Wednesday, August 31, 2005

"The Center of the World" 

Did you know that Chinese viewers of Houston Rockets games, at 30 million a game, outnumber their American counterparts by a ratio of 30/1? That's just one stunning fact from an interesting article on the cultural and international significance of Yao Ming, in Foreign Policy. Getting Yao to play in the world's best league wasn't easy however:
"David Stern always wanted to find a Chinese Michael Jordan to break open the China market," says Xu Jicheng, a veteran basketball commentator. But finding a local hero who could make the leap to the NBA wasn't a simple prospect. China'’s best players were still being developed behind the walls of the nation's socialist sports system as properties of the state. By the late 1990s, rumors spread in the West about two talented Chinese youngsters who stood more than 7 feet tall. Both Yao Ming and his older rival, 7 foot, 1 inch army soldier Wang Zhizhi, had developed solid skills in the Chinese system, and by the time the NBA scouts and Nike executives discovered them, they had already begun to model their games on the NBA stars they saw on television.

The first efforts to bring these players to the NBA were tragicomedies of cross-cultural misunderstanding. In early 1999, an American lawyer joined forces with the manager of Yao'’s Shanghai team to sign the 19-year-old giant to a representation agreement, only to have Yao's family angrily renege, claiming that they were forced into a deal that was tantamount to extortion. When the Dallas Mavericks surreptitiously drafted Wang less than two months later, the soldier'’s army superiors were so baffled and incensed by the American intrusion that they refused to meet with the team'’s owner at the time, H. Ross Perot Jr. China has always been wary of foreign powers coming in to lay claim to its resources, fearing that any encounter could leave it weakened and humiliated. Today, even as a newly powerful nation opens up to the outside world, the same suspicions remain about American basketball. "Chinese officials look at the NBA as an imperialistic power,"” says Yao'’s Chinese-American agent Erik Zhang. "“They see these Americans coming in to take away their best players and offering very little in return."”
It's anecdotal, but I sense a gap between the thinking of Chinese people, who relish the opportunity watch Yao Ming play on basketballs' biggest stage, and "officials" who seem to view him as property of the state. The article is a long one, but certainly it's worth bookmarking or printing for when you have the time to read it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

For heaven's sake, not cricket again! 

Sorry, but this is all just too exciting to resist. Trying to explain to non-cricket fans why this England-Australia series is so exciting is pretty tough, but Steve Ross, the eminent sports law professor, lifelong Dodgers fan and recent convert to cricket has been attempting to do this for his colleagues at the University of Illinois. In the last three games of the series, the result has been in doubt to within the last five minutes of the game, even though the entire game takes four to five days to finish; imagine, he says, the World Series were played over 45 innings, and every game was evenly balanced until the bottom of the 45th- that's how close it has been. Unfortunately, he says, his colleagues just can't get beyond the pointlessness of a game lasting five days... (incidentally, he watches it on satellite, and you can get all of world cricket for $200 a year, assuming you wanted to).

Still, there remains plenty of economics. The most interesting point is the TV coverage. The EU has an anti-siphoning regime that allows member states to keep certain events on free-to-air. Top of the list is the World Cup and the Olympics, but the lists vary between member states and can be very long. In the UK, international cricket matches played in the UK were on the first list produced at the beginning of the 1990s, but were recently dropped following the lobbying of the cricket authorities. Their argument was that to reverse the falling popularity of the game a major investment programme was needed and that this would only be achievable through funds generated from pay TV rights. Effectively, their plan was to abandon the mass market and squeeze the diehards, in the hope that this might eventually lead to a renaissance (this was definitely not a story about rapacious owners because (a) there are no profits and (b) there are no owners- all clubs are run on a not for profit basis. But, surprise, surprise, not that cricket seems popular again, a number of the big clubs are talking about tapping the stock market). Their wish was granted, and they then did a deal with Sky so that these international matches would only be available on satellite from next year. The current series is the last scheduled to be shown free-to-air. However, now that it has turned in to the biggest TV draw of the summer , there has some lobbying to get cricket "listed" again, so far to no avail.

However, many people question whether the cricket authorities are doing the right thing, it seems to me this is not unlike the argument about scheduling the World Series in the evening.

The other question this currently raises in my mind is one about the effect of dynasties. Many economists have argued that dynasties can be good for attendance, creating a standard of excellence. This Australian team has been one of the greatest in history, but the current series suggests that the dynasty is coming to an end- many of the players are aging and there seem relatively few youngsters coming through- much of the hullaballoo in England has been caused by the feeling that this may be the end of an era. I wonder if there are similar "end of dynasty" demand effects in other sports?

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Do managers bunt too much? 

Mike Giberson at Knowledge Problem unearthed an article on bunting in today's Washington Post, "Too Much of A Sacrifice?" and suggests that I "will be commenting shortly." Indeed, and thanks Mike.

The article, by Dave Sheinin, discusses the differing views between baseball managers and some sabermetricians on the wisdom of employing a sacrifice bunt. The problem with the sacrifice bunt is that it intentionally gives up an offense's most precious and scare resource, an out, and thereby intentionally truncates the distribution of runs scored in an inning. Sheinin discusses a 2004 article by James Click of Baseball Prospectus, which shows that bunting results in fewer runs scored in an inning (yeahh...), and argues that bunting is an "archaic, outdated strategy" (hmm...).
Using data from the 2003 season, Click found that a team with a runner on first base and no outs subsequently averaged 0.919 of a run per inning. But with a runner on second and one out -- which is to say, following a hypothetical sacrifice bunt -- a team averaged 0.706 of a run per inning. That means a bunt in that situation actually "costs" a team 0.213 of a run each time it is deployed.

Similarly, with a runner on second and nobody out -- another potential bunt situation -- teams averaged 1.177 runs per inning, while a situation with a runner on third and one out yielded only 1.032 runs.

However, Click realized those numbers did not tell the full story, because they relied on an "average" player on an "average" team, with no regard to whether a team was playing for one run -- i.e., in the late innings of a close game.

So Click ran simulations using actual players to determine the thresholds for which specific hitters should and should not bunt. His conclusion: With a runner on first base and no outs, any hitter with an on-base percentage (OBP) of at least .206 and/or a slugging percentage (SLG) of at least .182 -- numbers that would encompass practically every hitter in the majors, including many pitchers -- should swing away. The only exception is when a team is playing specifically for one run, in which case the thresholds are a .282 OBP and/or .322 SLG.
Sheinin goes on to discuss the issue with Bill James, Frank Robinson, and others, most of whom - including James - aren't willing to buy Click's conclusion. I've done similar, and in a sense to be described in a moment, more extensive calculations of this sort with Jahn Hakes, and I think Click is half right.

Some managers clearly understand the tradeoff between runner advancement and giving up an out perfectly well, but others do not. Recently fired Astros managers are a good example. Pick up a copy of Larry Dierker's This Ain't Brain Surgery, and you'll find the expected runs table he worked with reproduced in one of the chapters. But he perhaps went a bit far employing sabermetric and unconventional thinking, and lost command of his old-school clubhouse as a result (something not factored into Click's calculations). The next guy, Jimy Williams, was a player's coach who apparently had no clue what the numbers said. Every time Adam Everett came up with a man on first last season, Jimy would bunt. Being an Astros fan, this drove me nuts. I was sorry to see Dierker go, but said hallelujah! at Jimy's departure. So managers differ.

In our paper, Hakes and I did not take a stand on whether individual bunts were cases of erroneous decision-making. Although we are working on a method to document strategic errors by managers, as in the anecdotal case of Jimy Willams, this requires some sense of what the optimal frequency of bunting might be in the aggregate. As a start on that, we used thresholds similar to those mentioned above, and asked what would happen to those thresholds, and thus would happen to the frequency of bunts as game conditions change? Without knowing all of the constraints and objectives of the decision-maker, it is not possible to determine whether a given bunt is the right choice or not (even absent strategic considerations). But it's relatively easy to determine that bunting is a better choice in some conditions than others, and thus how changes in conditions affect the frequency of (rational) bunting.

