Although they have their place, Aaron Gordon writes, academics play an important part in contemporary professional sports.
An old economist’s joke says no one has ever successfully picked up a woman by discussing the laws of supply and demand. Until the mid-1980’s, you could say the same about sports; sports economist Stefan Szymanski has made a living detailing instances where European soccer and American baseball clubs rejected the advice of economists because they didn’t “know the game”. (For more on the “you can’t understand something unless you’ve done it” argument, read anything Joe Morgan has said.) This internal attitude was dominant until some clubs overcame these biases and started winning.
Over the last decade, academics have been advising teams on free agent markets, player values, and even more mundane aspects like cultural adjustment periods for foreign players. The obvious examples are Bill James and Billy Beane, but nowadays virtually every team has their own “geek squad,” so much so that any market inefficiency gets saturated within a few years, and quickly becomes overvalued again (think of on-base percentage).
In some respects, this shift has forged a divide: you either embrace “advanced statistics” or you reject them. But, you don’t need to understand how to calculate BABIP or WAR—I sure don’t—in order to benefit from a greater understanding of how sports function. To consider some recent NFL free agency deals:
- Nnamdi Asomugha might have been better off signing a hefty one-year deal and re-entering free agency next year. This year featured several good cornerbacks, with Jonathan Joseph, Antonio Cromartie, and Ike Taylor all available to the highest bidders. Compare this to last year, when Dunta Robinson was virtually the only starting-caliber cornerback and inked the same amount of guaranteed money as Asomugha, despite Asomugha being generally lauded as a much better player. This was a textbook case of demand remaining stable, supply increasing, and therefore the price decreasing.
- Likewise, the Texans signed Joseph before Asomugha agreed to terms with the Eagles, which means the Texans likely determined Joseph’s marginal cost to be higher than Asomugha’s (that is, for every dollar more Asomugha cost, the Texans didn’t think it would yield as much productivity as another player they could sign with that money).
- A player’s value is not flat—some teams value certain players more than others—and the mechanism of the free market is a fluid process. Santonio Holmes is worth very little to a team with lots of wide receivers like the Packers. But to the Jets, Holmes is worth almost $50 million, with half of that guaranteed. Ike Taylor is much more valuable to the Steelers—he knows the scheme and is a press corner—whereas the Falcons might not have much use for him since they play a lot of zone. When considering the free agent period, it’s important to consider the player’s value to that team, not some arbitrary general “value.”
I’m willing to bet everyone reading this article has made arguments like those before, even if it was as simple as whether you should buy a four-door or a pick-up truck. (The pick-up has a high subjective value. It’s worth a lot more to a carpenter than a soccer mom.) Even though we use these logical processes every day in other parts of our lives, they are scorned from sports discussions, as if its anathema to turn on your brain when talking about sports. Sometimes I encounter people who would rather bicker about whether the Patriots should have resigned Deion Branch in 2006 instead of doing a simple cost-benefit analysis. It’s as if the answer doesn’t matter, it’s the argument that counts.
To apply my economic thinking to this observation, what is the purpose of sports—its marginal utility—to most people? Sports are a distraction. A lot of important stuff happens to us every day that we have to make really serious decisions about, so it’s fun to bicker about things that actually carry no significance but we assign great importance to. (As Will Leitch succinctly stated, “Watching and thinking about the Cardinals is better than watching and thinking about life.”) Who cares if the Patriots would have won the Super Bowl in 2006 if they had Deion Branch? The marginal utility is not in knowing the answer, but in the distraction of thinking about the question. We ascribe a certain mysticism to sports that we likely don’t want academics to try and figure out, since the whole point of sports is it often subverts logic.
This doesn’t mean academics ruin all the fun—although inevitably that will be the takeaway for some people—but academic discussions can certainly have that effect. When academics direct themselves to the supply-side of sports (working for leagues, teams or agents) they make the games better; they construct better parameters for league transactions, make smarter decisions that lead to greater competitive balance, and promote financial responsibility. I want economists determining how to realign baseball’s leagues and divisions, not a former used-car salesman.
The disdain begins when academics wander to the demand-side: the fans, the barroom debates, the Sunday afternoons on the couch, or the little league sideline discussions. These are places for the true marginal utility of sports to take its full effect, distracting us from dull marriages, needy children, or empty chitchat. But academics don’t provide “answers” to all of sports’ mystical questions. More often, they shift the debate to realms most people have no desire to enter, since it resembles the mind-bending complexities of everyday decision-making.
When academics start breaching the barroom debates, some people roll their eyes and shake their heads as if the danger lies in the academic’s very inclusion. There’s a proper time and place for their debates, just like supply and demand tells us how much milk costs but would make for a horrible pick-up line. We just need to distinguish between when we want an answer and when we want an opinion.