Fix TOC's Congress Bid System

Nicholas Ostheimer | 4/1/23

With the prestigious Tournament of Champions just 2 weeks away, let's find some time for reflection and introspection. I've ripped myself away from my prep doc because I found myself wondering, "who gets to go to TOC and who doesn't?"

The answer to that question depends on a lot of factors completely outside of your control. Do you have a bid tournament within driving distance? If you need to take a plane or stay in a hotel room, will your school pay for it?

This article will focus on geographic and competitive inequity regarding the accessibility of bids to the congressional debate Tournament of Champions.

What does the geographic distribution of TOC bid tournaments look like?

(all measurements for this article were taken as of 4/1/2023)

Living in South Florida, I can count myself incredibly lucky to have Sunvite, Nova Titan, and Cypress Bay within driving distance, and Blue Key just upstate. But if I were a debater from Utah, Wisconsin, or Montana, my prospects aren't quite as great.

I've put together a Google map with every single Congress bid tournament pinned. You can find it here. Blue pins are T6, green pins are T16, red pins are T60, and the black pin is Harvard (T120).

As you can see on the map, the entire Eastern United States is strongly favored in terms of bids. Florida has a total of 152 bids. The Northeast has a total of 258 bids.

Meanwhile, the two biggest debate states in America, Texas and California, have much fewer. Texas has 56 bids. California has 66 bids (38 in the north, 28 in the south.) Illinois has an active congress circuit with many active natcirc competitors, but without Glenbrooks, their entire state would only have 6 bids.

And then there's everyone else… Most states in the entire Western US have no bid tournaments. No state championships give out bids. There are a total of 152 bids outside of the states we've already discussed, 72 of which come from minor T6 tournaments.

Now, we do need to factor in the 3 ways to auto qualify to the Tournament of Champions:

Semifinals at last year's TOC;

Finals at NSDA nationals;

or T6 at NCFL nationals.

This very uneven geographic distribution has direct consequences for accessibility across the country, for Texas & California, and particularly for states with no/few bid tournaments.

How does that affect the TOC pool?

29 entries are from California. Most of these entries come from relatively big programs that compete often on the national circuit, including 5 from James Logan HS.

20 entries are from Texas. 12 of these entries come from 3 big, institutionally supported schools that regularly compete on the national circuit - Bellaire, Seven Lakes and Plano East.

19 entries are from Florida. 10 of these entries come from 3 big, institutionally supported schools that regularly compete on the national circuit - American Heritage Palm Beach & Broward, and Belen Jesuit Prep.

14 entries are from New York. 12 of these entries come from Bronx Science. 

14 entries are from Illinois. 9 of these entries come from Naperville Central and North, schools that regularly compete on the national circuit.

12 entries are from other states in the Northeast. 10 of these are from New Jersey, a state that actually has no bids within state borders, but is close to quite a few in Pennsylvania and New York.

These entries make up more than 2/3s of the TOC congress pool. 49 entries are from other states.

21 entries come from states with 12 bids or less.

How does that reveal inequity and inaccessibility?

Surprisingly, California and Texas make up almost ⅓ of the TOC competitor pool despite having relatively few bid tournaments within state lines - we can find an explanation for that.

Using information from the TOC congress bid leaderboard, we can find the following figures:

Texas debaters going to TOC got 45.8% of their bids from out of state.

California debaters going to TOC got 60.6% of their bids from out of state.

Meanwhile, debaters from Florida and the Northeast got most of their bids from within their region. 

Florida debaters going to TOC got 37.3% of their bids from out of state.

Northeastern debaters going to TOC got 35.2% of their bids from outside of the Northeastern US.

The most interesting outlier are the debaters from Illinois, who got 81.5% of their bids from out of state. They have pretty much only one bid tournament, Glenbrooks, which hosts mostly debaters from out of state. Regardless, it's interesting to note that Illinois debaters going to TOC only got a total of 5 bids from Glenbrooks.

Debaters from schools that pay for their registration fees, travel, and/or hotel accommodations are in the privileged minority. Many competitive debaters, or their parents, have to scrounge together money just to have a chance at competitive success. Many debaters go to no more than 2 bid tournaments because and only because it would be prohibitively expensive to attend more. As a side note, this is why someone's number of TOC bids is a very, very poor indicator of their actual talent or dedication.

This entire situation is exacerbated by the geographic inequity in TOC bids. The Tournament of Champions has done a good job of eliminating bid deserts by authorizing comparatively tiny tournaments across the country to give out 6 or 16 bids. This is great, but it doesn't solve the inherent disparity in bid accessibility across the major states, nor has it comprehensively made the TOC more accessible to debaters from non-large-debate-states.

This goes beyond geographic accessibility, which is easy to measure. Some tournaments that give out an equal number of bids are radically different in terms of difficulty. Some tournaments give out too many bids, some tournaments give out far too few.

For example, the California Invitational at Berkeley only had 128 entries but only 6 bids. Meanwhile, the New York City Invitational at Bronx Science HS had only 24 entries but 16 bids. This is really silly. New York has no shortage of nearby bid opportunities, while the very competitive congress circuit in California is hard pressed to get bids within state lines.

How can this be fixed?

Tournaments should give out a flexible number of bids proportional to the number of entries, just like the TOC system for speech events. At the moment, the UK authorizes certain tournaments every year to give out a certain number of bids to the TOC - this is supposed to be based on a legacy of competitive participation and high attendance, but it's ultimately pretty arbitrary.

Let's go back to Berkeley and Bronx - if these tournaments employed a proportional bid system, then Berkeley would give out 6 times as many bids as Bronx, not the other way around.

The University of Kentucky should also consider NSDA district qualifying tournaments as an opportunity to geographically distribute bids/auto qualifiers. For example, the top-performing debater in House and Senate at each district could be given a bid or even auto-qualify to the Tournament of Champions.

People who perform well at state championships should receive bids. Most states with an active debate circuit have a relatively competitive state championship. A proportional bid system could and should be applied to these tournaments as well, but even a tiny championship deserves to qualify a few debaters to TOC for the sake of geographic equity.  

Finally, let's make note of an important change the TOC has made which has certainly made a positive difference: the digital speech & debate series, as well as the Digital Speech and Debate e-Championship coming up in May. The University of Kentucky has hosted three online T16 bid tournaments, which are accessible to anyone in the country. 20 of the 48 bids handed out by this series went to debaters from non-large-debate-states, which is actually a pretty great rate.

The TOC is famous for its exclusivity and competitiveness. Institutions and individuals alike should reflect on their beliefs, actions, and policies. Are you promoting inclusivity? Are you promoting accessibility? Are you actively engaged in making the debate space fairer?