Friday, September 29, 2006

Moneyball and the market correction 

One interesting sideshow tied to Moneyball's publication is the vociferous negative reaction to it by baseball insiders with thin skins. This rhetoric took place at the same time that the actions of baseball insiders were correcting the mis-pricing!

But I don't believe that the actual publication of the book altered prices so much. Rather, when other teams raided the A's front office for talent, those guys, and others who had figured out what was going on, did the bidding. What motivated Lewis to write had also motivated teams to copy the A's, and that occurred (shortly) before the book hit the stores.

Now, as for EE's comment (#3 below Dave's post). This comment, (echoed by Rod & Dave) poses the big question that Jahn Hakes and I left unanswered. Let me re-phrase it: how long was a winning strategy lying dormant? If indeed it was dormant for decades, and obvious enough to types, and as cheap as the A's found it, why? It is not enough to say that the people running sports teams are stupid, or ignorant, or lack computational skill. Branch Rickey was not stupid, and as EE says, he and his people knew the importance of on-base percentage a long time ago.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Freakonomics vs. Moneyball 

On page 10 of the October 2nd issue of Business Week is a brief article by Peter Coy (not available online) entitled “Freakonomics vs. Moneyball.” Coy addresses an exchange between Steven Levitt – co-author of Freakonomics – and Raymond Sauer – Clemson economics professor and resident chief scholar at The Sports Economist. At issue is an article written by Sauer and Jahn Hakes-- and published this summer in the Journal of Economic Perspectives -- entitled “An Economic Evaluation of the Moneyball Hypothesis.”

Although it is hard to believe that one could be reading my words in this location and not know the Moneyball story, I will still offer a quick summary. The Oakland A’s consistently field a team towards the top in baseball in winning percentage. This very same team also consistently places towards the bottom in baseball’s payroll rankings. How is this possible? Michael Lewis – author of Moneyball – argued that Oakland was able to purchase cheap players with a high on-base-percentage because patience at the plate was a skill undervalued by other teams in Major League Baseball.

Steven Levitt disputed this claim, arguing that great pitching is the simple secret to Oakland’s success. Sauer and Hakes turned to the data and asked if on-base-percentage was truly undervalued in baseball’s labor market. Their paper reports that before Moneyball appeared, on-base-percentage was indeed undervalued. After this story became known, though, this advantage disappeared. In sum, baseball executives were able to adjust behavior in light of new information, a result standard economic theory would predict. Of course, why it took baseball more than a century to learn the lesson of plate discipline is still not quite as clear.

That point, though, is not the subject of Coy’s article in Business Week. Coy focuses solely on the debate between Levitt and Sauer. The Sauer-Hakes paper was originally submitted to the Journal of Political Economy where it was rejected by Levitt – who is a co-editor of JPE. This summer, as noted, it appeared in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a journal Coy very erroneously refers to as a “not-quite-so-serious” journal. I would emphasize the “very erroneously” part of the last sentence. JEP is indeed a very good journal and appearing in such a forum is a feather in anyone’s cap.

Now one should note, as Coy mentions, that the Journal of Political Economy rejects 94% of papers submitted. So Levitt rejecting this paper does not indicate that the paper is necessarily flawed. In fact, after reading the paper I think the paper is clearly well-written and quite important.

Why is this paper important? The important issue is not why Oakland is successful. No, the bigger issue is that Sauer and Hakes found on-base-percentage – or the ability to draw a walk – was undervalued in baseball’s labor market. These stats have existed for decades and it is surprising that it took the publication of a best-seller to correct the market imperfection. Economic theory teaches us that decision-makers learn about their environment. Typically, though, we expect people in a highly competitive environment with abundant information to learn on their own. It should not be the case that learning only takes place after a best selling author highlights the problem.

The ability of decision-makers to understand the vast data collected in professional sports is one of the more important stories we can tell in sports economics. In essence, we are faced with the classic Watergate question: What do decision-makers know and when did they know it? In the sports of baseball, basketball, and football this question is being asked. And I think the answers – provided in papers like the recently published work of Sauer and Hakes -- not only inform our understanding of sports, but also of economics as well.

Ball tampering and the war on terror 

Last week President Bush had to deny leaked stories of threats made to the Pakistan government in order to get them to join the war on terror, during a visit from President Musharraf of Pakistan. Musharraf is now in London to see Prime Minister Blair who is having to distance himself from a leaked Defence Ministry report claiming that the Pakistan security service has been tacitly supporting Islamist terrorists. Sorry, you are reading the sports economist blog, but this is by way of saying that Pakistan has become incredibly important on the world political stage and there is a bizarre link between all this and cricket.

Today the International Cricket Council has given the Pakistan captain a four match suspension for "bringing the game into disrepute". During a match in London last month against England the umpires awarded a five run penalty (not such a big deal as this would be in baseball, since at the time Pakistan had already scored over 500 runs in the game) for ball tampering. Essentially, the Pakistani bowlers were being accused of interfering with the ball to make it "reverse swing"- a kind of movement in the air which is highly unusual and difficult to achieve. The team's captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, then refused to bring his team back onto the field after the official tea break (more sports should have tea breaks), resulting in the game being awarded to England, even though the Pakistan captain agreed to continue playing after some negotiation.