This is a standard comparative statics exercise, long a staple of economics. And baseball managers, as a group over many seasons, largely conform to the economic model. They bunt more when conditions support that decision (fewer outs, tighter game, poorer batter) and bunt less when conditions favor swinging away (see Table 6 in Hakes and Sauer). In this limited sense, as a group they are rational decision-makers, if not sabermetricians.

But the real challenge - and this is where Click is half right - is to use economics or sabermetrics to detect Jimy Williams in the data. If statistical modeling is as powerful as some of us think, we will soon quantify the cost of strategic errors, such as excessive use of the sacrifice bunt, in a convincing manner. How many games did Jimy cost the Astros through excessive use of the sacrifice? If it was as many as one per season, that's an expensive managerial error.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

College Football Rules Change 

Here's an article that I ran across in today's Kansas City Star about a rule change regarding spearing - when a player lowers his head and leads with the crown of his helmet while tackling (although offensive players, too, can spear when they lower their head bracing for a tackle) - for the upcoming season.

Georgia’s Reggie Brown made a catch over the middle against Auburn and before he could turn up field, Junior Rosegreen flattened him with a helmet-to-helmet hit.

Brown was lucky: He ended up with only a concussion. Rosegreen was even luckier. The way he led with his head left him vulnerable to a spine injury.

The hit got (University of Georgia athletic trainer Ron) Courson thinking about how rarely he’s seen spearing called in college football. The problem, he found, was in the wording of the rule.

Under the old rule, players could not make spearing hits with intent, but unintentional spearing hits were not to be penalized. From earlier in the article:

The NCAA changed its spearing rule in the offseason to remove any reference to intent. The old rule penalized players who “intentionally” led with their helmets, forcing officials to judge whether a dangerous, high-speed hit was deliberate.

From Yahoo news:

"Intent" has been dropped: The new rule says spearing is the use of the helmet (including the face mask) "to butt or ram an opponent or attempt (emphasis Phil's) to punish him. ... No player shall strike a runner with the crown or the top of his helmet in an attempt to punish him."

...Despite the dangers, spearing seldom was called by game officials because the NCAA rule said the act had to be intentional. Officials were hesitant to interpret "intent" on the field.

I'm not an official and perhaps I simply dabbling with semantics here, but doesn't the word "attempt" imply "intent"?

While spearing can affect both the spearee and the spearer, spearing rules are generally designed to protect players from themselves and, according to this short research paper (choose the read-only option when opening the document), it was the only such rule back in the early 1990's when the paper was written. Offhand, I can't think of another rule in college football with the primary intent of protecting a player from himself and a quick Google search did not help me find another example.

And lastly, is the optimal spearing rate zero? That is, is it desirable to drive the occurrence of spearing to zero?

Here is a more in-depth article on this rule change from the National Athletic Trainers' Association. Here is another Google search with more links.

I have cross-posted this over at Market Power.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The truth about the Tour de France 

L' equipe and the Tour's leak regarding Lance Armstrong's "B-sample test" this week might score points among the natives. But the truth on doping is not a pretty story for the Tour. From Geoffrey Wheatcroft in today's WSJ ($, registration required):
Although the Tour is a wonderful event, from the very beginning the cyclists have dosed themselves with narcotics. In the early days they drank lashings of alcohol, not in truth performance-enhancing, though it does dull the senses. So does cocaine, the drug of choice in the 1920s and '30s, succeeded by amphetamines in the '50s and '60s. Cocaine gives a lift, amphetamines hold fatigue at bay; both are dangerous. In 1967 cycling suffered a moral shock when Tom Simpson, the first Englishman to have worn the yellow jersey, collapsed and died on the stage up Mont Ventoux, chock-full of amphetamines. Until then, this had been the open secret of cycling, as even the greatest riders admitted. After his retirement from the Tour, two-time champion Fausto Coppi was asked if he had used dope. "Only when necessary." When was that? "Almost all the time." And five-time winner Jacques Anquetil suggested that no normal human being could ride the race unaided: "Do they expect us to ride the Tour on mineral water?"

After the horror of 1967, cycling began to make a real effort to clean up its act. And yet by unhappy timing, this coincided with the arrival of anabolic steroids and EPO (erythropoietin). For the first time there were drugs which did enhance performance, measurably so, but are even more dangerous. Like steroids, EPO is a synthetic version of a natural metabolic product, which is one reason they were for so long difficult to detect. And it is much more insidious. By enhancing the red blood cells it increases energy: The startlingly fast times in some stages of the Tour in recent years do not have any obvious innocent explanation. At the same time, by thickening the blood, EPO makes it harder to circulate. Its arrival as a clandestine drug is all too easily and grimly dated by the fact that between 1987 and 1990, 20 Belgian and Dutch cyclists died from otherwise inexplicable nocturnal heart attacks. There has been a continuing death toll ever since.

Without doubt EPO use was rife in the 1990s, and Mr. Armstrong has been regularly accused of doping. On July 21, 2002, I watched him climb Mont Ventoux, past the memorial where Simpson fell. High above on the lunar landscape of that Provencal peak was a compatriot holding the Stars and Stripes, and I thought of another Armstrong making a step for man 33 years to the day before. But that Yank was outnumbered by the French fans all around us screaming "Dopé!" at the champion. It didn't seem to them contradictory to cheer Richard Virenque, the great villain of the 1998 "Tour de Farce" when the Festina team car was found packed with drugs and needles.
Interesting. I knew doping in cycling was common in recent years, but not that it traces back to the roaring 20's! Wheatcroft is the author of Le Tour: A History of the Tour De France, which on the basis of his WSJ essay looks worth reading.

Who's The Coach? 

The head coach and the associate coach of the Univerisity of Missouri volleyball program in Columbia, Mo. are, respectively, wife and husband. But now, Wayne and Susan Kreklow have decided to switch their titles, making Wayne the head coach and Susan the associate head coach:

Susan Kreklow has been serving as the head coach of Missouri’s volleyball team since 2000, with Wayne working as the associate head coach, but that all changed Monday when the MU Athletic Department announced the two would be changing titles before the season.

"We’ve never cared who is the head coach and who is not," Wayne Kreklow said. "There is no ego."

The Kreklows have three children, Rick, 13, Ali, 10, and Ryan, 9, and the logistics of dealing with everyone’s schedules prompted the change, Wayne Kreklow said.

"It’s been something that we have kind of tossed around for a few years, but it doesn’t really change how we operate the program," he said. "The bottom line for us is that we felt like it would be a little bit easier for our personal situation at home. Our kids are getting to the age where they’re doing a lot of things.

"It just makes our family life a little bit more predictable and a little easier for us."

Most of the things that will change for the Kreklows are behind-the-scene matters, such as meetings and functions where the head coach’s presence is required.

Susan Kreklow steps aside with the best winning percentage for a Missouri volleyball coach, at .703. She went 109-46 as the Tigers’ head coach and is 618-156 in her 15-year career.

The Kreklows used to coach at Columbia College, a small school across town in Columbia, where they had much success. When the head volleyball coaching position at Mizzou opened up, I recallthe local media folks referred to "The Kreklows" or "Wayne and Susan Kreklow" as being good a fit for the program. There was little doubt that they were a coaching team and it will have very little if any impact on the program. But it's a nice example of how family considerations drive professional careers.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

DH and Hit Batters 

In 1997, Bill Shughart, Bob Tollison, and I published a piece in Economic Inquiry showing a statistically significant divergence of hit batters in the American League over the National League after the adoption of the Designated Hitter in the AL. We attributed the divergence to the reduction in personal risk faced by AL pitchers in nailing batters -- a "moral hazard" argument. A couple of thoughtful comments questioned the statistical validity of the results and moral hazard as a viable explanation. We offered a bit more evidence in rebuttal, while the original idea and the debate it spawned spilled over into a couple of Business Week columns.

