Is it Love Lost or Love Paid? Why Kirk Herbstreit Is Wrong About College Football Players Skipping Bowl Games

According to ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, athletes are missing bowl games because they no longer like the sport. A better answer is provided by economics.

"I think this era of player just doesn't love football."

According to ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, athletes are dropping out of bowl games for a variety of reasons. In fact, Herbstreit believes that extending the playoffs will not fix the problem. "I'm not sure if modifying it, enlarging it is going to affect anything," Herbstreit said on Saturday's College GameDay broadcast.

Herbstreit’s comments drew a large amount of criticism, with many others in the sports commentary industry arguing players still love football, but they fear injury. It's the fear of career-ending injuries which is driving the decision to opt out of bowl games goes the counterargument.

In response to abundant criticism, Herbstreit walked back his statement a little, but didn’t really change the substance of his claim. He highlighted in a Tweet that “of course some players love the game the same today as ever.” However he immediately followed up this remark with, “but some don’t.”

Personally, I agree with those who believe Herbstreit's explanation for why players are skipping bowl games is inadequate. It's crucial to note, though, that Herbstreit's detractors don't have all of the facts.

True, players can suffer career-ending injuries in bowl games, but this isn't a new occurrence. Because injuries have always been an issue for athletes to consider, injuries alone cannot explain why players are increasingly opting out of bowl games.

So, what's the deal with athletes opting out of bowls? To understand why, we must first grasp certain fundamental economic concepts.

The necessity of sacrifice in sports is the first subject I teach in my Sports Economics program for MBA students. Consider the use of a first-round draft choice by an NFL team owner and coach. One possibility is to utilize the choice to get a star quarterback who will almost certainly be taken in the first round. We can even envision them trading their first-round pick for a number of second-round picks. They might perhaps utilize these choices to improve their offensive line.

Choosing one option over the other, whether it's a great quarterback or a rebuilding of the offensive line, involves sacrificing the other. It's impossible to utilize a first-round draft selection and then trade it for more second-round picks. Economists refer to the opportunity cost as whatever the highest valued foregone alternative is.

The opportunity cost is two second round picks if the coach and owner elected to utilize a first-round pick rather than exchange it for two second-round picks.

However, if the opportunity cost of doing a particular action rises (i.e., more sacrifice is required), we should anticipate people to choose that activity less frequently.

For example, if the coach and owner are offered ten second round selection picks instead of two, we should anticipate them to trade their first round draft pick rather than utilize it. To put it another way, when the opportunity cost of using a first-round draft selection rises, we should anticipate clubs to trade it more.

This idea of opportunity cost may now be applied to players who skip bowl games. The potential of injury, as Herbstreit's critics point out, is the opportunity cost of participating in a bowl game. But, as previously said, competing in bowl games has always come at a cost.

To understand why athletes are opting out now, consider that the financial loss from a career-ending injury is bigger today than in the past. Because the opportunity cost is higher in economic terms, players are playing in fewer bowl games.

Compare now to the year after Herbstreit graduated from college, 1994, to see this plainly. In 1994, a selected rookie in the NFL may be paid as little as $104,000. If we compensate for inflation, this amount would be worth around $180,000 today.

In 2021, however, the NFL's minimum wage for selected rookies will be $660,000. In other words, if a collegiate player who is expected to be selected into the NFL suffers a career-ending injury in a bowl game, they will lose roughly $480,000 per year more than a guy who played when Herbstreit did.

If we multiplied that sum by the average number of years in an NFL career (3.3), it costs players $1.5 million more now than it did in 1994 to miss the draft due to a bowl game injury. This isn't even taking into account how much money superstar rookies can make in the NFL today–simply it's comparing the league minimum.

Is it reasonable to conclude that the fact that more players skip bowl games today than in 1994 demonstrates a lack of enthusiasm for the game? Not at all. In 1994, players just didn't have as much to lose if they got hurt. It's possible that current players are less enthusiastic about the game, but it seems far less plausible than the economic reason.

The lesson is obvious. People will do less of something if the opportunity cost of doing it rises, even if they enjoy it. Every choice, especially those in sports, is based on economic considerations.

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