Against team players

by on November 12, 2008 at 6:37 am in Sports | Permalink

When one team wins, another loses.  If the Celtics win the championship, the Lakers cannot.  Sports at the team level, within the context of a single season, is more or less a zero-sum game.  But ranking the quality and fame of players is more multi-dimensional and thus it is more positive-sum.  Maybe the advent of LeBron James diminishes the luster of Tim Duncan (or maybe it doesn’t), but the total amount of fame produced still goes up because of LeBron and his efforts.

Players who maximize team wins are investing more resources into the zero-sum game.  (In fact team players in small markets with few fans are especially destructive of human welfare and it is those players who should be most encouraged to become ball hogs.)  Players who pursue individual glory — even if at the expense of the team — are investing more resources into the positive-sum game and thus they are doing more to benefit society.

So why is it again that we glorify the team players?

1 Anonymous November 12, 2008 at 7:49 am

So why is it again that we glorify the team players?

So that we keep everyone burning at 60 watts, like most of us. We don’t want to be out-shined by anyone burning at 65 watts, or – gads – 150 watts.

2 Barry Kelly November 12, 2008 at 7:54 am

Note: my generic team sport is soccer, specifically European club soccer.

Clubs have fame too, and they can’t acquire fame without winning competitions. Fans have far stronger loyalty to teams than to individual players, so it’s in the interest of the power brokers to favour club gain.

Of course, the players have different incentives and may be looking for better wages etc. at a different club.

And as to aesthetics and entertainment value, while individual brilliance is good, the most memorable events have been team performances. For example, Manchester United beating Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final (

For another perspective, consider the Italy’s performance in World Cup 2006, Fabio Cannavaro was probably the most outstanding player (and FIFA player of the year for 2006). However, he’s a defender, so his personal excellence was to the direct benefit of the team.

3 david November 12, 2008 at 7:57 am

Fame doesn’t benefit society. It benefits the players who are famous, to be sure, but other people become less famous; fans can only concentrate on so many people at once. Broadly: to a good approximation, it’s more plausible that the supply of fame per fan is constant.

Also, while wins and losses are zero-sum, the fame that results is not, surely!

4 Kevin P. November 12, 2008 at 8:01 am

I suggest you watch a few seasons of ‘The Wire’ to see the results of everyone acting in his own self-interest.

5 TJ November 12, 2008 at 8:27 am

Apples and oranges. Your thesis that winning and losing is a zero-sum game and that fame and popularity is a positive sum game is weak. The value created by a team that loses every game, but has a great star (Minnesota Timberwolves with KG) is an order of magnitude smaller than the value created by a team that wins lots of games (Celtics with KG). It is hard to argue that a league with few teams with a chance to win a championship (MLB) creates more value than one with many (NFL).

6 meter November 12, 2008 at 8:45 am

How about this: if owners (especially in smaller markets) field teams with single superstars but repeatedly end up with losing records, those teams will lose their fan bases. The end result is that the market contracts.

I don’t see how that’s a net positive for the sport.

7 chris huth November 12, 2008 at 9:30 am

People who are fans of NBA teams may also be fans of the NBA, as a whole. They get more enjoyment from watching well-functioning teams rather than star players. How much people care about basketball overall and the individual players might be a function of how good the teams are, and therefore how well the teams are playing. so if a player spends more time concentrating on individual goals, the teams may suffer and people might care about basketball less. This could have a negative effect on society.

8 Justin November 12, 2008 at 9:33 am

I don’t quite get your model. It seems to require that team play is both conducive to winning and uninteresting to spectators. Doesn’t that require that the spectators be extremely undiscriminating? Ball hogs and players seeking personal glory then look like the sports equivalent of junk food. Tasty, if it’s all you know, but ultimately unsatisfying.

(I’d also endorse earlier commentators who claim that having more competitive teams increases interest–you don’t want to take this so far: anyone could win in any given year can be a bad thing. Dynasties, or at least consistently high level teams are exciting).

9 simpsonian November 12, 2008 at 9:57 am

Because there is no man named “society.” Most sports fans have a team he/she prefers. He’d like the players on his team to play for his interests, and hence maximize team wins. Maximizing fame and ability in so far as these things compete with team wins has benefits to the team’s fans, but those benefits are dispersed througout society. The effects of the zero sum game are more sharply felt.

10 floccina November 12, 2008 at 10:05 am

True but the 1970-1974 NY Nicks were a beautiful thing to behold.