This might sound like the Pakistan team and captain are guilty of foul play, but things are a lot more complicated. First, while the umpires acted fully within their powers, the evidence on which they based their accusations of ball tampering were slim. After much searching no camera evidence was found, even though there must have been half a dozen TV cameras at the ground and many press and private photographers, not to mention a crowd of over 20,000 who apparently saw nothing. Second, the umpire who made the call, the Australian Darrell Hair, despite a long and respected career, has been accused by players from India and Sri Lanka as well as Pakistan of racial prejudice on several occasions. He didn't help his cause by sending an email to the cricket authorities agreeing to resign after the incident if he were paid A$500,000. Some might argue that the decision to cede the game to England was inflexible, especially since the match was well poised and the last day of the game would have been exciting (ok, no jokes from you non-cricketers).

Inzamam himself is a highly respected player abroad and a national hero in Pakistan. As well as being a great batsman, he is a great leader of his team and a man who usually conducts himself with humility, grace and good sportsmanship. There is no doubt that many Pakistanis will view this as part of conspiracy against them. First, there are the Australians, who have said some pretty tough things about Pakistan cricket in the past. Traditionally Australia and England have dominated the administration of the sport, in ways that many Asians would view as little better than colonial in spirit. In recent years the balance of power has been shifting to India largely because of the phenomenal growth in the value of their TV rights. However, India is no friend of Pakistan and so the latter may see their hand in the decision.

A lot of this has to do with the concept of reverse swing. It was "discovered" in Pakistan in the 1970s, and when it first started to happen in international games some England players and others accused the Pakistanis of cheating. However, last year when England defeated Australia for the first time in nearly 20 years their bowlers used reverse swing and were acclaimed for their skill rather than cheating. When England tour Australia this winter it will be very interesting to see the reaction if the England bowlers manage to produce reverse swing again.

I guess it's all quite sad, but I have always been staggered by the claim that politics should be kept out of sport. It's a little bit like saying that we should keep guns out of warfare. Bush played cricket while visiting India last year, so maybe he understands that the future of the game could be important to US foreign policy.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

$1 Billion for the New Orleans Saints 

It has been widely reported (see this link and the original SI story) that a Canadian consortium, presumably based in Toronto, offered $1b for the New Orleans Saints last year. The offer was rejected, but I was not surprised to learn of the offer. Paul Godfrey, President of the Toronto Blue Jays has lobbied everyone he meets for several decades to try to put together some way to get an NFL franchise in Toronto, and Ted Rogers (one of the rumoured members of the consortium) owns the Toronto Blue Jays. Given the timing of the offer (shortly after Katrina), they might have re-named the team, "the Toronto Vultures."

For many good reasons, Stephen Brunt thinks it is unlikely that Toronto will succeed in its attempts to land any NFL franchise in the near future. Here are some of the reasons he puts forward:
  • the league is not desperate to grow right now beyond its current 32 teams, meaning there will not likely be a new NFL franchise available for quite some time. So if Toronto is to obtain a franchise, it will have to be an existing one.
  • the league does not see Canada as a prime market. Having a team in Toronto would not add much to the league's television base but might subtract from it.
  • the league's first priority is to place a franchise in Los Angeles, a major US market.
  • the NFL has no interest in harming the CFL, which would surely happen to some extent if there were an NFL franchise in Toronto. The CFL provides valuable player-inventorying and finishing services for the NFL.
  • there are no NFL franchises being actively offered, but there are several active buyers seeking a franchise.
  • Buffalo might object [EE: but so what? Teams don't have veto power and exclusive territories in the NFL (unlike MLB), do they? Wasn't that settled by the Raiders/Davis v. NFL antitrust suit?]
Brunt's most likely scenario for Toronto's obtaining a franchise is that Buffalo might eventually be bought and moves there. Toronto isn't a great distance from Buffalo, which currently attracts many fans from southwestern Ontario. But another possibility might be Jacksonville, if and when that franchise becomes available.

But really, let's face it. An NFL franchise in Los Angeles would be worth so much more than one in Toronto, it is difficult to imagine the Toronto consortium's outbidding competitors from the Los Angeles area. .... unless, of course, they are willing to pay one heck of an "ego premium".

Update [via Skip]: Chris Young at the Toronto Star sent his blog post of three weeks ago, which includes a timeline of discussions relating to a potential Toronto franchise, dating back to 1986. Sounds a bit like "Waiting for Godot"!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Balls in the stands 

We've discussed the issue of liability for balls hit into the stands before, but here's one that seems unlikely: on Saturday, Baltimore's Jay Gibbons fouled one off behind home plate and it hit his wife! While that might seem a one in a million shot, Gibbons is the Orioles' player representative, and he's argued before that the screen behind home plate in Baltimore provides inadequate protection:
The scene occurred in the ninth inning of the Baltimore Orioles' game against Minnesota on Saturday. Gibbons fouled a ball straight back over the screen and into the rib cage of his wife, Laura.

