This week, we’ve looked at the myriad options Wyoming schools have for reducing travel for ridiculously long road trips and we’ve examined how average travel distance has increased by more than 50 miles per game, one way, in the past 20 years. Today, we’re going to examine why schools have traded away short road trips for long ones.
In short, eight reasons explain why Wyoming schools are traveling more than 50 more miles per road game, one way, than they were 20 years ago:
1. Schools want competitive equity. This is BY FAR the most important of these reasons. Back in 1994, the state was in a bust cycle. Finances were a key concern for schools across the state. That meant keeping teams as close to home as possible, even if that meant playing a JV team or playing a game that was nearby but may result in a blowout.
Now, in 2014, the state is booming again. Finances still carry weight but, clearly, travel costs are less of a concern, and schools are more comfortable with traveling farther to play teams of similar skill level. All the other reasons listed below have their genesis in this reason.
2. The conferences are bigger. Competitive equity is not just tied to the regular season — there’s been a concerted effort to get “the best eight teams” into each playoff bracket. That means putting more teams into each conference to try to eliminate the possibility of an “undeserving” team with one upset to its name sneaking in to the playoffs, or having a second-place team in a small conference qualify for the playoffs even if it’s significantly worse than a third-place team in another conference that didn’t qualify. By far, the size of the conferences is the second-most important reason for increased travel, and it was directly spawned by competitive equity concerns.
For example, look at Tongue River’s 1998 season. The Eagles did not qualify for the playoffs, finishing 0-2 in the three-team Class 1A-Division I Northeast Conference. Meanwhile, Wright finished 1-1 in the Southeast Conference and qualified for the playoffs, despite losing to Tongue River 25-8 during the regular season. Of the six teams in the “East,” Tongue River was one of the four best but didn’t qualify for the playoffs for no other reason than its three-team conference was stronger than Wright’s three-team conference.
That was one of the drawbacks of small conferences — every once in a while, the conferences did not reflect an accurate dispersal of talent in the classification, and the best two (or four) teams in a conference qualified for the playoffs instead of the best eight in the state.
Consider this: Twenty years ago, the largest conferences in the state were six teams deep; some conferences were as small as three teams. In 2014, the SMALLEST conference in the state will be six teams; other conferences will be seven, eight, or in the case of Class 4A, 10 teams.
In theory, what happened to Tongue River in 1998 won’t happen with these larger regional conferences.
This is a small piece of a larger trend in Wyoming high school sports — the move from districts to regions. Just as other sports (specifically basketball and volleyball, and to a lesser extent track) changed from (northeast, southeast, southeast or southwest) district to (east or west) regional events starting in the late 1990s, football has moved from small district conferences of three to five schools to large regional conferences of six, seven or eight schools. The main reason why this has happened is simple: getting “the best eight” to state and competitive equity at the state tournament.
3. The regular season is longer. One of the biggest influences on Wyoming’s increased travel distances is its longer regular season. From 1993 to 2000, four of Wyoming’s five classifications had seven-game regular seasons (Class 3A had an eight-game regular season but a smaller playoff bracket). However, when the WHSAA took over football scheduling in 2001, schools in all classifications voted to expand to an eight-game regular season. By 2009, Class 4A schedules were officially expanded to nine games. Of course, with more weeks to fill, schools had to stray farther from home to find opponents.
4. Schools don’t play sub-varsity games anymore. Part of why the WHSAA took over football scheduling in 2001 was to help every school in the state complete a full schedule. Prior to 2001, many schools couldn’t fill out a seven-game regular season, much less an eight- or nine-game schedule. Schools that were most susceptible to this problem were the ones in far-flung places like Pinedale, Big Piney, Cokeville, Saratoga or Dubois. The WHSAA’s intervention was incredibly successful in helping schools fill out their schedules with quality varsity competition. The tradeoff, though, was that to fill those schedules with other varsity teams, teams had to travel farther (or teams had to travel farther to come to them).
