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Duckenomics: Oregon and College Football’s Oligopoly

Oregon, Alabama, Ohio State, and LSU have dominated AP Polls since 2006

NCAA Football: National Championship-Ohio State vs Oregon Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

According to polling data from the Associated Press, the Oregon Ducks averaged the fourth highest ranking of any football team over the past decade.

Surprise, surprise.

Since the 2006 season, Oregon has won four conference titles and several major bowl games, all while compiling an impressive record of 98 wins and 22 losses. The Ducks were also one of two teams from outside the SEC to play in multiple national championship games during that span (Ohio State was the other). Accordingly, the Associated Press started viewing Oregon as an elite program. And whenever the AP released its Top 25 polls, it gave the Ducks an average ranking of 11th place. The only teams to receive a better average ranking over the same period of time were Alabama (7.75), Ohio State (8.30), and LSU (9.81):

To put these numbers into perspective, here are a few teams that failed to surpass an average AP ranking of 17th place: TCU, Stanford, Clemson, Auburn, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame. Oregon State barely squeaked into the Top 25 with an average ranking of 24.59. And the team to the north on I-5 was nowhere to be found.

But in addition to showcasing the Ducks’ recent dominance, AP Polling data reveals another clear trend from the past ten years: Alabama, Ohio State, LSU, and Oregon built a college football oligopoly.

For those of you who slept through Econ 101, Investopedia describes an oligopoly as “a market structure in which a small number of firms has the large majority of market share.” U.S. cell phone service providers offer one example of an oligopoly, since the market is controlled by four companies (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile).

So what does this have to do with college football? It’s simple: Alabama, Ohio State, LSU, and Oregon have monopolized the top four spots in the AP Poll. These spots are important because whoever is ranked first, second, third, or fourth at the end of the year stands the best chance of making it to the national title game. And these teams have occupied those spots a lot.

The Associated Press has released its weekly poll 163 times since the beginning of the 2006 season. This means that there have been a total of 652 rankings for first, second, third, and fourth place. Alabama, Ohio State, LSU, and Oregon filled 267 of those spots. Put another way, these teams took 41% of all the top four rankings in the past decade. Considering that the Football Bowl Subdivision has 129 teams, that’s a pretty big chunk. And if you add in Oklahoma, Florida, USC, and Texas, the figure jumps up to 63%:

Whenever four companies control at least 40% of a market, economists will call that situation an oligopoly. Thus if AP polling was considered an industry, the Federal Trade Commission might file an antitrust suit against the Ducks.

With all that being said, it’s unclear whether Oregon will maintain its position within the oligopoly. The Ducks tumbled to a 19th place finish last season and opened at 24th in this year’s preseason poll. But if the team returns to the top of the rankings, they might renew their membership to this prestigious club.