The high level of aggregation (annual data) in our study made it impossible to take account of many of the specific influences on hitting batters (a recent home run, retaliation, ...). John-Charles Bradbury and Doug Drinen of the University of the South authored a piece last year that used disaggregated, pitch-by-pitch. They conclude
the lack of fear of retaliation among AL pitchers explained between 60-80% of the difference in hit batters between leagues
Details are available at Bradbury's Sabernomics website along with other intersting studies. They also have a game-by-game study for a larger time frame and a discussion of the narrowing of the difference in the 1990s.

Although Bradbury and Drinen provide powerful evidence that the moral hazard explanation is at important to the hit batter difference, the answer strikes many economists as unsatisfactory. Generally, moral hazard arises only when monitoring an agent's behavior is difficult or no mechanism exist for restraining the behavior. Since MLB managers have a pretty good idea when a pitcher is hitting batters on purpose or not and means to discipline rogue behavior, how can it be moral hazard?

I would suggest a simple "economic" answer as to why it is moral hazard -- managers weigh the cost and benefits of stamping out individual behavior that is detrimental to the team. Hitting batters, even in the AL, is a rare event and, in most cases, has little impact on team performance. On the other hand, the individual pitcher may derive quite a bit of satisfaction from doing it and be upset of actively restrained. In this way, MLB managers treat the moral hazard as an annoynance but not worth the trouble of stamping out completely -- not too disimilar to business managers who don't try to stamp out all personal use of copy machines or phones as long as it imposes little expense.

Caveat venditor 

Quite a few people have been suggesting that cricket is the sport of the future thanks to the obsessive interest of the 1 billion plus population of the Indian subcontintent. Last week Zee TV beat a consortium of ESPN and Star Sports (Murdoch) with a bid of $260 million for right to televise India's home games (this amounts to probably about 7 or 8 5-day Test Matches a year plus about 20 one day games- in total about 260 days of cricket - so $1 million per day). This figure is sure to grow exponentially as India's economy grows.

England's series against Australia continued today with the fourth game, and demand for tickets is so great (in the light of England having the first chance of winning a series in nearly 20 years), that black market prices for the fifth game are as high as £1050 (over $1800). As usual, this is creating a kerfuffle about scalpers (in England they are called ticket touts). The cricket authorities don't like it, because "We want to make sure that these tickets are available to the majority of cricket fans, not just the minority." However, reading this article I discovered something I hadn't realized before- resale of tickets for football matches in England is illegal. As you can see from this article, it has been so since 1994. The reason has to do with football hooliganism- touts sold tickets to away fans who then found themselves surrounded by home fans, with well known consequences.

The cricket authorities want to extend the law to cricket, although I have as yet seen no suggestion that Australian fans are in any danger from English fans- although their unusually poor performance is eliciting a number of jokes. Many, many years ago (about 25 I think) I went to a Test Match between England and India in Chennai (formerly Madras), and was surrounded by very loud Indian fans. They were delighted to find an Englishman to tease, and whenever an Indian batsman hit a good shot they would dance in their seats- and if an English batsman hit one they insisted that I perform likewise. I seem to recall that I had bought my ticket from a scalper.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

More Zimbalist 

Part II of All-Baseball.com's interview of Andrew Zimbalist is up (you'll have to scroll down to get to the new stuff). Here's a sharp comment on revenue sharing:
I think revenue sharing is a positive for baseball. The owners are going to share almost $300 million dollars this year.

The problem is with the incentive structure in the revenue sharing system- they reward failure and penalize success. The better job you do in building a team, attracting people to your ball park, and boosting television ratings, the more you’ll be taxed. And, the worse job you do, the more revenue transfers you’ll receive.

For example, you have an example like the Philadelphia Phillies. They play in the fourth largest market in baseball and, until last year, they were getting roughly $10 million plus per year in revenue sharing. That’s absurd. [Owners] David Montgomery and Bill Giles weren’t doing a good job in building their team and selling it in the community, and they were getting all that money in the largest unshared market in the game. Those are bad incentives.

At the other end, you have the Red Sox in the sixth largest media market in the country and the 18th or 19th largest baseball territory, as defined by Major League Baseball, and- because they’ve been so successful- they’re paying the second most revenue sharing of any team. Close to $50 million dollars in revenue sharing. So, you’re penalizing them for being successful.

In my view, the revenue sharing system is structured wrongly. The teams shouldn’t share based on revenue; they should share based on local market size.


Seminole victory 

Florida State can keep Chief Osceola as its mascot, at least for now:
"The N.C.A.A. recognizes the many different points of view on this matter, particularly within the Native American community," ... "The decision of a namesake sovereign tribe, regarding when and how its name and imagery can be used, must be respected even when others may not agree."
Maybe the NCAA also recognized it was about to lose another lawsuit. Who knows? Via King Banian, who has more on the issue.

Brutually exposed 

MLS advertised its inferiority yesterday by playing a talent-laden but lackadaisical Real Madrid. The all-star-type "MLS Select" squad was hardly a team in the true sense. But more importantly, the gulf in pure skill was brutally obvious on the pitch. Despite decent spells of MLS possession - largely because Real had little to fear and couldn't be bothered to chase the game - Landon Donovan and crew created precious few chances, while giving up five unanswered goals.

If American viewers have been fooled by the MLS product, this game may help puncture that bubble. Success in the competition for soccer viewers in the age of international, satellite TV is, and will be largely determined by relative levels of skill.

The US won't see world class soccer played by its own teams on its own shores until we put more skill on the pitch. That requires either a change in MLS' penny-pinching ways, or its replacement by a more adventurous and enterprising league.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Monopoly, Monopsony,
and the Parallels between the NCAA and CCA 

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)in the U.S. and the Canadian Curling Association (CCA) have two important things in common: monopoly and monopsony.

Monopoly:
The NCAA controls the U.S. college play-offs in the major sports of football and basketball (along with many others); and the Canadian Curling Association controls the Brier (Canadian men's championship) and the Scott Tournament of Hearts (Canadian women's championhsip), and the winning teams have earned the right to compete in the world championships, representing Canada.

Both the NCAA and CCA have seen their monopoly powers challenged. The NCAA has lost its complete monopoly over the sale of television broadcast rights, and the CCA is being challenged by the World Curling Tour in a battle to attract viewers and sponsors. Also, if the
CCA keeps buggering up its television broadcast contract negotiations, people will soon be frustrated enough that they demand a Herculean cleansing of the Aegian Stables.

But these challenges are just nibbling at the edges of the monopoly power of these two organizations because they still control the big events. In fact the
NCAA just bought out its main tournament challenger, the NIT. (see the update at the end of that item; as Skip Sauer says, "Looks like pure monopoly folks!")

Monopsony:
At the same time, the two organizations have worked assiduously to suppress the earnings of the athletes under their purview. While some athletes have been able to side-step the NCAA unholy alliances with the professional leagues, for the most part college level athletes in the U.S. are not paid anything like their market value. King Banaian at SCSU Scholars is a fine economist with a strong interest in sports economics. He quotes Robert Barro:

The NCAA is impressive partly because its limitations on scholarships and other payments to athletes boost the profitability of college sports programs. But even more impressive is the NCAA's ability to maintain the moral high ground. For example, many college basketball players come from poor families and are not sufficiently talented to make it to the National Basketball Assn. Absent the NCAA, such a student would be able to amass significant cash during a college career. With the NCAA in charge, this student remains poor. Nevertheless, the athletic association has managed to convince most people that the evildoers are the schools that violate the rules by attempting to pay athletes rather than the cartel enforcers who keep the student-athletes from getting paid.
In curling, one reason the World Curling Tour has emerged was that many curlers were disappointed with the amount of money they could earn from curling in tournaments organized by the CCA. As I have speculated before, it is conceivable that the World Curling Tour could outcompete the CCA tournaments most of the time. But there are four major barriers to this competition: the Brier, the Scott, the right to go to the Worlds, and the Winter Olympics, all controlled by the CCA.