"She's just a little bruised up. She's going to be OK," Gibbons said Sunday.

Long before the matter became personal, Gibbons had asked team officials to do something about making it safer to sit in the seats behind the plate. He contended that the 20-foot screen just doesn't offer enough protection from hard-hit foul balls.

"It's something you think about every day here. Obviously, it's something I've talked about (to) deaf ears," said Gibbons, Baltimore's designated hitter and player representative. "I've got players coming to me every day saying that one of their family members got hit or almost got hit. I had an usher take one for my wife the other day."

Gibbons has suggested that the screen be raised or that the team insert an overhead screen that would extend to the back of the lower deck.

"If they're worried about the sight line, which I've heard, all they have to do is throw a net straight back. One of these days, somebody's going to get hurt really bad. That's all I've got to say," Gibbons said. "I'm confused on what's going on (and) why it's so hard just to make an adjustment. It's just a matter of time where a kid's going to get hit."

Sunday, September 24, 2006

What Are We? Chopped Liver? 

A recent article, "New Approaches to Ranking Economics Journals" by Yolanda K. Kodrzycki and Pingkang Yu, ranks economics journals in terms of their impact on other economics journals and their impact on other journals. They included 181 journals in their set of economics journals studied. As a ranker from way back [see my 1984 JEL piece with Stan Liebowitz], I can say the paper looks like a good one. However, I do have a major nit to pick:

So far as I could tell, not one of the journals studied is devoted to the economics of sports! That is a very serious omission, given the growth of this exciting sub-discipline. To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, "We don't get no respect!"

Equally disappointing is that in the recent edition of Job Opportunities for Economists, there appear to be no listings of vacancies for people to teach sports economics. I know, I know. People who teach sports economics are also/usually/primarily hired to teach industrial organization, labour, or something else; in fact we are usually hired to teach some other course and then we propose sports economics as a new course. But you would think that with growing enrolments in sports economics courses, someone would include the course as a possibility. [And in case you wondered, yes there is a JEL classification, L83 under "Industry Studies", Sports; Gambling; Recreation; Tourism.]

Friday, September 22, 2006

Fan protests 

Here in Baltimore, a local radio personality organized a protest against the Orioles' inability to be competitive. Nestor Aparicio, owner of a sports talk radio station and one of its on-air personalities, called for fans tired of the Orioles' losing ways to purchase the cheapest tickets in the stadium for the 4 pm game yesterday, and walk out en masse at 5:08. Apparently, between 800 and 1200 fans did just that. Nine years of below .500 ball has taken its toll on Baltimore fans with annual attendance having fallen by 1.6 million from 1997 to this year. Peter Schmuck estimates that fall in attendance has cost the team $35 million a year.

Reaction from the Orioles ranged from supportive of the passion of the fans who would make the protest to confusion about what the protesters hoped to accomplish. Owner Peter Angelos was not nearly so benevolent in his reaction. He called Aparicio a demigogue and referred to the fans as ignorant of the costs of running a baseball team. He went on to say that the Orioles were hard-pressed to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox because the Orioles could not pay $100 to $125 million in payroll.

Angelos did, however, concede that returning "Baltimore" to the team uniforms made sense now that there was a team in Washington.

It will be interesting to see if the Orioles make a big splash in the free agent pool this winter. Some reports indicate that the creation of the MASN (Mid-Atlantic Sports Network) will add enough to the Orioles' revenues that they will be able to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees. Apparently lots of folks around Baltimore, including in the Orioles, think money will solve all the team's inadequacies on the field.

The protesters are not among them. The desire voiced loudest was that Angelos sell the team.

Law links 

Jeff Standen, a professor of Law at Willamette University, has launched a new blog on sports law, "The Sports Law Professor." Jeff has an interesting post today on the reporters in the Balco case, who refuse to disclose the source of leaked grand jury testimony. I agree with Jeff here. I've no sympathy for guys who abuse the legal system - and may be party to a crime, if they solicited the leak - in order to advance their muckraking careers.

At the Sports Law Blog, Michael McCann has a sort of 'markets in everything post,' of the rather ugly variety. Michael discusses reports of adults who have paid little leaguers to bean opponents, and even teammates. Wow.

Finally, Juli Graber sends along a link to an interesting paper: "Striking Out 'Competitive Balance' In Sports, Antitrust And Intellectual Property" by Sahlil Mehra and T. Joel Zuercher. That's worth a look over the weekend. Enjoy the games!

OU & referee favoritism 

Now that Bob Knight has waded in to the Oklahoma-Oregon blown calls controversy, there's no reason for me to hold back any longer. Knight has pointed out that Texas Tech got jobbed in a 2003 game at Norman, when the clock operator gave the Sooners just enough extra time to get off a game-tying shot. But there where no offers of scrubbing the game from the record books from the Sooners for that one. As Knight says, "Now I guess the 'duck' is swimming in the other pond."

