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Reflections on field research while at the SEA meetings

I am at the Southern Economic Association meetings in Washington this weekend. JC Bradbury put together five North American Association of Sports Economists sessions for these meetings the first of which was yesterday afternoon. Three more are on tap for today and one more, mine, is 8 am Sunday morning. I expect it to be lonely in my session.

Last night, Bernd Frick and I took the opportunity of being close to a professional sports venue to do some field research. We went to see the Washington Wizards play the Houston Rockets at the Verizon Center.

We bought nearly the cheapest tickets in the house, $48, and sat one row from the top of the building not quite directly behind one of the baskets. While at the ticket window I asked how much to sit behind the bench - $150. And for $300, the sales person indicated I could sit on the bench, and probably be as effective a player as the current Wizards. At the distance we were from the court, it's fortunate there is a big screen TV scoreboard hanging over center court or I may not have been able to tell Yao Ming from Chairman Mao. Before settling into our seats we stopped to get something to eat. A hot dog and a beer cost me $12.50. At half time I bought a bottle of water and a bag of peanuts - 8 bucks. How a family can afford this is beyond my understanding. How the hordes of teenagers that were there can afford this and use it to hang out as if it were a mall food court is even more baffling.

The Wizards started off well, and led by about 10 at the end of the first quarter. In fact, they led almost throughout the game until the final five minutes. Bernd remarked that it seemed the Rockets didn't get serious about the game until there were five minutes to go. I overheard someone say the Rockets outscored the Wizards by 24 points in the fourth quarter.

Attending this game reminded me of the last NBA basketball game I attended, one which pitted the Washington Bullets, playing at the Capital Center, back in about 1985. I left that game with the same feelings with which I left last night's game. How can the game I love most, played by some of the most gifted, athletic players in the world be made into a complete and utter bore? My answer is a laundry list of what some might call the ills of sports as a business. Too big a facility with fans far too distant from the action; timeouts that stretch interminably to allow television advertisements; glitz and distractions of all manner that take attention away from the game and place it on the side show.

I was struck by how the fans seemed most excited and into the experience as they cheered for the animated Dunkin donuts and coffee cup racing on the big screen tv. I am sure if there had been a volume meter in the Verizon Center last night, the crowd noise would have been far louder during that race than at any point during the game.

Bernd and I discussed the Wizards' cheerleaders. At one point they did a routine in which they bumped and grinded while unbuttoning their top and ultimately ripping it off revealing a bikini top that left little to the imagination. Clear family fun at its best. Fortunately we were far enough from the show that we couldn't reach out to put dollars in their shorts, but I am sure that at the best strip clubs in Washington we could not have seen a better act. Bernd commented during that disastrous fourth quarter for the Wizards that it seemed the naked girls went on the floor to cheer a lot more once the team was behind than they had while the team was ahead. I think he is right.

I am glad I went to the game. Bernd and I talked a great deal about sports and sports economics. I am so totally clueless about European sport that talking with Bernd and other sports economists from Europe always gives me better understanding about the sports world and how different it is in the US and elsewhere.

As for basketball games, I will see thirty or so live games over the next few months between high school and college games. The talent is not the same at those games as it was last night at the Verizon Center, but the excitement and the joy of watching the game is enormously greater. I'll probably tune in to a game or two when the NBA finals are on tv sometime in June 2009, but it will probably be another 23 years before I go to my next live NBA game.