It is at least conceivable that the Brier, the Scott, and the Worlds could be out-competed by the World Curling Tour. If the WCT offered big enough prize money and appearance fees, those tournaments would disappear in the matter of just a few years. And like collegiate basketball in the U.S., we would almost surely see a merger (but this assumes the CCA would not remain intransigent, as it seems to have been in so many of its recent decisions).

But the big kicker -- the hammer, so to speak --- is that the CCA controls the Winter Olympic selection process. That control gives them considerable power in negotiating with players (Note Colleen Jones' remark that she might not appeal
a fine levied by the CCA because the CCA controls the olympic selection process). The World Curling Tour (and its Canadian counterpart) would have to receive the nod from the Canadian Olympic Association for selecting the olympic curlers, and that would not be at all easy.

[cross-posted at Curling]

The Big XII - A Two-Tiered League 

Recently, I read an article that claimed the Big XII South Division might be the best conference in college football this year (I didn't bookmark the article and couldn't find it in a Google search). Unfortunately, the Big XII has two divisions, North and South, and the South has recently dominated the North. Not surprisingly, the South teams lead the way in spending on their football programs.

Big money equals big facilities, which leads to better recruits, which results in football teams best-equipped to win division, conference and national titles.

And the big money in the Big 12 mostly resides in the South, where the 2004 season was an eye-opener.

South teams thrashed those from the North, going 16-3 and winning by an average of 20 points. South champion Oklahoma finished off the season by manhandling Colorado 42-3 in the Big 12 title game.

In its last reporting cycle (2003-04), numbers from the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act reveal South schools spent a combined $68.1 million on football, compared with $55.6 million for North schools. Texas Tech was at a league-high $15.3 million. That compares with a $9.6 million football budget at Colorado.

In this post I wrote over at Market Power last November, in which I looked at some expenditure figures for the 2002-2003 academic year, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas State were the top three in spending on their football programs and only Nebraska and Colorado spent more than $8 million on their football programs. Those numbers do not include expenditures on capital improvements. The South is doing well in that area as well:

Texas A&M's $27 million Bright Football Complex, opened in 2003, a 125,000- square-foot, state-of-the-art building akin to CU's 92,000- square foot Dal Ward Athletic Center. Unlike the Dal Ward center, the Bright complex is football only.

Indoor practice facilities at Oklahoma and Texas erected in the past three years.

Oklahoma State's $86 million renovation project to update Boone Pickens Stadium.

... The only program in the North that is upgrading its facilities at a similar rate as its South counterparts is Nebraska. This month, Nebraska completed a new indoor practice facility, which has two adjoining grass practice fields. It is Phase One of a $50 million project. Phase Two is the Tom and Nancy Osborne Athletic Complex, an addition to Memorial Stadium that will boost seating capacity over 80,000 and includes 13 skyboxes on the top floor. It is expected to bring in $5 million in additional revenue per year.

The South has risen! Nebraksa and Colorado seem, at least looking at historical data, to be most likely to compete with the South teams for a conference championship, with Nebraska probably being the most likely to do this. I've been to a few games at Memorial Stadium. The "Sea of Red" that is not only Memorial Stadium but Lincoln, Ne. on game days is an impressive sight to behold. NU football has been mediocre by their fans' standards for a couple of years now. But I have reason to doubt that it will continue to flounder. While the scholarship limitations that Skip alluded to here has had some effect***, Nebraskans ("Nebraskans" and "Nebraska football fans" are redundant terms) care too much for their football and they are willing to pay a lot to have a good team - and that means great facilities. Of course, Notre Dame hasn't been doing all that hot recently, and its spending on its football program is on par with the Texas's and the NU's of the world (in 2003-2004, Notre Dame spent a little under $11.4 million). But the link between spending and winning certainly seems to be there in the Big XII.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Nature vs. Nurture: An Update 

In this post I linked to a Chronicle of Higher Education article that discussed some recent research on the gender of college coaches. That article is a premium article, which I forgot to mention (sorry!). The Coaching and Gender Equity (CAGE) project has this website that contains links to the final report on which the article is based plus other links and more information.

Update: Greg at the Sports Law Blog has some thoughts here.

Pricing Tennis Tickets:
Risk and Insurance Elements 

Most tennis matches are held outdoors. One risk is that it will rain when a match or set of matches is scheduled (and increasingly organizers are considering covering at least the main courts). For ticket holders, tournament organizers must have a good, clear policy in place about how they will handle the effects of the rain and whether to grant refunds or credits.

Clearly if the organizers say, "You pay your money and you take your chances," the demand for tickets would be lower than it would be if tickets holders could receive cash refunds when it rains. And so most organizers have some arrangement to share the risk (co-insure or provide some sort of insurance) for ticket purchasers. Given the prevalence of some sort of credit or refund policy, it is reasonable to conclude that organizers profit from selling insurance along with admission as a part of the ticket.

Apparently, the policy was changed at this year's Rogers Cup in Toronto, Ontario. Alan Adamson at Silly Little Country [and co-blogger at Curling] really likes to attend the Friday session of matches, but not the later ones. He writes:

This session is attractive as the quarter-finals narrow the field somewhat so one has a reasonable expectation of quality, if not of even play; and I do not see the point of later rounds, each of which features at most one singles match. Each year, I buy my tickets for next year at this year's tournament.

Some years it rains and no matches are played; the rain policy (or at least practice) has been to credit this year's purchase to a purchase next year and in those cases, I have always simply applied the credit to the same session in the following year, and there have been such cases.

But the policy has changed.

The new T&C [terms and conditions] say that if I want a refund from a rainout the credit must be applied to a session IN THE SAME TOURNAMENT (i.e. the same year!)

Well, I have NO interest in any following session in the same year (as explained above - and there are other issues - e.g. this year I had other commitments competing with all following sessions). So the value of the tickets to me has dropped catastrophically.

... So how does this affect my future behaviour? Well, I am no longer prepared to carry the risk of buying tickets in advance, as they can lose all their value simply because of some bad weather (such as we have experienced in the ten years of attendance). So that habit is gone. In fact already this year for the first time in years I did not visit the advance ticket office to get next year's tickets.

But there is more to this. I and those I go with have their own schedules and have to go out of their way to clear the time from their jobs to attend the Friday afternoon session. Now that Tennis Canada has made it foolish to buy the tickets until right before the session starts (because rain can make them worthless) how likely is it that we will be willing to go through the trouble to clear our schedules for it? I suspect this year was my last visit to the tournament. Too bad - I have always enjoyed it - it has been a highlight of my planned vacation days each year.

One small point - the Friday afternoon session that I did thoroughly enjoy this year was very sparsely attended. I expect it to be more sparsely attended next year.

And the great thing for me is that other vacation plans for future years should find me close to the French Open early rounds each year so maybe there are substitutes.
Watch for sales and last-minute specials and deals at The Rogers Cup in the future. And this expectation will reduce advance demand even more...

Friday, August 19, 2005

Interview of Andrew Zimbalist 

Peter Handrinos of All-baseball.com has conducted an interview of economist Andrew Zimbalist, co-author of co-blogger Stef Syzmanski. Here's a snippet from part I of the interview:
PH: In your past writings, you’ve placed a lot of emphasis on baseball’s monopoly status, on its status as the only industry which enjoys a presumed exemption from antitrust law. Please explain how you think that works in the game, and why you think it’s important.