5. Schools don’t play interclass games anymore. One of the fallouts of larger conferences is fewer nonconference opportunities. The trend, especially the last few years, has been for the WHSAA to fill those nonconference dates with teams from the same classification. For comparison’s sake: In 1994, there were 25 varsity-versus-varsity in-state interclass games. In 2014, there will be seven; they’re all in Week 1, and none of them involve Class 4A or Class 1A six-man schools.
6. The state has basically abandoned out-of-state scheduling. In 1994, Wyoming schools scheduled 24 out-of-state varsity football games. Those games had an average one-way distance of 121.2 miles — more than 20 miles shorter than the average game that year. In 2014, the WHSAA scheduled three out-of-state games. Three. Those other states, and the teams they contain, may as well not even exist. An easy way to get close, competitive games had been all but closed off.
7. Wyoming added six-man football. Six-man football’s resurrection in 2009 has definitely created some long road trips. But it’s important to note that six-man alone hasn’t thrown Wyoming’s travel stats out of whack. In fact, six-man’s anticipated travel in 2014 (average 190 miles per game, one way) is actually shorter than the state average (193 miles per game, one way) for the season. However, six-man’s influence has affected 11-man, too. Some schools’ move to six-man — particularly Guernsey, Hanna and Dubois — has eliminated some nearby games for regional competition, forcing those schools’ former opponents to travel farther for road games. Also, unlike their nine-man alter egos from the early 1990s, six-man programs can’t play 11-man teams in nonconference games.
8. Schools don’t want local control. Since power ratings were removed from the playoff qualifying equation after the 2008 season, the WHSAA has offered schools the chance to return to scheduling their own football games. Thus far, the schools have refused to retake local control. This way, schools’ schedules stay full — and the hassle of building a schedule stays with the WHSAA and away from the schools’ activities directors, who don’t mind the reduced workload — but opportunities for nearby out-of-state or sub-varsity games are greatly diminished.
The biggest reason why travel is as out of control as it is? Travel isn’t the priority in scheduling. Competitive equity is. Unless (or until) schools decide that travel, and travel costs, outweigh competitive equity, players will need to dedicate some extra time to squats to prepare their butt muscles for 50 extra miles sitting in the bus prior to kickoff….
Still, the big question hanging over all of this has yet to be answered: Has the schools’ collective focus on competitive equity over travel really made a difference? Are games closer on the scoreboard now that competitive equity is the focus in scheduling?
In short, no. Actually, the focus on competitive equity in scheduling has made games MORE lopsided than before.
Here’s a look at the average and median margin of victory the past 26 regular seasons (no playoff games included) of Wyoming high school football — the 13 prior to the WHSAA taking over state scheduling and the 13 since. I’ve also included the standard deviation. Six-man results, which skew to larger margins of victory and which have only been around on a statewide basis since 2009, have been removed to allow for a comparison across all years:
A quick glance at this table tells us something immediately: The average margin of victory the past 13 years, since the WHSAA took over scheduling, is higher than it was the previous 13 years. But we need to dig deeper to see why.
It’s important to note that margin of victory was increasing before the state took over in 2001. The average MOVs in 1999 and 2000 were the highest they had been in more than a decade, and the WHSAA’s first schedule in 2001 actually reduced the average MOV from its 2000 peak. And even through 2008, MOVs stayed fairly stable and consistent — and not that much higher than the MOVs from the previous decade.
Then we hit 2009, and average and median MOVs exploded, all the way up to a one-season high of 27 (both average and median) in 2012. In fact, the four-year stretch from 2010-13 contains four of the five highest average margins of victory for the past 26 years.
Obviously, something changed. So what happened in 2009 that caused MOVs to explode? (Don’t say six-man. Remember, six-man results have been removed from this analysis.)
The answer is more straightforward than you think. And one simple change could address several of the problems Wyoming has seen the past few years. We’ll talk about it in the next blog post.