11 derek November 12, 2008 at 10:25 am

I also don’t think the model makes sense. In real life, the NFL is by far the most successful American sports league, and most would agree that this is primarily due to the amount of parity or variance in team success in most years. In addition, the NFL offers less identification with individual players relative to other sports (e.g., helmets covering faces), which suggests that the “fame” of sports leagues is based less on individual players and more on overall quality of play or competitiveness.

It may indeed be the case that for an individualistic sport like basketball, a gifted dominant player can redeem an otherwise aesthetically bad team (see the Lakers post-Shaq and pre-2007), but this is hardly the scenario described by the model.

12 DanC November 12, 2008 at 10:41 am

In the NBA team play is often the best way to highlight a star player. i.e. teams without much chance of success will build a team around a star player to highlight that players talents. Also if the Cavs want to retain a player like LeBron they must give him incentives to stay, some in the form of compensation, some in the form of players who help him gain endorsements, and some in the form of making the team look competitive (so the LeBron brand is not associated with losing).

Manny Ramirez, currently of the Dodgers is in many ways the anti-team player. But the marginal benefit that he provides to a team that is close to contending (ie the four to five extra games he will win for you in a season compared to alternatives) encourages competitive teams to take a risk on him and encourages teammates to tolerate his negative antics. Teams that will not contend have little to gain and risk clubhouse trouble, so they will pass. His marginal cost far exceeds his marginal benefit.

A lot depends on the local market. The Cubs have always tried to have star players that casual fans can quickly identify. That suits a fairly large % of their fans. The A’s and Twins have had more consistent success on the field, while skimping on marquee players, but they also suffer at the turnstile. But there is little evidence that a splurge in salaries would help either team increase their respective gate revenues. If they win, they attract a few more fans. If they lose, regardless of star players, they don’t draw as well. The Marlins payed big salaries, won the World Series and still had modest attendance. They showed that buying a World Series isn’t that hard, but doing it profitably is.

13 michael e sullivan November 12, 2008 at 11:07 am

I think it is also somewhat incorrect to assume that becoming a ball hog is going to make someone of decent talent into a star who attracts national fame. Many fans appreciate that a guy scoring 20+ points per game while shooting 38% isn’t all that special. (Antoine Walker comes to mind.)

diz makes an important point. One thing studying games more, and particularly studying the statistics of games and making a real attempt to understand what does and does not help teams win, has taught me, is that the idea that stars are more likely to be selfish “non-team” players is a myth. Yes, there are things players can do to help teams win that don’t show up in the more common statistics and don’t look flashy, and by the same token there are players who have gaudy common stats, but a closer look at their overall performance reveals some weakness in their game. But on the whole, fans tend to recognize much of this, and if anything have a tendency to go overboard dismissing gaudy stats, even when those stats correlate very strongly with winning games.

The fact is, for the most part, the superstars *are* the best team players (in the sense of who is doing the most to make the team better/win), and careful analysis bears it out. “team player” as a colloqualism refers to somebody who is merely better than their stats make them look. No serious fan would rather have some random “team” guy than LeBron James or Kevin Garnett on their team.

It’s also true that team players often make champions, in the sense that under a cap system, you can only have so many big stars, and the difference between the best teams and the mediocre teams is sometimes not as much in their big stars, as in the quality of the supporting cast.

But the whole stars vs. team players thing is bs. It’s a very rare star that isn’t also one of the most valuable members of his team.

14 Keyll November 12, 2008 at 11:24 am

I think it’s because the fame of players doesn’t really add any value.

15 ferg November 12, 2008 at 11:45 am

Because team fans derive their utility from the team winning, not the player performing. As a devoted (real) football fan, I don’t much care how much Gerrard, Torres or Alonso score and play well and what bonuses the rake. I would gladly accept all of them having terrible seasons so long as Liverpool could win the league.

To complement this thesis, I notice that football purists and neutrals are different from me. They really would like to see Torres be more selfish so he could score more goals and do more magic.

16 JordanT November 12, 2008 at 12:13 pm

Winning championships is zero sum, but making money in sports is not. The better all the teams are, the more money the league makes and the more money the players can receive.