AZ: If you take a long view of the exemption, which dates back to 1922, you see an industry that stood pretty much alone on the professional sports pedestal in the United States. On top of that, they were given an exemption from the nation’s antitrust laws. So, not only did you have an industry without a lot of competition, but essentially, you had one with a lot of power to prevent competition from materializing.

In those circumstances, you encouraged those in charge to be lax, lackadaisical, and non-responsive. I think if you look at the central governance of baseball, if you look at the management at the team level, you see this kind of creeping lassitude take over. Instead of getting entrepreneurship, instead of establishing bridges to the local community by courting fans and doing marketing to promote the game . . . instead of doing all that, they sort of sat back and said ‘We’re baseball. We’re a monopoly, we can do what we want, we’ll open the gates a little before game time and people will come’.

That might be exaggerated a little bit, but basically [that] was the management culture that set in.

Nature vs. Nurture in Coaching 

From Friday's Chronicle of Higher Ed daily emailing:

Even though the number of women who participate in college athletics has risen dramatically since Title IX became law in 1972, the percentage of women's teams that have women as head coaches has declined during that same period and in 2002 reached its lowest point, according to a report being released today.

The report, by researchers in the Coaching and Gender Equity Project at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, says that in 2002, 44 percent of women's teams had women as head coaches, down from 52.4 percent in 1982. In 2004, the most recent year for which data are available, that number had increased only marginally, to 44.1 percent. The report also says that as of 2004, less than 2 percent of men's teams have a woman at the helm, and that women are "nearly absent" from the position of athletics director.

The article primarily points to socialization reasons to explain the findings. But there is another very good reason that seems to come as an admission:

"This is one of the few professions where women's participation has declined," says Robert W. Drago, a professor of labor studies and women's studies who is one of the report's five authors. "What will make it difficult to turn around is the fact that so many women athletes seem to prefer male coaches." (emphasis mine)

The report's authors found that most of the 41 female athletes they interviewed in three different focus groups thought male coaches were better at commanding respect and that female coaches tended to create more "drama." One woman said that "there's just something more credible about male coaches." The 41 women included participants from all three divisions in the National Collegiate Athletic Conference.

I've heard it said that collegiate athletic programs are old boys' clubs. That may be true to an extent, but athletes want to win. Athletic program officials want to win. To win means that you hire the resources that you believe will help you win. If you don't, your competition will and this competitive pressure directs you to hire the best resources available. Mistakes will be made - it's part of the trial and error process that guides the market. But systematic and repeated mistakes will not be made industry-wide. The good old boys club, observed through the choices they've made, has effectively stated that male coaches generally do better at winning... and the female athletes in this study have concurred.

At the risk of becoming a poor man's Larry Summers, how much of the difference between male and female coaches is due to nurture and how much of this is due to nature? I don't have the answer to that question although I do believe that it deserves objective scholarly attention.

Of course, this does not mean that a particular female coach cannot be successful and it does not mean that a particular male coach will be successful. Pat Summit is a pretty darned good coach and Woody Widenhofer (former Missouri and Vanderbilt football coach) is, at best, pretty darned mediocre (but schools keep hiring him!). But the comment above that states "there's just something more credible about male coaches" suggests that nature may play a bigger role than some might want to admit.

George Will on the Minors 

George Will, iin his column in today's WaPo: describes some of the realities of life for players in the South Atlantic League (The Sally League), a low-A minor league for Major League Baseball:
The RiverDogs play 140 games in 151 days, traveling by bus, living at least two to a room in motels, some earning as little as $1,050 a month -- and only during the season -- with a $20 per diem for food. "Sometimes," says a player touchingly grateful for life's little blessings, "the motel is near an Outback." A young man from west Texas says, "I had a brother working in the oil fields. So if I wake up tired one day, I think, 'I could be doing that.' " Most of today's Sally Leaguers will be doing something like that sooner than they can bring themselves to imagine. But for now they are delighting some of the 40 million fans who will see minor league baseball this summer. The RiverDogs, averaging about 3,800 fans a game, are one of five teams partly owned by Mike Veeck, a third-generation baseball man -- his father put the ivy on Wrigley Field's outfield walls -- whose management doctrine is: "Treat people as if they're coming into your home. Nothing is too much trouble."

... About 40 percent of the players on the 40-man rosters of the 30 major league clubs each spring are Sally League alumni, including, last April, Derek Jeter, Curt Schilling, Ivan Rodriguez, Luis Gonzalez, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones and John Smoltz. But nowhere near 40 percent of Sally League players get to the majors. Most were the best on their high school teams and are slow -- mercifully so -- to understand the severity of professional baseball's meritocracy.

Part of that which drives a young man to continue to play minor league baseball is the belief that his hard work will pay off. What also drives the young man is the payoff he expects to get if he makes The Show. The chances may be slight and the life he leads while he tries to make The Show may not be glamorous, but, oh, what fun he'll have if he makes it - and toiling in oil fields will never pay off like making The Show will.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

NIT case to settle? 

Here's an interesting news report from Indianapolis, via Michael at The Sports Law Blog:
The federal antitrust trial pitting the National Invitation Tournament against the NCAA appeared close to settlement Tuesday as the trial was suspended and the sides negotiated.

The NCAA executive council, the highest policy-making group in the association, had an unscheduled conference call Tuesday night to discuss the case.

NCAA spokesman Bob Williams declined comment. NIT attorney Jeffrey Kessler didn't return repeated messages.

The trial was about to enter its 10th day. When the jury of eight women and four men entered the courtroom Tuesday morning, they were immediately told by U.S. District Court judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum that they had the day off.

At issue is an NCAA rule requiring schools, if invited, to participate in NCAA postseason events or none at all. The NIT, long a secondary postseason basketball tournament, wants an open market.

Settlement negotiations before the trial failed.

"It's very hard to tell until we get the terms of the settlement, but at a dead minimum, the NCAA thinks there's risk," said Paul Haagen, a sports law expert from Duke University who has been keeping up with the trial. "But it could be that the case didn't go so well for the NIT and they're willing to be more accommodating.

"Sometimes what happens is it's easier to get your client to concentrate when they get a sense of the weaknesses of their case in front of a jury."

The NCAA has a $6.2 billion, 11-year contract with CBS for television and marketing rights to its tournament.
Michael thinks the NCAA has "too much to lose," and that the NIT feels it might have a weak case. That rings true (but read the post for a full sense of his argument). Also to be considered is likelihood that both sides would prefer to avoid dissipating existing rents from an escalation of competition in the post-season. A court-sanctioned settlement which throws the NIT a bone might be a win for both parties, even if the two sides' estimates of the NIT's chance of winning at trial were the same.

Update
: Looks like pure monoply folks! At least by Mike's latest update.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Sports and Financial Analysts:
Good or Lucky? 

In a comment to a recent item on my own blog, Jabber asked whether I thought an analyst who beat the market 4 or 5 times running was a good analyst. As any good economist would answer, "It all depends."

Let's use sports as an example first. I haven't looked for awhile, but many sports publications used to run ads "Call us toll free and get one free pick for this week's line-up of NFL games."

My guess is that they gave out one side of the bet to half the callers and the other side of the bet to the other half of the callers. Then when people called for a free pick the next week, even (especially!) if they had called before, they were given a free pick again. And again, half the callers were given one side of the bet, while the other half were given the other side of the bet.

After 4 replications of this purely random strategy, roughly 1 out of every 16 of the original callers would have received a correct pick every single week (and presumably the others would have tried a different service). There is a very good chance that these people would be glad to order the full service of predictions from this service, believing that the service operators were brilliant when, in fact, they were just lucky. And, I expect, once they ordered the service they probably found that they were doing little better than 50-50 in their bets. (note: I am aware of some complex models that claim to have done slightly better than the spread over time, so don't get too worked up over this point).