Turnabout is fair play, of course. But Seth Davis indicated back then that Knight pitched a fit himself over the Sooners' 2003 transgression. Unlike Davis, I don't fault Knight, nor do I fault the Sooners. They have legitimate grievances, because refereeing mistakes like this have a pattern: home bias. Economists and psychologists have documented the phenomenon beyond a shadow of a doubt, as I discuss in this TCS Daily column from last month. It is a pattern that needs correcting, unless sport wants to travel down the path to staged events like pro wrestling. And used properly, replay review can help.

So I don't join in the catcalls against Oklahoma in this case, because progress can be made if participants insist on improved officiating. The Pac-10, unlike other conferences, insists on using conference referees for inter-conference games at Pac-10 stadiums. As Chris Fowler noted on the Virginia-Georgia Tech telecast last night, they also use sub-standard replay technology, unlike the ACC and other BCS conferences. These facts suggest to me that the Pac-10 approach to producing top quality decisions by referees is somewhat lax.

And it showed last Saturday, *and* in the aftermath of those atrocious calls. Being the college football junkie that I am, I do have ESPN GamePlan, and I do surf to the big games with tight finishes. So I saw the entire sequence unfold, and it was simply shocking. First, the call on the field, that Oregon had recovered, is difficult to explain without recourse to home bias. Oregon never ever recovered the ball! Second, the announcement of the replay decision - "indisputable video evidence" that Oklahoma had touched the ball first before the kick had traveled 10 yards - was incredulous. How can something be indisputable if it in fact is demonstrably false? The Pac-10's response in suspending the referees for one game was simply lame. In the absence of a cogent explanation for promoting a falsehood as "indisputable fact," the person responsible for that transgression should be suspended for the season.

I am a UW alumnus and a Husky fan (lean days, these), but an equal opportunity critic: the Pac 10 has exposed itself as a joke. The Pac 10 office (like my Huskies) has some work to do.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Bungs, Taps and sporting crime 

The BBC has once again exposed the shocking criminality of English soccer. First, they have secretly filmed interviews with player agents stating that they have paid money to specific managers (head coaches) of a club purchasing a player. Referred to in England as a "bung", the payment ensures the support of the manager in getting the club to pay up. Second, they have evidence that Chelsea's director of youth football approached a 15-year old player who was already signed to another club (i.e. tampering, which is called "tapping-up" in England). This was all shown on a TV show last night, and this morning the government minister responsible for sport paraded his outrage on the radio, talking about the need for tighter regulation and changes to the law.

So, as ever, we must ask (a) what crime has been committed? and (b) who is the victim? The "crimes" are in fact breaches of the rules of the the national association, the FA. Let's consider each one:

Bungs: It is possible the clubs concerned could sue their employees if they are found to have accepted bribes, and even a criminal charge of conspiracy could be attempted, but that seems relatively unlikely. The club owners do not seem as agitated as the regulators and would-be regulators, possibly because they do not perceive themselves to have suffered much harm. The club is much more concerned with getting the best players, and any manager who is not delivering on the field will be fired. If taking bungs means winning, the club owners don't care.

Tapping-up: In this regard, the club that loses a player is quite clearly the loser when it comes to tapping up, and will demand sanctions, not against the individual, but against the club. The sanction might involve financial penalties and compensation for the victim. This points to the fact that the "crime" here is essentially the crime of undermining a cartel. Clubs agree to respect a kind of property right in a player, and failure to respect this right is against the sporting laws. But should it be considered contrary to the law of the land? If Harvard would like to discuss offering me an academic post (OK, but we can all dream, can't we?) should it be illegal to do so unless they first talk to Imperial College?

For all the moral posturing, it is not hard to see the agenda at work here. First, players in soccer have only had agents since the late 1970s- many in the business hark back to the good old days when you could tell a player his wage and he would say "thank you". Controlling the activities of agents is a means to controlling wages. Second, agents are convenient scapegoats in a business that has a fair few other problems. Third, the regulation lobby in soccer is immensely strong and is opposed to the operation of the market in sports (particularly if it means American owners, restructuring of competition, dominance of big clubs, etc). For them these events prove that soccer cannot be left to the market and therefore requires detailed regulatory intervention in the public interest.

It is quite likely that there will be significant attempts to bring European football under closer state control in the coming years, probably through some kind of legally based licensing and subsidy scheme. Maybe this would be a good thing or maybe it wouldn't. But history shows that such things tend to happen in reaction in public scandals of one form or another, by-passing the rational debate that is surely required.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Coaches, GMs, and Reporters 

The (Nashville) Tennessean's Paul Kuharsky wrote a short piece about the Coach-GM relationship, specifically with regard to the Titans. He observes
Sure, Coach Jeff Fisher and GM Floyd Reese -- both in the last year of their contracts, both knowing their jobs probably hang on the Titans’ ability to show improvement this season –- have their disagreements. Show me a traditional coach-GM structured organization where the two powers don’t regularly butt heads. It’s designed for them to check each other.
While in the search for something to write about, reporters usually like to make a big deal over Coach-GM disagreements, Kuharsky displayed a good grasp of how the setup should work. Of course, there is an "optimal" amount of disagreement -- too much and the relationship explodes; too little and you might as well make one the assistant of the other.

