Bid Accessibility: An empirical analysis

 by David McGinnis

Update: I discovered another math error; a Los Angeles local was counted twice. The resulting changes are reflected in the updated charts.

I don’t honestly know if the relative geographic accessibility of TOC bids matters. National debate competition is by its nature expensive, and relatively few school districts prioritize it. The vast majority of high schools in the US do not participate in the national debate circuit at all. Many schools that do participate have to expend tremendous resources of time, energy and money.

Regional bid distribution is also not simply a matter of identifying those regions that are under-served and bestowing TOC bids upon them. Some regions simply don’t have debate tournaments interested in or capable of hosting a major regional or national event. Other regions may have large, well-run tournaments but are not interested in national-level competition. Several states, such as Kansas, have well-developed in-state debate circuits with many excellent teams, but do little or no out-of-state travel. These locations might not welcome the “honor” of having TOC bid status bestowed upon a local event.

But a lot of people approach discussions of the TOC bid tournament announcement as though it does matter, with numerous arguments forwarded regarding the legitimacy of the bid list based on how many bids are available to schools in various regions.

The relative geographic accessibility of TOC bids is a clearly empirical question, so I decided to break the TOC map down by region and see which regions are truly advantaged and disadvantaged in terms of geographic accessibility of TOC bids.


Operational Definitions

I defined as distinct “regions” any major city location from which a debater has attended the TOC in the past three years. Roughly speaking, a region is defined as inclusive of an area 50 miles from the major-city center. For example, New York City is its own region, but a small number of students have attended the TOC from cities more than 50 miles north of New York, so I created a separate region (“North of NYC”) to include these schools (Newburgh Free, for instance.)

A “home town” tournament is defined as one that a school in a region can attend without necessarily renting hotel rooms. For the purposes of this analysis, a tournament is considered “home town” if it takes place within one hour’s drive of a region. I selected this measure based on personal experience suggesting that most teams will travel to and from a tournament that is an hour or less away, rather than rent hotel rooms. This is not a perfect definition; there are some occasions that may call for a school to get hotel rooms despite the proximity of a tournament. Two such instances leap to mind: First, many schools get hotel rooms for major elimination events such as National Qualifiers, even if they are close to home. Coaches may select this option to ensure that students remain focused and get adequate sleep. Second, many Twin Cities area schools stay at the Blake tournament hotel because the event and its hotel location are integral aspects of the competition. That said, most teams under most circumstances would drive to an event an hour or less away, so those events are considered “home town” for the purposes of this analysis.

A “driving” tournament is one to which schools could reasonably drive, rather than having to purchase plane tickets, but one which is far enough away that schools would have to rent hotel rooms for overnight stays. This was harder to define, because different schools have different tolerances for drive length. For example, the Valley program will drive to any event that is within a 12 hour drive, including north Texas tournaments and the TOC. I suspect that few schools are willing to drive so far, however. I decided that a “driving” tournament would be any event farther away than one hour but within eight hours’ drive. There is of necessity some arbitrariness to this, and some schools will fly to tournaments much closer. SF Bay area schools and Los Angeles schools, for example, frequently fly to and from each others’ events despite the fact that they are separated by drives of between five and seven hours. This is due to a combination of factors: plane tickets between SFO and LAX are inexpensive, the drive through the mountains can be difficult, particularly at night; and schools in some areas of those cities are less tolerant of students’ missing school, so an after-school flight is preferable to many than a day-long drive. That said, it is reasonably possible to drive to a tournament that is eight hours away, and many schools do so. So for the purposes of this analysis, a tournament within eight hours’ drive is considered “drivable” regardless of whether particular schools choose to drive that distance.


Other Considerations

In many cases, major TOC bid tournaments are hosted by very active national circuit teams. It’s important to bear in mind that, given the norm operating against a school competing at its own tournament, those schools are at a disadvantage in terms of accessibility to home town events. For instance, while Dallas, TX has the greatest in-town tournament accessibility of any region, the same is not true for Greenhill because they are barred by norm from attending their own tournament, thus they have access to 16 fewer in-town bid opportunities compared to other Dallas-area schools.

Another issue not addressed here is the relative expense of air travel. An interesting analysis might compare the average cost of plane tickets out of major airports within regions. For instance, large hubs like Los Angeles offer generally less expensive travel than smaller markets like Des Moines.



The first table shows the distribution of bid tournaments by region with the regions ordered by home-town tournament accessibility.


As you can see, the region with the greatest access to home-town bid opportunities is Dallas, TX with 38 available bids in-town. Dallas is followed by the SF Bay Area with 32, New York with 28, and then a series of regions with 24 or 20: the Twin Cities, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Des Moines.

Several regions that have generated TOC competitors have no access to in-town bid opportunities, including: North of NYC; Philadelphia, PA; Albany, NY; Kansas City, MO; San Diego, CA; Nashville, TN; and Denver, CO. As we’ll see in later data, most of these regions have generated only a handful of TOC participants over the past few years.

The second table orders the same data set by bid availability within 8 hours’ drive.


Here Chicago leads with 70 bids available, while a large number of regions have availability in the high 60s: New York, Boston, North of NYC, Philadelphia, Albany, Los Angeles, the Twin Cities, Des Moines and Iowa City. The SF Bay Area, which led in terms of in-town bid availability, falls lower in this measure because unlike Los Angeles it is not within 8 hours’ drive of several southwestern bids, such as Meadows and Golden Desert.

The graph combines all the data.



There are a lot of places in the country with few or no in-town bid opportunities, but most places in the country can drive to at least some. The only region in the country to have sent debaters to the TOC in the last three years that has to fly to every bid tournament is Denver.

Students in northern and southern California, the northeast, the midwest, and north Texas all have no business complaining about the availability of bid tournaments. Students in the south can forward a reasonable claim that they have comparatively few regional bid opportunities, as can those in the Pacific Northwest and Colorado.



In terms of bid accessibility, is a region better served by a semis or finals bid, or by an octos bid? At many octos bid tournaments, the lion’s share of the bids end up going to schools from outside the region or state. Semis and finals bids tend to draw more locally. Another study that might be interesting would look to how many students attend the TOC having received bids from these smaller regional events.

When a region clamors for a bid opportunity, what is the goal? For the host school, there are non-competitive opportunities associated with being granted a bid, along with competitive opportunity costs. Hosting a bid tournament is prestigious and potentially profitable. For non-host schools, is the primary goal of pursuing bid opportunities to make it to the TOC, or to have the opportunity to face tougher competition at a local or regional event? Students in the Chicago area, for example, have easy access to an octos bid tournament and can drive to more bids than any other region in the country, yet in the past three years, only two Chicago-area LD debaters have attended the TOC.

Given all the factors that determine suitability of a tournament for bid status, is “regional equity” a reasonable goal? If “regional equity” is one among many factors determining whether a bid goes to a particular tournament, how important is it relative to other considerations?

How does regional bid distribution compare to concentration of debate competitors? If we mapped the areas that have the most competitive debaters, would we find that those areas with the highest concentration of debate competitors match the areas with the largest number of available bids? Does this matter?