I was going to argue with Jonathan Chait over the question of why college football is popular when minor league sports are not, but Scott Lemieux beat me to it and basically nailed it.
[I]f college sports would work just as well if it’s turned into a minor league, why aren’t minor-league sports popular? I can’t think of a single example anywhere in the world of a minor-league sport that even approaches the popularity of the major-league version.Lemieux:
The reason college athletics is the sole exception is that it’s college athletics, and not a minor-league sport. The top 500 college players could drop out and form their own league, but, like the NBA Developmental League, nobody would watch it, even if the quality of play was higher than college football.
I find the idea that Chait (or any non-trivial number of fans) will stop caring about Michigan football if players are compensated more fairly implausible in the extreme. For example, did people stop caring about Olympic hockey when (non-Soviet bloc) professionals were allowed to play? Not hardly—the tournaments became so popular even Americans were willing to watch hockey in large numbers. Similarly, fans in Ann Arbor and Tuscaloosa and Eugene and Gainesville will continue to watch NCAA football in large numbers even if players are permitted to make money when jerseys with their numbers are sold to fans.Yeah, that has to be right.
College football has three things going for it over minor league baseball (and hockey, and I suppose the NBA Developmental League for that matter).
1. College football preceded major league football; minor league baseball basically developed after major league baseball, or at best along with hit. Minor league baseball was never the biggest event.
2. College football has meaningful games in which they contest for a championship, which is the entire point of the teams and the game (well, they have problems with it, but still). Minor league baseball is dedicated to developing players for the parent team; the pennant race, and for that matter the games themselves, is largely incidental to that.
3. And then there's the schedule. Thanks to the cartel in both major league and college football, the colleges get a window almost entirely to themselves, without competition.
I'm looking around and I can't find attendance figures for the old Pacific Coast League, but basically that one meets Chait's challenge of a minor league that approached the popularity of the major league version. Of course, the PCL was shielded from competition by geography, in those pre-TV days. But that's just a different version of how college is shielded from competition.
And you know what? A ton of people watch minor league baseball. The PCL last year averaged just shy of 6000 a game, despite all those disadvantages. No, that's nowhere near MLB, but it's still overall league attendance of 6.7 million, which is actually quite a lot of people...for one of two top-level minor leagues, with plenty more below that.
Now, that's obviously nothing like elite college football. But imagine two reforms. On the one hand, imagine that the PCL went amateur -- the players maybe would get room and board, and let's say they also get education vouchers, but otherwise they don't get paid. On the other hand, imagine that the PCL was a free minor league -- players were under the control of the teams, and teams really put the pennant race first. I don't really know how a top-level independent minor league would do, but I'm pretty confident that it would help more than the amateur thing.
The real way to imagine it is if the old nineteenth century American Association had somehow managed to survive as a free, top-level minor league.Or perhaps if the American League had failed to reach parity with the National League, but was successful enough to make a go of it. Is it hard to imagine such a league having real fan loyalties, and enough of a following to have a solid national TV deal -- and very solid local TV deals?
Now, while I'm totally on Scott's side of the college football argument, I don't really have a dog in that fight. What I do care about is that I'd love to see the baseball minor leagues freed. I grew up in AAA Phoenix, and I've lived for years now in AA San Antonio, and I think it's just awful that we're not allowed to participate in meaningful baseball leagues, with access (unlike today's independent leagues) to the very best players who aren't quite good enough for MLB.