jersey's taxpayers into its now-Big 10 program), and we will probably see more.  Even so, that leaves open the question of why it is taking so long, given that the popularity of college football is hardly a recent phenomenon.  Even the new building spree seems to be too modest.  For example, Texas's recent expansion took it to 100,019.  Why not another 9,000 seats?

Or, why not another 59,000 seats?  Question (2) -- why does no one challenge Michigan -- has a too-easy answer: Michigan has let it be known that it will expand its stadium size, in response to any challenge to its primacy as the biggest of houses.  So what?  First, if I am the athletic director at, say, the University of Georgia, why would I believe that Michigan is not bluffing?  Second, even if Michigan is willing to go to 151,001 when I go to 150,000, why would that stop me from going to 150,000?  There is something to being the biggest, but there is also something to selling 50% more tickets.

Perhaps I am simply overestimating the underlying demand for college football tickets.  Maybe college sports administrators have determined that it would be too embarrassing to build a huge stadium that has empty seats on Saturdays, so they would rather collect less money as a sure thing than gamble on collecting more money.  Let's just say that I remain skeptical.

Of course, given that college football is a huge drain on all but a decided minority of big-time universities, this is all good news.  However, given how little anyone seems to think about the universities as a whole -- and especially given that they do not do so in the no-upper-limit arms races of college football that have led to radical conference realignments, intensifying recruiting efforts (in zero-sum games), lavish new practice facilities and perks for elite athletes, and so on -- it is almost comical to think that stadiums are deliberately being kept small, for the good of the students and academic programs.