The piece continues in a way that adds a nice insight about signaling in view of the upcoming contract expirations.
On Wednesday, as I was still working on a piece about what makes a quarterback a good fit for offensive coordinator Norm Chow, I chatted with Reese before practice. I asked him about how he felt Kerry Collins fit as a Chow guy.

"(Collins) has obviously come in and picked it up quickly and I think they obviously favor him," Reese said, referring to the coaching staff and not indicating who he favored. "He ended up starting last week, so that’s a pretty good indication."

I don’t want to read too much into that answer. But it’s hard to hear it or read it without sensing Reese doesn’t mind the idea being out there that -– success or failure -– Collins should fall in the Fisher column when evaluation time arrives.
If doing what Kuharsky suggests, then Floyd Reese picked a good time to send this signal. Kerry Collins' QB rating against the Chargers on Sunday was 1.3 (that's not a typo!). On the downside for Reese, I doubt either he or Fisher will survive unless something picks up for the Titans.

It's a bit unusual for the Tennessean writers to take a stab at Fisher. My observations (which may be off) over the years have been that writers in mid and small markets with little media competition or with little specialization between "beat writer" versus "commentator" tend to really suck up to coaches. (Most national TV announcers fit this profile also, including the likes of John Madden). They may take swipes at the GM or the owner, but they rarely really sting the coaches, especially one with any kind of tenure. National writers or commentators in much bigger markets are not so hesistant. For example, last week Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman in his weekly grades was flabbergasted at Collins' start and sarcastic about his performance
It's not a quarterback controversy, it's a stunner. Kerry Collins, who flunked out of Oakland, and that's not easy to do, was a surprise starter (well, it was a surprise for me ... I'll probably get a lot of e-mails from people who said they knew about it all along), and he responded with a 41.9 rating against the Jets.
The Titans-Jets game announcers went to lengths in defending the Collins move as did some of the Tennessean writers.

The desire of the smaller market writers and national TV guys to be "on the inside" with coaches reminds me of the chummy relationship between the main Bloomington, Indiana writer covering the Hoosier basketball and Bob Knight as related in Feinstein's Season on the Brink. After the Bob Knight chair-throwing incident, a reader criticized his column saying, "it read like a legal brief prepared on behalf of the defendant." The writer, to his credit in terms of honesty, responded, "Probably he was right." Whether national writers really differ from TV announcers or from local writers could be put to a test with a sizable amount of tape watching and "content analysis." I'll leave that someone else.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Online prices for the NYC marathon 

The NYC marathon took applications from 90,000 runners for 50,000 places. The application fees are nominal, hence the excess demand. In this case, the essential ticket is the bib which runners wear, and the online market place has sprung into action. From Jennifer Blecher in The NY Times:
A New York City Marathon bib was offered on eBay last month for $750 with a "buy it now" option of $1,000. It went unsold, but two weeks later another sold for more than $450. Among the marathon bibs for sale on eBay yesterday was one for Chicago with a bid of $162. Most bibs for the New York City Marathon are selling for $100 to $200, but one seller on Craigslist was recently asking $775 for his bib for a man in his racing age group. People placing ads looking for bibs were offering up to $300.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Sacramento deal unravels 

Sacramento's arena saga took another turn when Joe Maloof announced yesterday that the Kings' owners would take their ball and go home. For now. From the Sacramento Bee (h/t to reader Mike Marshall):
The Maloof family has walked away from talks with the city and county of Sacramento over the terms of locating a new arena in the downtown railyard -- a heavy blow to community leaders trying to sell the arena proposal to the public.

"There are no more negotiations; we've already discussed all the issues," Joe Maloof said in a phone interview Wednesday. "They know what we need. We've told them."

The disagreement centers on parking, the size of the arena site, and on what, if any, kinds of retail or housing also would go into the sports and entertainment zone.

The pro-arena forces were left Wednesday with the very real possibility that they may be campaigning for a new sales tax on the Nov. 7 ballot to build an arena in the railyard without the owners of the NBA franchise on board -- and without their money to help pay for the campaign.
What's next, I wonder? Welcome to the theater of the absurd!


The Ryder Cup is almost upon us and, regardless of the outcome, it is likely to produce another outpouring of Old World/New World bile. Both sides feel aggrieved about alleged unsporting behaviour; Americans hark back to the conduct of Jose Maria Olazabal Seve Ballesteros, while Europeans got very upset about the American celebrations in 1999. However, golf has always been one of the most sporting of sports, and Wikipedia is of the view that Nicklaus conceding a two foot putt to Jacklin in the 1969 Ryder Cup was one of the great instances of sportsmanship.

Of course, sportsmanship can mean many things, and is frequently associated with simple good manners. But in general I would argue that true sportsmanship involves an action which entails the possibility that the consequence will be defeat, or the failure to achieve victory (as was the case with Nicklaus).

There are some good examples in some sports I know. In cricket there are many. While there are umpires to adjudicate whether a batsman is out, tradition has is that if you know you are out then you "walk", i.e. admit you are out, without waiting for the umpire's decision. The tradition is largely dead in international cricket, but remains quixotically upheld by Adam Gilchrist, one of the best Australian batsmen of recent years.

