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Bill James on Competitive Balance

Bill James is bored with basketball:

The NBA's problem is that the underlying mathematics of the league are screwed up. In every sport, there is an element of predetermination and an element of randomness in the outcomes. Who will win the championship next year is not entirely a crapshoot. We know that Kentucky has a better chance of winning the NCAA basketball title than Nebraska does - next year, or in 2019. If we knew with certainty who was going to win the title next year, then we could say that the championship was 100 percent predetermined, 0 percent random.

In the NBA, the element of predetermination is simply too high. Simply stated, the best team wins too often. If the best team always wins, then the sequence of events leading to victory is meaningless. Who fights for the rebound, who sacrifices his body to keep the ball from rolling out of bounds doesn't matter. The greater team is going to come out on top anyway.

He proposes a solution for this problem: to tweak the rules in order to increase the randomness of the outcomes. One solution is to go "back to shorter playoff series" in which upsets are more probable. In other words, a half-step towards the knockout structure of the wildly popular NCAA basketball tournament.

More generally, James calls for studies of what makes leagues, as opposed to teams, click.

What is the "perfect balance" point, at which leagues tend most to thrive? I don't know, because it hasn't been studied.

Do leagues thrive when the best teams are in the biggest cities? Or is it actually better for the league if the best teams are in smaller cities, like a Green Bay, which can "adopt" the team and make it its own?

Do leagues grow rapidly in periods of innovation and development, or do leagues prosper more in periods of stability? Is it better for a league if the player provides his own equipment, or is it better for the league if the league controls the equipment?

Nobody really knows.

We've spent a long time studying what is good for the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics. The issue of what is good for leagues is virgin territory. It's time to step back and look at the bigger picture. People ask me all the time: Where is baseball research going in the next generation? This is where it's going.

These are interesting questions that deserve careful study. But while people have been complaining about the "meaninglessness" of NBA games for decades, the league continues to prosper. As Dave Berri noted a while back:

If the argument [on the importance of competitive balance] is to be believed, the NBA should be dying at the gate. But this season the NBA set a record for attendance. And this follows the 2004-05 campaign where the previous record was set.

So what do we know? The NBA does appear to have a problem with competitive balance. The NBA does not, though, have a problem with attendance.

The answer to Dave's question -- what do we know? -- is about the same as Bill James'. Not much. There are a good many mysteries associated with the popularity of sport, and particularly the tremendous worldwide increase in the popularity of league sport over the past half-century. But while the answers are elusive, the study of competitive balance is not "virgin territory." Anyone answering the call of Bill James (and perhaps Bill himself) might profit from using google scholar, a fabulous little tool. The result it delivers is not consistent with the notion that this is "virgin territory:"

At 3,290 results, the scholarly literature on competitive balance is small relative to, say the literature on the "minimum wage." But it is a start, and there are some well known results. One tentative conclusion from people who have been thinking about this issue for some time (i.e. most of us), is that while competitive balance is clearly essential in some degree, the payoff function around the optimum may be really flat. The two most successful leagues in the world, the NFL and EPL, have vastly different degrees of balance, suggesting other factors are likely much more important in generating fan interest (there is lots of discussion and speculation in the posts collected here).

Bill James understands what it's like to bark in the dark, so it is both odd and unfortunate that he'd pontificate erroneously on a subject in which he is late to the party. Yes, the issues are interesting and may even be important, so the call for study is welcome. But let's not forget that some of the hard work is already underway.

Thanks to co-blogger Dave Berri for sending the link. Dave offers commentary along similar lines (and has primacy rights, whatever they may be), along with a compact list of references at Wages of Wins.

Update: See this post for a concise statement of what I think is absolutely correct in Bill James' article.