Why are we still using the RPI?
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On May 12, a baseball game between Texas A&M and Incarnate Word was canceled "through mutual agreement between the two teams," according to a press release from Texas A&M, but according to The Eagle, Texas A&M coach Jim Schlossnagle said, "I’m not going to hide from it. I think, when the NCAA committee puts such an emphasis on RPI and different things and then conference games matter so much, when you get to this time of the year you have to manage that.”
Four days later, a non-conference baseball game between Ole Miss and Arkansas State that was scheduled for the following day was canceled due to "travel and scheduling circumstances and will not be rescheduled," according to an Ole Miss news release. Arkansas State's RPI was in the 230s at the time, according to the Clarion Ledger.
I had never heard of anything like that happening before, in just about any sport. Neither had Andy. We knew that the RPI is a major tool used to build the NCAA tournament field for several sports, and we knew that coaches cared about it when building their schedules before the season, but dropping a game late in the year? That was news to us.
That got us thinking...who actually still uses this thing? And why?
The Rating Percentage Index (RPI) is calculated by adding 25 percent of a team's winning percentage, 50 percent of its opponents' winning percentage and 25 percent of its opponents' opponents' winning percentage.
"It's basically 1980s technology," Ken Pomeroy said of the RPI. That wasn't just a funny quip...the NCAA started using the RPI for the men's and women's basketball tournaments back in the early 1980s. After years of criticism, the NCAA switched to a tool called the NET, or NCAA Evaluation Tool, a metric that takes strength of schedule, offensive and defensive efficiency, and other data points into account.
Pomeroy said he was pleasantly surprised the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee switched from the RPI to the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) as its primary sorting tool, given the often slow-moving nature of NCAA bureaucracy. While Pomeroy said he doesn't follow the cottage industry that is bracketology particularly closely, he said that anecdotally, it has felt like more mid-major schools have received more consideration for at-large bids to the NCAA tournament since the switch to the NET.
But plenty of other sports, like college baseball, softball, lacrosse and volleyball, still use the RPI.
Could late-season RPI cancelations happen in other sports?
I talked to a few administrators in several other sports, and almost everybody said they aren't particularly concerned about late-season RPI-related cancelations.
The biggest reason was simply logistical. Most sports don't play a ton of out-of-conference games late in the season. Most bigger-name lacrosse programs are mostly playing conference opponents over the last few weeks of the season. Multiple volleyball administrators said late-season non-con games are rare, as are midweek softball games. While a Texas A&M/UIW situation could potentially happen elsewhere, it would be substantially more likely to happen in baseball.
Sport administrators who oversee softball and volleyball did tell Extra Points that the bigger RPI schedule-related worry happens before the season. Competitive coaches concerned about "gaming" the RPI might not want to schedule early season contests against local opponents, even if that would save both departments money. Since nobody is cutting a $50,000 guarantee check for softball like they might for men's basketball, filling out a schedule for a more geographically isolated mid-major that's projected to have a middling ranking in the RPI could be costly and challenging.
Speaking of game guarantees...
According to a copy of the game contract signed between Texas A&M and Incarnate Word obtained via an open records request, the former agreed to pay the latter a $2,500 guarantee for the midweek game scheduled for a Tuesday. The same amount was assigned as the amount owed in liquidated damages in case of breach of contract, which could be amended by mutual agreement in writing.
For context, this where we're legally required to note that Texas A&M's athletic department reported more than $161 million in revenue last fiscal year. A guarantee for a non-conference baseball game is the equivalent of a rounding error for a Power 5 athletic department. That's like the Red Bull budget for a basketball team's graduate assistants.
A men's basketball guarantee is often in the $60,000 to $85,000 range, a large enough check that even a well-resourced program might think twice about eating the liquidated damages. But $2,500? That's not much.
Of course, this ties back to ticket packages, revenue, and the fan experience
Harsher financial penalties would likely be needed to prevent the late-season cancelations of non-conference baseball games, but there's little incentive for the host school to agree to those conditions. Even if flexible scheduling models that could guarantee matchups between opponents with similar rankings, such as the one proposed in men's basketball that CBS reported is being considered by 22 of the sport's 32 conferences, coaches and administrators at major programs understandably still value maintaining control of their schedules. They want to sell tickets, after all.
The wants and needs of fans should be considered, too.
After the cancelation of Texas A&M’s home game against Incarnate Word, which followed a late-April cancelation of another Tuesday non-conference game against Sam Houston State (“due to inclement weather and field conditions”), a Texas A&M professor and former athlete emailed Texas A&M AD Ross Bjork and 12th Man Foundation President and CEO Travis Dabney to request an update to the school’s ticket policy for canceled baseball games.
“It is clear to everyone who pays attention that the recent 'rainout' game and the game canceled below were canceled because the Coach wanted to save his pitchers for SEC games on the weekend and not risk meaningless losses in Tuesday games,” wrote Michael Howell in an email obtained via an open records request. “Although I understand the logic, season ticket holders should not have to pay for that decision-making.”
The 12th Man Foundation’s policy is that single-game ticket buyers can exchange a ticket for the canceled game for a ticket to a future regular-season game, but ticket-holders were refunded for the Incarnate Word game since there were no more regular-season home games on the schedule.
Howell later added, “The coach may want to cancel games – but the season ticket holders should not have to pay for those games. The 12th Man Foundation should do what is right by the season ticket holder, especially at this time when additional support is being requested for new facilities.”
Outside of jacking up the cancelation costs, could any of this be prevented?
We did not speak to any administrators who knew of significant efforts to reform the RPI for their respective sports, with several acknowledging that the system, while imperfect, is "the best we have for now."
Pomeroy noted that Kenneth Massey's Massey Ratings, which factor in a game's score, location and date, could essentially be used as a more advanced sorting tool than the RPI.
Other sports have tweaked their formulas before. College hockey uses Pairwise Rankings for their postseason tournament selections rather than just the pure RPI. There's nothing stopping volleyball or baseball, outside of coach and administrator time, from tweaking their own formulas to potentially remove incentives for late-season surprise cancelations, or to make it easier for schools to schedule local opponents.
For baseball, in particular, it's pretty easy to argue that northern schools are at a significant schedule disadvantage, making it much harder for them to build a quality RPI. Just ask Rutgers, which finished second in the Big Ten, won 44 games, and missed the postseason, thanks to middling metrics.
But for now, if a coach does the math and figures out eating a few thousand dollars in fees and reading a few angry tweets might give the team a slightly better chance of making the NCAA tournament, well, look for that to happen again.
Which stinks for fans, UIW baseball players, and anybody else tied up with the little guy.
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