There is the famous example of the Italian bobsled team that were favourites for an Olympic gold medal but then gallantly lent their sled to their arch rivals whose sled was broken. Had they refused to do so they would have definitely won, but their rivals beat them using their sled.

A really nice example from soccer is captured in the link below. A recent tradition is that a team kicks the ball out of play if an opponent is injured and needs treatment. Once the player is up, his team then returns the ball the other team and play continues. A popular way to return the ball is to kick it to the goalkeeper- but in this case the Ajax player accidentally hits it over the goalkeeper's head and into the net. Cut and paste the link below to see the sporting response of the Ajax team.

I'd be interested to hear of any other good examples of sportmanship in the sense that I have used it.

An Inadvertent Test of Home-Field Advantage in the NFL 

Back when I was a graduate student, we did our econometrics assignments on punch cards and submitted the "jobs" to a computer desk. We were allowed three attempts for each assignment.

I worked very diligently to make sure I did each assignment correctly on the first attempt. That left me with two more computer runs for each assignment that I could use for my own purposes.

I used those extra runs to try to predict the outcomes of NFL games based only on points scored by against each of the opposing teams in previous games that season. I carefully coded points for and points against each team and ran simple linear regressions. Nothing worked.

But I did get a statistically significant value of 7.0 for the intercept term. That result made no sense to me at all; I had expected the intercept to be roughly zero. It took me several hours (when I probably should have been studying econometrics) to figure out that the way I had coded the data meant that the intercept, or constant, term was a proxy for the home team.

The seven points I was measuring were home field advantage, and that result was pretty consistent with what others were finding or guessing back then.

I was reminded of this incident by Brian Goff's piece last week at The Sports Economist, where a commenter mentions home-field advantage. But what happened during the first week of the 2006 season when the visitors won so many games? Did the home-field advantage hold but the visitors were that much better? Or has the size of the home field advantage changed over these past xxx years?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Doping and TUEs 

Lost in the recent media blitz over the Floyd Landis case was an interesting and largely overlooked dimension to the doping controversy: the widespread granting of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) to elite athletes for banned substances. One media report, stated that 60% of the riders tested for banned substances during the 2006 Tour de France had been granted TUEs.

So what in the heck is a TUE? According to the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA):
Athletes, like all others, may have illnesses or conditions that require them to take particular medications. If the medication an athlete is required to take to treat an illness or condition happens to fall under the Prohibited List, a Therapeutic Use Exemption may give that athlete the authorization to take the needed medicine.
If 60% of the 105 tested riders on the Tour de France had TUEs, and the sample of tested riders reflects the entire field, then professional bike racers must be a sickly lot. More than half of them have illnesses that require taking medications on the WADA Prohibited list - a list that includes only performance enhanching medications, not aspirin, Pepcid AC, or NyQuil. I wonder what percentage of the general population has a medical condition that requires treatment with one of the medicines on the WADA Prohibited List? If the general population uses medicines on this list in the same proportion as Tour de France riders, I need more pharmaceutical stocks in my 401(k).

Actually, I have an alternative explanation for the high incidence of illnesses in this particular population. Athletes clearly face incentives to use performance enhancing drugs. But it is also likely that the organizers of athletic contests like the outcomes generated by performance enhancing drugs; they produce extraordinary outcomes more often than would occur in an environment without performance enhancing drugs. These events generate more interest in the event and lead to higher profits.

But event organizers must trade off the benefits from the use of performance enhancing drugs, against the costs, which take the form of negative media attention because of the "tainted" product being produced and public outcry over the effect on young athletes, among other factors. One way to balance these conflicting consequences is to loudly proclaim strict enforcement of WADA regulations and hand out stiff penalties to violators, while quietly granting TUEs based on a relatively lax standard.

Some good news, and a puzzler 

First, the good news:

--Sacramento's representative to the California assembly, Dave Jones, describes why he will vote against the measure to spend $500 million plus on an arena for the Maloof brothers. Mr. Jones is a politician who deserves kudos for telling it straight. Bravo!

--In the NY Times, Ira Berkow has a nice story on Ray Ray McElrathbey's case. The NCAA will allow people to "be human", as Clemson coach Vic Koenning says, and assist Ray Ray in giving his brother a shot a better life.

The puzzler: The Islanders and goalie Rick Di Pietro have signed a 15 year, $67.5 million contract. The word "guaranteed" is not mentioned in the stories I've read. Surely there is some clause limiting the team's liability here. Anyone know?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Rookie coaches 

It has been noted in other contexts that the NFL, like other major sports, tends to recycle coaches who have shown at least once that they are capable of success. But there has been a lot of turnover recently, and quite a few new coaches have been added to the ranks. By my count there are five (oops!) rookie coaches this year: Payton of the Saints, Linehan of the Rams, Mangini of the Jets, Marinelli of the Lions, and Childress of the Vikings. Update: Ethan in the comments noted that I missed Kubiak of the Texans and McCarthy of Green Bay, both of whose teams took a beating. The rest of the post is slightly revised to adapt to this fact.