In other words, just because someone predicts something correctly four times in a row, don't necessarily conclude they're good. They might just be lucky.

Now apply this same analysis to financial advisors. What if you learned that 1 out of every 32 financial analysts beat the market for the past five years running? That is exactly what you would expect if they were all just tossing coins. In other words, with these results it would be difficult to reject the hypothesis that the financial advisors were no better than coin tosses would be.

These guys suck 

The PGA Tour's mantra is that "these guys are good." But not good enough for Sally Jenkins, apparently. She and I both watched the golf course grind up the players at Baltusrol yesterday. That apparently led Ms. Jenkins to frown on this generation of golfers. If you'll allow me to be a bit crude, to Ms. Jenkins, "these guys suck":
[T]here's a reason why Woods has won 10 professional majors since 1997 while no one else has more than three. The fact is that Woods is enjoying a comparative lull in golf, historically. He is the greatest player of his generation, but it's an underwhelming one. For all of the talk about the Big Five of golf -- Woods, Mickelson, Ernie Els, Goosen, and Singh -- and what a wonderful age we're witnessing, it's become apparent that this age pales in comparison to some others. It especially pales next to the one in which Jack Nicklaus played.

As the leaders floundered at Baltusrol, where Nicklaus won two of his U.S. Open titles, you couldn't help but think about the rivals against whom he played and won his 18 professional majors. Gary Player won nine majors, Arnold Palmer won seven. Then there was Tom Watson (eight), Lee Trevino (six) and Raymond Floyd (four). Not to mention the occasional Billy Casper (three), Hale Irwin (three) and Johnny Miller (two).
I'm not buying it. Consider two facts. First, examine Jenkins' list of rivals from the Nicklaus generation. It looks quite a bit different from the Big Five in the following respect: all but one are American. Today's game is more global than ever, and Asians, Africans, Europeans, and Americans alike all show up with a chance to win each of the four majors each year. Today's majors are truly an international spectacle, and I am confident that the depth of talent is much greater than in the Nicklaus era.

Second, golf technology and the golf world's response to it have changed the game, making it tougher to dominate. Technology tilted the risk-reward ratio in favor of risk-taking, i.e. hitting the long ball. In response, tournaments have "Tiger-proofed" their courses, making the fairways ridiculously narrow and the rough thicker than ever. This adds variance to a game that's already quite random.

These two factors imply that golf's four majors will be shared among a wider group than in the Nicklaus era. Perhaps that makes golf less of a match between the titans, and thus a bit less compelling to watch. But it doesn't mean that the guys aren't good. "Pyrite?" That's just wrong. As Tiger's lob into the cup and Phil's punch to the flag from thick rough illustrated yesterday, they are spectacular.

More on the mascot issue 

From the nifty college football blog "Every Day Should Be Saturday:"
When the NCAA defended the inclusion of FSU’s mascot as being “hostile and abusive”, they cited the fact that although the Florida Seminole tribe supported the use of the Seminole as a mascot, the Oklahoma tribe did not. The problem is that they were wrong.
Like wrong, as in the NCAA buying in to an activist's public position, and ignoring the tribal council's 18-2 vote against his proposal. Classic.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Conference affiliations in the NCAA 

Conference membership in NCAA Athletics is a fluid, rather than fixed alignment of schools and economic interests. In 1953, Clemson and Maryland initiated a breakaway from the old Southern Conference, prompted by a desire to play in post-season bowl games. Little did they know then that the new ACC was destined to become a basketball league! Now that Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College have joined the party, the ACC has left its roots on tobacco road, and what the future holds is anyone's guess.

The ACC's expansion, widely if somewhat inaccurately perceived as a raid on the Big East, is one of two major conference realignments of the last decade. Equally significant is the creation of the Big 12, which might be viewed as the landing of a life raft launched from the old Southwest Conference. 2005 marks the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Big 12 from the old Big 8, and survivors of the scandal-plagued SWC.

The competitive factors - in both the sports and economic senses of the term - which shape conference alignment offer a rich and underexplored subject. I think there is much potential here for economic analysis.

Here are some articles which offer informed accounts on the making of the new ACC and the Big 12. Doug Campbell of the Richmond Fed has the best discussion of the economics behind ACC expansion in "Conference Shuffle" (quite apart from the quotes from this source). The details and intrigue behind the making of the Big 12 are covered nicely in a series by Mark Wangrin in today's San Antonio Express-News, "The Great Texas Football Rebellion."

These articles cover a lot of ground, so I will just make two quick points. First, though economics are a key driver, it is clear that political influence matters in this realm. Virginia Tech at the expense of Syracuse, and Baylor at the expense of TCU (perhaps; TCU in contrast to Baylor has won a national championship in football), owe their lucrative conference affiliations to political intervention. The Baylor story is told by Wangrin here.

Second, Wangrin's story revealed facts previously unknown to me, which help explain the decline in Nebraska football. Wangrin states that Nebraska's powerhouse teams had been "sustained through the years by more lenient" entrance requirements for players. He also reports that the very first clash in the new Big 12 was between football-mad Texans arguing for more stringent standards (!), and Nebraska attempting to protect one of the pillars of its import-driven program.

The Cornhuskers can't live off of home-grown talent in their sparsely populated state. Lenient admission standards allowed Nebraska to field players that schools with higher standards ignored. The Huskers lost that battle with the Texans, and since then their fortunes have been on the decline. Leveling entrance requirements restricted the flow of talent to Nebraska, and it shows in the recent performance of the team: a 5-6 record last season was the worst since 1961. Once a perennial top-ten team, they currently reside in the 43rd spot in the coaches' pre-season poll. From this viewpoint it looks like a new plan is needed in Lincoln, which sheds new light (to me at any rate) on the recent turnover in coaches in the program.

To win or not to win 

I want to take up Skip's blog of August 2nd about the competitive balance of the Premier League whose new season started yesterday. Pretty much every game was a sell out, as has been true for nearly a decade, despite the near certainty that Chelsea will win the title and only Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool as even remotely plausible challengers. Not that there was ever much competitive balance in the Premier League or its predecessors- a small number of teams have always dominated (as is true of every European league).

The fact that a sport can be both incredibly popular and so unbalanced seems to contradict every intuition of sports economist and lay person alike. Surely, the weaker teams must have some prospect of winning to make it worthwhile for their fans? A good example is provided by the current "Ashes" cricket series between England and Australia, which is currently in the middle of the third game (called a Test Match). The Ashes are played for every two years, and dates back to 1876- out of 308 Test Matches played Australia have won 126, England 96 and 86 have been tied.

Traditionally soccer in England was played when the cricket season ended (many soccer clubs were originally founded by cricket players looking for something to do in the winter), but the expansion of soccer has encroached over the years. Cricket has struggled to compete with soccer for popularity for more than a century, but for the last 20 years the game in England has suffered because of the dominance of Australia. England have not won a series since 1987, and more importantly have not looked like winning one. Until this year. Having lost the first game, England won the second dramatically and currently look favourites to win the third. Suddenly England has gone cricket mad. Anti-siphoning rules ensure that Test Match cricket in England is shown on free-to-air TV, and last Saturday the coverage achieved the highest rating for cricket on a Saturday ever. At one point on Sunday (when the game was won) 44% of all TV homes were watching. There is a widespread feeling that interest in cricket in England is on the up.

