U.S. college football’s traditional bowl system, and lack of a postseason play-off tournament, has been controversial for years. The conventional wisdom is that a play-off would be a more fair way to determine the national champion, and more fun for fans to watch. The colleges finally agreed to begin a play-off in the 2014-2015 season, but with just four teams, and speculation continues that more teams will be added soon. A subtle downside to adding play-off teams is that it reduces the significance of regular season games.We use the framework of Ely, Frankel, and Kamenica (in press) to directly estimate the utility fans would get from this significance, that is, utility from suspense, under a range of play-off scenarios. Our results consistently indicate that play-off expansion causes a loss in regular season suspense utility greater than the gain in the postseason, implying the traditional bowl system (two team play-off) is suspense-optimal. We analyze and discuss implications for TV viewership and other contexts.
Olson, Jarrod and Stone, Daniel F., "Suspense-optimal college football play-offs" (2014). Economics Faculty Publications. 40.