Yesterday the newcomers did pretty well. In all six games they were underdogs: Saints +4, Rams +3, Jets +3, Lions +4, Texans +3.5, and Packers +3. The first three won their game outright, and while the Lions lost they at least beat the spread. The rookies - not exactly endowed with powerhouse teams - thus have a 3-3 record going into tonight where the Vikings take on a recycled NFL legend, Joe Gibbs and the Redskins.

Oddly enough, Marinelli, one of the rookies who lost, did it the old-fashioned way. With three minutes left in a game tied 6-6, he opted to punt on 4th and 4 from the Seahawk 37. Some accounts suggest he might have opted for a game-winning field goal attempt, but the likely miss there would have left the Seahawks on their 44, in great shape. Even with a shaky offense, a risk-taking play for the first down seems warranted in this situation. As it turned out, the punt was next to useless (which happens all-too often....) The boot went out of the end zone, leaving the Hawks on their own 20 with plenty of time to drive for the game winning field goal.

Maybe the conservative Marinelli should have taken a page from his risk-taking assistant, the guy who chose to order a drive-through "burger in the buff" at Wendy's two weeks ago. On a more serious note, I'll be interested to see what William Krasker at Football Commentary says about the call. The tables at his site suggest this one might have been a coin flip.

Update 2: The rookie beat the legend on Monday night, 19-16. The week one tally is thus 4-3 straight up, and 5-2 vs. the spread. I expect both tallies will deteriorate rather quickly as the season progresses, but it will be interesting to see which of the rookie coaches can build a half-decent team.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Titanic Moves 

Last week, the Tennessee Titans gave up on Billy Volek as the successor to Steve McNair and brought in Kerry Collins. While head coach Jeff Fisher cast it as competition, the team essentially handed the keys to Collins, at least until they feel confident in Vince Young sometime this season or next. A couple of observations about the move.

1. The Kevin Loughery Syndrome. Some players and coaches somehow inspire hope and confidence in spite of evidence, and thereby, extend their careers far beyond what one might expect. My favorite example through the years is Kevin Loughery. He parlayed 3 successful ABA season into a 17 year, 5-team NBA head coaching career, where he kept landing jobs after failing in his prior stint. While 9th on the career loss table, nobody above him comes close to his lowly 474-662 (.417) NBA winning percentage. What were teams such as Chicago, Washington, and Miami thinking? I have not seen anyone in the sports econ literature address this survival by failure syndrome.

Just as writers would refer to Loughery's "experience," several local and national writers have referred to Collins 30,000+ yards as and indicator of his worth -- never mind that his career QB rating of 73 places him down in the Tony Banks-Tim Couch range for QBs of his era. His QB rating has not risen above the lower third level over his past three seasons. Only his best two seasons' ratings exceeded 80 (83 and 85) where he would rate around the middle of the pack in any given year. His TD-INT ratio is nearly 1:1 and the Raiders gave up on him for Aaron Brooks -- enough said! In much more limited action, 23 games, Volek's QB rating is 87.

2. Plays over Players Syndrome. Beyond hope springing eternal for some players or coaches, the Tennessee move fits into the category of making the players fit the system versus the system fit the players. Norm Chow's offense is predicated on a lot of short passing and a high completion percentage. That's not Volek's strength. His QB rating while under Mike Heimerdinger (now back with Broncos) exceeded 90 with more downfield throws (3 more yards per completion than under Chow.) The weird thing is that Collins' strength is throwing the ball down the field. That's also Vince Young's strength in addition to using his legs. One of the key features of coaches with long term (more than a single decade) of success across all sports is an ability to be flexible as player skills sets or rules evolve. That describes John Wooden, Tom Landry, Scotty Bowman, and their equals. The jury is out on Jeff Fisher.

How Are Infants Like Adults? 

With apologies to Levitt and Dubner for the "How are x's like y's" title, here's an interesting case of ticket pricing from the Big 12 conference:

When Kansas football fans Owen and Lisa Foust headed to the Jayhawks' season opener last Saturday, they bundled up 3-month-old daughter Kate to go along.

But when they presented their tickets at the gate, they were told they would need an additional $35 ticket for Kate.

"I just thought it was pretty tacky," Owen Foust said. "It's just a grab for money."

Of course Missouri games are more family-friendly (tongue planted firmly in cheek):

Fans under 2 also can get in free to see the Missouri Tigers or Kansas State Wildcats play, and those under 1 don't pay for tickets at Iowa State.

Seriously though, KU officials are apparently responding to complaints about infants invading other paying customers' seats:

"Everybody needs a ticket regardless of age," Marchiony said. "The very small children come with backpacks and bottles and toys. ... We've received numerous complaints over the years from people who are sitting next to those people — enough for us to know that even those sized children need the space."

So what is the proper price for parents of infants to pay? Of course it depends on what it costs to have the kids come in (including the expected costs imposed on other paying customers) and the willingness of parents to pay.

The article notes that Nebraska, Texas, and Oklahoma each charge to admit infants, but these schools, unlike Mizzou and KU, face a binding capacity constraint: NU, for example, has sold out every single game since the early 1960's. When capacity constraints hold, infants brought to games are more likely to impose costs on other paying customers than at KU and at MU, where games rarely sell out.