Of course, some might argue that the cricket renaissance has to do with England offering serious competition for Australia, but I think it is more simply the fact that England are looking like winning. I've certainly not seen any evidence that interest in cricket in Australia has suffered during their two decades of dominance. Fans want their team to win, and as far as I can see not too much else matters. So why does an unbalanced Premier League (or Serie A, or La Liga, or the Bundesliga) thrive? Because most fans align themselves with dominant teams. Supporting weaker teams is defintely a minority activity. A few years ago there were said to be more Manchester United fans in London than Manchester- my guess is that many of these have switched to Chelsea. I've not seen any studies of switching behaviour on the part of fans, but my guess is that switching is pretty common.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The Government of Soccer 

Today saw the publication of the recommendations for reform of the English Football Association (FA) following a review by Lord Terry Burns. Unlike the major leagues in the US, most leagues in Europe and the rest of the world belong to a national federation that claims authority over the regulation, organisation, and promotion of the game at all levels. In particular, governing bodies have the power to tax professional teams in order to subsidise the development of the game. The FA is the original model for governance of team sports outside the US, and no doubt many federations, especially in the soccer world, will consider carefully any changes adopted by the FA.

Until now the problem, in a nutshell, has been the failure of the professional game, which generates the income, to agree with representatives of the amateur game, who have traditionally dominated the FA, over how soccer should be managed, and even what the appropriate decision making framework should be. Lord Burns has recommended the creation of a Board, operating much like the Board of directors of a public company, with a CEO an full executive powers over the game in England. Board members would be appointed by the Council of the FA, acting as a kind of parliament for soccer, with guaranteed equal representation for the professional and amateur game. In addition, he recommends that fans be given increased representation on the Council, that the surplus generated by the FA (from the games played the national team and the FA Cup) be distributed according to fixed formula, mainly for the benefit of the "grass roots" and that an independent regulatory authority be established within the FA to oversee disciplinary issues.

The review of governance was strongly backed by the UK government and it is likely that the recommendations will be implemented, probably in full. The result is likely to be a much stronger sense of direction being imparted to the game as a whole, which may not entirely suit the commercial interest of the professional clubs. In the extreme, if the amateur side of the FA becomes too assertive the professional clubs might be tempted to go it alone. the increased voice for the fans will also be an interesting development, since many of them advocate full-blown regulation of the sport. So, we can look forward to to the smack of strong government in soccer, though it remains to be seen whether that will also mean better governance.

Stat of the day 

Since 2001, the Oakland A's are 94-30 in August, 15 games ahead of baseball's next best team. (This year's team seems to have gotten a head start in that regard).

Is there a reason, or even a plan behind this? Read this story and judge for yourself. But do note that Billy Beane has, in his words, a "contrarian poisition" on the tradeoff between youth and experience down the stretch. It's not mentioned in the story, but relative youth could be a factor not only in the August successes, but also the October failures of the A's.

P.S. I can hear Joe Morgan now... "I refuse to read it... but Beane has no respect for The Game... That's what I said, and I'm not gonna repeat it. He has no respect for The Game."

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Plays or Players? 

During his trip to the Jacksonsville Jags' camp, SI.com's Don Banks elicited a couple of interesting quotes:

From [QB Byron]Leftwich: "You can't describe Carl's system. It's a little bit of everything. He came in and we made plays to fit our type of players. It's about doing what our players are best at doing. He's going to make sure we're allowed to do our things.''

From [Head Coach Jack] Del Rio: "I don't know how to characterize it. How does Charlie Weis characterize his offense? Ever hear him describe it as a West Coast offense or try to give it a nickname? I think what you do is you attack the people you're playing against with the people you have and get the matchups you're hoping to create.

The idea seems simple -- if productivity depends on combining labor with technology (schemes, plays, ...), and labor is relatively fixed in the short run, then adjust the technology to fit the personnel. As I discuss in Chapter 7 of my From the Ballfield to the Boardroom, coaches in the NFL and other places love to make players fit into a given technology. Matt Millen and Marty Mornhinwheg are my poster children for this kind of mindless devotion to a single "system."

In trying to make sense of why coaches are so frequently fond of treating their given "technology" as fixed and trying to make diverse types of players fit into it rather than vice versa, I'm reminded of ideas expressed by Roy Radner in his 1992 Journal of Economic Literature piece on "Hierarchy: The Economics of Managing." The bottom line is that decision makers have limited processing power. While the idea of fitting the "technology" to the players sounds easy enough, in practice, it's a complicated problem to work out. Most coaches have very limited processing power (no disrespect intended -- well, I guess there is some disrespect intended), so that fixing the "technology" and trying to bend players to fit it radically reduces the complexity of the problem.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A commendation for Scott Podsednik 

I watched a good bit of the Yankees 3-2 win over the White Sox on Monday, a game with interesting incidents and completely lame commentary by Jim Kaat and Company. One play which had me startled was Sox LF Scott Podsednik's fine running catch of a foul ball. On the replay, it looked to me like a fan in the front row threw a haymaker at him! Cue the second replay, and it was clear that the fan's hand was balled up in a fist, an intentional punch to be sure, and likely made contact. This was apparent to any couch potato with half an eye on the ballgame, but not to Kaat & Co.

One of my colleagues and I got to talking about lame commentary yesterday, on the heels of another Joe Morgan moment on Sunday night. I was directed to the existence of the fine Fire Joe Morgan blog, which focuses on the highs and lows, mostly lows, of the ESPN baseball crew. Then I brought up the Podsednik incident. How could a commentator miss what was going on there? Well, not everybody missed it. My well-informed colleague pointed out that there is a picture available in an obscure corner of the web, but wondered like myself about the lack of commentary on the incident. Here's the picture:



Make up your own mind about what you see, but do ask yourself what would have happened had Gary Sheffield been involved? In this case, Podsednik bent over a bit (I first thought he was hamming), then sucked it up and threw the ball back into the infield. Incident over. Or no incident, the way the press is playing it (save at the bottom of this column I found by Jay Mariotti).

More should be made of this, I think. Was Yankee security engaged or asleep at the switch? The Red Sox fan who lost his season tickets for mixing it up with Gary Sheffield wants to know. But more importantly, in a period when athletes get plenty of bad press for loutish behavior, Scott Podsednik deserves a commendation. Bravo, Scott, for ignoring the provocation and just playing the game.

Update: Sportsfilter picked this up, and a commenter there linked to video on Mlb.com that has several replays from various angles (see links below the picture on the right). These angles may differ from replays I saw on Monday; at any rate, the fan's hand travels down at first, rather than in full roundhouse right fashion, which is the way it looked to me originally. Several comments at Sportsfilter suggest that the fist may have been an instinctive defensive maneuver, which might be the most likely interpretation. Regardless of that point, full marks to Podsednik, whose facial actions after the catch reveal the need to straighten out gums, lips and teeth from each other.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Bureaucrats and rules 

The NCAA, an organization that just moved to the state of Indiana, voted last week to "prohibit teams with nicknames, symbols or mascots considered 'hostile or abusive'" - i.e. referring to Native Americans in a manner some Native Americans don't like - from displaying such images in NCAA postseason events. They did not clarify whether they judged Florida State's Chief Osceola a "hostile" symbol, but this story suggests a court fight is in order if they do make that claim. Folks, can you imagine listening to the drudgery of that testimony? "Osceola's hostile!" "No he's not!" And so on. Ugh.

The quirk in the decision is that the NCAA did not ban the mascots from bowl games and the like, just in post-season tournaments that the NCAA itself manages. In other words, Illinois is free to pack its bags and play in the NIT, and as long as the BCS doesn't join the NCAA's party, FSU football will escape unscathed. Why the quirk? My hunch is that the NCAA recognizes that it has a chance to successfully defend the restriction on symbols displayed in it's own events. Their case gets much weaker in regular season competition. Clearly, however, the camels' nose is now under the tent - a shrewd move by the NCAA, although why they are on this particular warpath escapes me. One would think that schools could be relied on in good faith to do the right thing here, without adding more pages to the NCAA's already interminable book of infractions.

Across the pond, bureaucrats in England's Home Office are at their "you can't do that without my permission" best. The EPL is a league teeming with foreigners, and is an attractive spectacle because of that fact. Yet the talented Chilean Mark Gonzalez was denied a permit required for him to move from Spain to join Liverpool because his national team is not good enough. Get that? Neither do I.

