I must confess an addiction to nightly coverage of men riding bikes for five hours. Before last summer, I would have dismissed the idea of being captivated by a such a repetitious event where participants represent a small club of athletes supported by companies with names like Phonak and Fasso-Bortolo. Oh, I had watched an odd summary such as Greg LeMond’s stunning last day victory in 1989 that left Laurent Fignon crying like a baby on the side of the road, but my interest did not run very deep. That all changed when OLN’s in-depth coverage came bundled with a sports package on my satellite plus a Tivo birthday present last year. Now, I’m strapped in my easy chair receiving my nightly fixes of “the Peleton” skimming over the French countryside. A few observations from my strange trips:
1. As with most sporting events, the Tour supplies a rich laboratory for economics. Before last summer, I thought that the race involved little more than a bunch of guys climbing on expensive bikes and pedaling to see who finished the 2000+ miles first. Instead, the competition for the overall victory involves a long sequence of strategic games between riders and teams. The races within the race for the sprinters title, the “king of the mountains” title, and the young riders title not to mention the daily stage wins also supply content. Each mini-competition incorporates its own strategy, but also the structure of incentives provides interest and drama in addition to the overall winner — something that U.S. sports could borrow from more heavily. Also, the team dynamics highlight organizational issues. Armstrong’s team has one clear leader and objective. In contrast, the T-Mobile team has three riders who have finished in the top three overall in prior years.
2. The Tour draws attention to the impact of success on further participation in a sport. Twenty years ago, Americans were a non entity on the Tour. Since then, LeMond and Armstrong have won half of the available titles, spurring a surge in U.S. participation and competitiveness as described in a recent Dallas Morning News story. The influences on labor supply and demand involve important feedback mechanisms.
3. Thirty years ago, Becker and Stigler published their piece describing how tastes and preferences may be, in part, driven by prices, incomes, and capital (“De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum” — AER 1977). I’m living out their model as reality. Not only have my viewing habits changed, but my “preferences” have evolved over the last couple of years due to the changes in the composition of my capital.
4. As a sports fan, even with the complimentary capital of my Tivo and satellite, I have been surprised how appealing the Tour has become to me. The event involves a of monotony. The pool of serious athletes in the sport is small. It’s in France — for goodness sakes. Nonetheless, the Tour is no hyped up coverage of a few guys in baggy pants doing 1080s or some guy named Buck chopping a piece of wood. I can watch those kind of specialty events for about five minutes. Instead, these riders average 30 mph 4 inches from each other for 2000 miles, climb mountains over 8000 feet high, sprint like madmen after riding for five hours, and other amazing stuff that inspires admiration and interest from a sports fan like myself.