Program officials at KU could set up a family area where they sell a pack of tickets at a discount. Suppose they charge $35 for an adult ticket. They could charge, say $90, for a family of four: the same as charging $35 to two adults and $10 to two kids. The kids get a discount and it probably doesn't look as tacky. And they can funnel families to an area and away from areas where the kids may bother other paying customers.

And if capacity is not a problem, then decrease the number of tickets sold in the family areas and let infants in free. If there is an average of 50 infants that come to games, then offer 50 fewer tickets for sale and tell people that if they sit in the family area, then infants get in free to the family area. Otherwise they pay full price. If parents sit in other areas and their infants impose costs on others, the parents bear the cost.

Cross-posted at Market Power

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Just in case 

If you were considering betting the over-under scoring line in College Football, on the hypothesis that the rule changes would decrease scoring, consider this:
Ken White, chief operating officer of Las Vegas Sports Consultants, said that if a previous over-under (total points scored in the game) was 60 points, it'll now be 55.

He also expects the rules to favor underdogs."Fewer plays will keep it closer," he said. "It's like taking the air out of the basketball."
As the post below indicates, scoring decreased by 4.5 points in the first week's games, so White's conjecture seems pretty close to the mark.

Notable news 

Forbes' annual report on the NFL is in the current issue, complete with team valuations. The average team is now worth an estimated $898 million, up another 9-10% over the previous year. Also included is a story on Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders. Among several interesting items in the piece is a discussion of Davis' current lawsuit against his NFL partners, in which he claims ownership of the territorial rights to Los Angeles. Davis got rich by being independent and aggressive towards fellow owners, including his partners with the Raiders. The piece suggests that this strategy is now harming the franchise, as they lag behind in developing the recent income streams accruing elsewhere in the league.

At USA Today, Steve Weiberg examines the impact of the recent rule changes in College Football. Compared to opening weekend last year, there were 13 fewer plays (a decline from 139 to 126), and scoring decreased by 4.5 points. The objective - to shorten game times - was achieved, with a 17 minute decrease to an average of 3 hours and 3 minutes. I'm not sure the tradeoff is favorable though, unless one believes there were too many plays to begin with. A time savings of 8.5% was achieved by reducing the number of plays by 9.4%. The savings are real, but a rather big chunk of the game has been tossed aside to get them.

Update: Here's an informative story, with commentary from USF economist Phil Porter and others, on an attempt to build a new spring training complex in Sarasota for the Cincinnati Reds. Among Porter's better lines is this: "The hotels are the only people to benefit, and they've already told you the tax isn't worth it."

Monday, September 04, 2006

Labor Day Thoughts 

Today is Labor Day and I am clearly working (but only a little bit). Malcolm Gladwell posted a comment on his blog entitled “Abolish the NCAA” and I encourage everyone to go read what Gladwell has to say.

Let me add just a few additional comments to Gladwell's post. Gladwell notes a paper written by Jim Peach, an economist at New Mexico State University and out-going president of the Western Social Science Association. Peach’s paper, which I plan on commenting on in more detail in the future, examines the level of competition in the NCAA.

Peach basically finds that for 50 years the NCAA has been expanding its rule book. Peach also finds that despite more and more rules, competitive balance does not seem to exist in sports like football, basketball (for men and women), volleyball (again for men and women), and baseball. Looking at these findings one wonders: If the NCAA’s rules do not promote competitive balance, what is the purpose of this institution?

As you watch tonight’s game between Miami and Florida State, think about who is profiting from the spectacle that is big-time college athletics. Given ESPN’s promotion efforts, clearly it finds broadcasting the game to be profitable. The schools and coaches also benefit from these games. The players, though, see very little of the revenue these games generate. And remember, the vast majority of NCAA athletes – as the commercials say – will turn pro in something other than athletics. In other words, the athletes – who we all enjoy watching – generate much money for other people, but very little for themselves.

Perhaps this is a situation more people should ponder on Labor Day.

Update: Jim Peach tells me his paper -- entitled "College Athletics, Universities, and the NCAA" -- will appear in the January issue of the Social Science Journal. This paper was his presidential address to the Western Social Science Association.

Friday, September 01, 2006

How Much to Take a Dive? 

Last night while watching Agassi beat Baghdatis at the U.S. Open, I wrote,

How much would it be worth to the U.S. Open and its television partners to have Agassi progress to at least the quarter finals?

Enough to make large enough "side payments" to other players to let him win?

(note: I am making no allegations. I am just wondering about the possibilities.)
to which Skip added via e-mail:
That's the demand side. The supply side question is what would they take to lay down in a major? History suggests there are gains from trade for some, but also that the price of scandal is high.
The history that Skip refers to includes, inter alia, sumo wrestling, as documented in Freakonomics.

More on Marshawn Lynch 

I'm like a kid in a candy store now that college football season is upon us. But that doesn't mean I'm taking off my economist's hat. My somewhat critical discussion of the economic system behind the college football juggernaut is up at TCSDaily: "The residual value of Marshawn Lynch."