Gotta love those rules!

Update: Is the term Hoosier (of Indiana University) offensive? Here's some information from an IU librarian: '"Hoosier" was a term of contempt and opprobrium common in the upland South and used to denote a rustic, a bumpkin, a countryman, a roughneck, a hick or an awkward, uncouth or unskilled fellow. Although the word's derogatory meaning has faded, it can still be heard in its original sense, albeit less frequently than its cousins "Cracker" and "Redneck."'

Friday, August 05, 2005

The Palmeiro Files 

An interesting angle coming out of the Palmeiro case is the question of the internal politics at work. The AP's Tim Dahlberg writes,

You have to be slightly suspicious that both [Selig & Fehr] might have been involved in the interesting timing surrounding the announcement Monday that Palmeiro tested positive for steroids.

Given the way baseball's ponderous grievance process works, there's no doubt those in the know have known for weeks, if not months, about the positive test. The only question is whether it goes all the way back to spring training, when tests were going on about the same time Congress was holding hearings.

If such strategizing took place, it may have worked. MLB did get a slight nod from Congressmen for its "handling" of the case. On the other hand, if Palmeiro opens up to Congress, it may open up a whole can of worms for MLB.

Another question related to the internal politics comes courtesy of one my colleagues here Reed Vesey. Where is the voice of the clean guys? There are to answers that come to mind:

1) Few players take steroids but the Player's Association machinery keeps a tight rein on "narcs" to hold down the possible negative reaction. Tom Glavine's response to Turk Wendell's refreshing honesty last season had the marks of a "Goodfella" stamping out rats in the network. One would have thought poor Turk to have been the culprit rather than a good guy.

2) The clean guys represent a minority view. In thinking about the evidence, I'm more convinced that this is closer to the truth. Canseco guessed that 80 percent of MLB use performance enhancers. Caminiti guessed 50 percent. The fact that the 8 players caught by the feeble MLB testing policy come from all over the positional map is another bit of evidence. Plus, hardly any players in MLB resemble their 1980s counterparts, who look like high schoolers running around with their skinny bodies. In this view, guys like Glavine are doing the same job, but it is not so much the tail wagging the dog as the dog wagging the tail.

Dahlberg's title and main theme, Who You Gonna Believe? Players or the results? poses a second observation about the whole mess. Liars may use statistics, but statistics expose liars. Even without the Palmeiro developments, we all have a pretty good idea what is going on as Dalhlberg notes. Aaron, Mays, and Killibrew all found their power stroke very early in their careers. Not only did the recent crop of home run kings find theirs all around 1993-1995, but they found it well into their careers. Moreover, they also found the fountain of youth with the likes of Palmeiro, Sosa, and Bonds hitting a lot more homers after 35 than in their mid and late 20s. The numbers cause me to wonder about a certain pitcher whose exploits have flown under the radar of suspicion but whose numbers only seem to be improving with advanced playing age. Nolan Ryan may have kept going a long time, but his numbers did not match (or exceed) those of his earlier years.

Knight and the NIT 

Michael at the Sports Law Blog has been following the NIT vs. NCAA case in these posts (1 & 2), and alerted readers to the potential spectacle of Bobby Knight testifying on the NIT's behalf. Surely that's fare for Court TV, but the USA Today report must suffice, for now.

The report indicates that Knight is his usual wacky self in the testimony. But here's one observation from Knight that got me thinking:
Under questioning from NIT attorney Jeffrey Kessler, Knight said he believed the NIT could compete with the NCAA in an open market. "Given the necessary amount of time -— two seasons, three seasons -— you would have two tournaments very, very close," Knight said.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but in other countries with multiple knockout tournaments in operation, attention focuses on one tournament above the others. In England, the League Cup and the FA Cup have been in competition for years, and the former has been permanently saddled with second-class status, with games played by reserve squads before half-empty stadiums.

Having said that, consider the following. Suppose the NIT were restructured along the lines of the FA Cup, with early round games played on, say, each Tuesday beginning in mid-January, with all teams eligible to participate. A random draw, knockout competition could culminate somewhere in the neighborhood of the NCAA's regional finals, or perhaps the week after the Final 4. Would that be more successful than the current NIT? Probably. But the NCAA's exclusive rule precludes any team participating in its tournament from playing any other games that season, once the NCAA tournament starts.

The NCAA might lose this one (they make a regular habit of losing antitrust cases). And if the NIT were creative, we might have a new, interesting form of competition develop in college basketball.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Adidas, Reebok, & Nike 

Yesterday brought news that Adidas is poised to take over Reebok, the rival sports apparel manufacturer. The $59 bid represents a 34 per cent premium over the closing price of Reebok shares on Tuesday, and the shares promptly soared to $57 in yesterday's trading.

Both the AP story and the WSJ ($) credulously report Adidas' spin on the deal, that the combined firm would "compete more forcefully with Nike."

If the market believed that assessment, Nike's share price would fall. But since the opening of trading on Tuesday, Nike's share price has risen $5.50 to $87 - a healthy, statistically significant return for a two day holding period. The market for Nike stock thus assesses the deal somewhat differently than the spin offered by Adidas.

Students of antitrust economics will immediately understand what the market is suggesting. Rather than creating a more effective competitor to Nike, the merger eliminates a rival responsible for price competition in the market for sneakers. Less vigorous price competition would increase the value of existing competitors, i.e. Nike.

Should the merger be stopped if that's what's going on? I don't have an answer for that, but the antitrust authorities in Europe and the U.S. will be on the case.

If I were a Reebok shareholder, $57 looks a price that might be worth taking. I'd cash in now, and let the merger arb shops absorb the risk that the deal blows up.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Balance and the Premier League 

The English Premier League kicks off a week from Saturday, and the market odds say that the title race is already over for all but a handful of teams. At Tradesports, there are bids for but five of the twenty teams to win the title, propped up by Everton at 1 cent (to return a dollar), with "The Field" trading at a penny and a half. Chelsea are the odds-in favorites (last trade at 53.5 cents), with a youthful Arsenal and an aging Man Utd rated the only serious challengers at about 20 cents each. My opinion is about the same as most: it is Chelsea's title to lose. They are loaded with talent, and their depth minimizes the risk from injury. Chelsea might win in a walk, just as they did last year, making for yet another boring title race.

Fortunately, as Brian has mentioned before, the European setup gives many teams something to play for. Two domestic knockout competitions** plus the UEFA Cup and the Champions League will keep the teams in the middle of the pack interested in sharpening their form while they strive for trophies. And the teams in the lower half of the table will scrap and claw for every point to avoid the trap door of relegation. So the season's competition will be keen, in spite of the lack of interest in the title race per se.

Nevertheless, I am somewhat cautious - more so than Stefan Syzmanski, perhaps less so than Rodney Fort - about competitive balance in the EPL. As this story in the Telegraph points out, last season was the most imbalanced in history, and is part of a clear trend concentrating points at the top. The prices at Tradesports show that this season promises more of the same. But I do not share the opinion of Professors Oughton and Michie, who documented these facts, that structural changes are required, for reasons I advanced earlier. In large part, market forces are behind these changes, and country-specific remedies are more likely to harm the League than help it. (A unilaterally imposed salary cap, for example, would be a disaster.) You might differ by pointing out that Malcolm Glazer and Roman Abramovich - the oligarchic owners of Man Utd and Chelsea - are idiosyncrasies orthogonal to market forces, but I doubt that is correct, and regardless, a policy to manage idiosyncrasies is no policy at all.

**Though perhaps the Carling Cup should be permanently placed in Chelsea's trophy case. Most top teams play their reserves through the early stages of the Carling Cup, and Chelsea's reserves might themselves be title contenders. Getting to the Cup Final would seem to be a stroll in the park for them.