17 Joshua Allen November 12, 2008 at 12:24 pm

Sports fans spend billions to watch their team win; not to observe a beauty contest between players. The fact that we have team sports instead of Mr. Olympia shows clear preference. And your argument is slightly absurd, since you might as well just make the case that the sports matches should simply stop counting scores, and declare ?”both sides are winners”, and thus magically make it a non-zero sum game.

Watching your team win is a natural way to boost testosterone, and cheering on a team in general creates positive social bonding feelings.

18 Michael F. Martin November 12, 2008 at 1:07 pm

Um. Because a team of team players will actually WIN in competition with a ball hog?

19 ben November 12, 2008 at 2:58 pm

I think there’s a complementarity between playing on a winning team and the non-zero sum aspect of star players’ fame. Lebron James’ fame increases if he wins the championship, which is a welfare improvement over Lebron James playing for a .500 team and a group of talented but unremarkable players winning the title.

Therefore, team players who play alongside superstars are making a substantial contribution to welfare, whereas a team player on a mediocre team is a social parasite who deserves scorn and ridicule.

20 k November 12, 2008 at 4:00 pm

“Clubs have fame too, and they can’t acquire fame without winning competitions. ”
usually only 2 teams , max 3 win all

Uk : Manchester, Chelsea, Liverpool
Spain R madrid. Barcelona. Real Sociedad has never won a title , the best position ever 2 nd, after a lost in the fianl week, their only losts in the season
Italy : Milan( yes, their name is in english)Inter of Milano. Juventus.
France Olympiacos : 5 championships in a road.
Deutchland: Ajax or Psv.
And is the same for the Champions.Most team have lest victories than the most beloved baseball club( the Cubs.)
By the way the 16 top team in Europe wanted a league only for them. The first 8 team have a budget 2 times the Yankees.
And for sure they neeed stars , they sell t shirts. a normal contractual clause is the resignation to the team of the right of publicity

21 meter November 12, 2008 at 4:41 pm

(The socialist label was a joke, by the way.)

22 guy in the veal calf office November 12, 2008 at 8:05 pm

This conflict in basketball is handled pretty well, in context, by the post on “Conflicting Incentives in Charlotte” by Dave Berri. If your interest is the basketball angle, check it out.

23 samis November 12, 2008 at 11:41 pm

You are arguing is that players that seek individual glory (hot dogging, ball hogging, risky sub-percentage plays) are not sufficiently appreciated as they maximize overall utility. I don’t think this is correct. I think you are confusing fame with excitement.

When NBA rules prohibited zone defenses, non-team one-on-one play was encouraged. However NBA games could become boring, with 4 of the players clearing out one side of the court to allow for the remaining offensive player to isolate the defender on the other side. NBA decided to change the rules to allow zone defenses, so I guess they felt that there would still be enough one-on-one play and more importantly – their product would be improved.

Besides, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were 2 of the most team-oriented players ever to play the game and were a treat to watch – so the 2 aren’t mutually exclusive. And even the Michael Jordan was a great team player, making the all-defensive team many years. Even casual fans realize that players who hog the ball and take stupid shots aren’t anything special. Even if one plays things smart, there are enough opportunities for exciting plays especially with a 24 second clock.

As far as baseball goes, Bill James wrote years ago that winning teams create their own stars. There is no need to import them. Smart teams import good players, not “stars”. Anyway, baseball barely qualifies a team game as the synergy and cooperation between players is very limited and there is virtually no competition for the limelight on an individual play.

Fans want exciting games. NHL rules (or lack of enforcement) for years caused
boring hockey as teams adopted the neutral zone trap. Equipment and players got bigger and scored were reduced. Eventually, the NHL wisely changed the rules and the games got better.

My view is that if you value individual artistry, you have to create rules that encourage such behavior.

24 anon November 13, 2008 at 12:34 pm

So the NE Patriots of 2000-2005, with an emphasis on team play (most starters were not marquis players), did not provide societal benefit? If by “society” you mean the society of professional athletes that may be true, but you acknowledge that society in general values team play – especially when team play wins. Winning team play encourages greater effort by less-winning team-oriented organizations. And society rallies around them, providing a greater benefit to all.

25 Anonymous November 14, 2008 at 1:03 am

‘way upthread, someone accuses Magic Johnson of being a notorious ball hog. This is hogwash. shows him to be the all-time leader in assists per game (ahead of John Stockton).

26 tina May 15, 2009 at 8:45 pm

everyone must have a teamwork spirit.

27 amanda May 15, 2009 at 8:49 pm

These guys are really rocking!

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