The evolution of sports rules

Gibbous, a loyal guy, asks:

The evolution of the rules of sports as a standards-setting process – – are the rules of basketball (or baseball, golf, football…) optimal in the same way that (arguably, at least) the QWERTY keyboard is?

I would put QWERTY aside, as that is a non-proprietary standard.  With a proprietary standard, I see a few reasons why the evolution of sports rules may be less than ideal. 

1. The rules may be geared toward the sale of merchandise, which implies an appeal to the young and to the least common denominator.  This is mostly an aesthetic objection, although you can tell a story about the purist being a neglected infra-marginal consumer.

2. The rules of the sport may be geared toward television advertising revenue, with the above argument repeated.

3. The league has market power and at some margin it will produce too few franchises; think of the league as selling franchise rights for money.  Some of this output restriction is quality control but some of it sheer monopolization.  (Allowing more franchises, at some margin, will loosen the meaning of the rules and conventions.  Imagine if way back when they had let NBA teams play the Harlem Globetrotters every now and then.  In what year would the fifth-best NBA team start beating them?)

4. If the league restricts the number of teams, other distortions will result, such as when the city of Memphis overbids for the right to have an NBA team.  Furthermore franchises will end up too far apart in geographic terms; bids are determined by producer surplus but societal welfare depends on consumer surplus too.

5. Sports leagues lead to less than optimal levels of player mobility; think monopsony power and the desire to redistribute rents to team owners.  Remember Curt Flood?

6. It is a good industrial organization question whether sports leagues will produce too many or too few games in a season, relative to a social optimum.  Figure it out!  I have an answer in mind but I'm not letting on about it.

Comments

Your discussion seems to be about professional sports. Golf, at least, has armies of amateur players. In many countries, so do soccer, rugby and cricket.

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QWERTY "optimal"? QWERTY was designed to slow down blazing professional typists to prevent jamming of 1870's machines. If you call that optimal, you must love Vonnegut's idea of lead boots for ballet stars, to give the rest of us a chance to compete on a level dancing field. Or Congress, as opposed to a symposium.
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Sports leagues fit all the conditions to be (nearly) perfect price discriminating monopolists. Quantity shouldn't be restricted.

I agree that we have to define "good". From an owner's prospective their teams has two goals: win and make money.

Winning: Is independent of the "rules" since every teams plays by the same set.
Making Money: Is influenced by the rules for (some) of the reasons Tyler mentions.

I would think that a sub-optimal rule either minimizes the money-making potential of the sport OR causes some other harm that we need to define and make relevant.

You also mention player mobility but players are choosing to sign multi-year contracts in order to have stability and a larger amount of guaranteed income over their career (as opposed to simply the maximum amount). Mobility, especially when teams are far apart and the players have families, is not a particularly strong factor.

Restricting player mobility isn't optimal for the players, but it may be for the fans. It's no fun for a fan to see a bunch of a favorite team's best players traded or lost to free agency. I'm a St. Louis Cardinals fan, or maybe "former fan," who hasn't bothered to watch a game this year because management didn't even try hard to hang on to a core group of players from the Cardinals' last world-series team. Being a fan entails enthusiasm for a bunch of players, and maybe for a style of play. Excessive player turnover leaves you with nothing but a uniform to root for, and while those little birds perched on the bat are cute, that's not enough for this fan.

The rules in all major American team sports (except perhaps baseball) have been continually be tweaked in order to promote scoring. Football's interference rules, the banning of zone defense in the NBA, basketball's shot clock are all examples. Perhaps, over time, defenses "solve" any given set of rules and changes must be made. "Optimal" cannot be the right word, as changes continue to be made each year.

Martin Brock,

It is one of those fancy terms used by economists; it is essentially an aspect of concept known as externalities. It is a "just right" sort of deal. It really doesn't make any sense to me partly because it seems to be based on a "snapshot" view of the world.

Surely,

Well, what is "optimal" changes over time, due to the changing tastes of market actors.

I have published an article that provides an efficiency explanation for variation in sports rules:

D. Wittman. "Efficient Rules of Thumb in Highway Safety and Sporting Activity," American Economic Review, 78-90 (1982)

Thanks to Tyler for responding to my request. While I didn't specify, I was thinking more of non-proprietary rules/standards, like the basket being 10 feet above the floor or zone defences being banned. However, I think Tyler's 1 and 2 apply to non-proprietary (as well as proprietary) rules - - especially with rules like the designated hitter in baseball and the shoot-out in hockey that purists tend to dislike.

Rules about dimensions are an interesting subset. The basket has been 10 feet above the floor since James Naismith's day while players have become much taller and the game has changed considerably. On the face of it, you'd think that the 10 foot height either is (or was) less than optimal. But perhaps, all things considered, that's not the case.

On Tyler's question in point 6, I'd think it would depend a lot on the strength of the players union but, in general, I'd expect too many games.

Thanks also to D. Wittman for the reference to his AER article.

6. It is a good industrial organization question whether sports leagues will produce too many or too few games in a season, relative to a social optimum. Figure it out! I have an answer in mind but I'm not letting on about it.

Too few. That's the whole reason the owners form the league in the first place. But the details could change the answer, and I get the sense that there are many details here of which I'm not aware. Are professional leagues regulated?

The system provides an interesting analogy to the relationship between industry and competition regulatory authorities...

dearieme shows how far we've fallen. Can you believe grown men actually used to play sports, not just watch others play?

Restricting player mobility isn't optimal for the players, but it may be for the fans. It's no fun for a fan to see a bunch of a favorite team's best players traded or lost to free agency. I'm a St. Louis Cardinals fan, or maybe "former fan," who hasn't bothered to watch a game this year because management didn't even try hard to hang on to a core group of players from the Cardinals' last world-series team. Being a fan entails enthusiasm for a bunch of players, and maybe for a style of play. Excessive player turnover leaves you with nothing but a uniform to root for, and while those little birds perched on the bat are cute, that's not enough for this fan.

Sort of off topic, but what the hell? With 39 games left the Cardinals are 13 games from matching the win total of their last World Series team. The 2009 team is much better than that team. You generally don't want to keep around all of the core players from an 83 win team, especially when it's the luckiest team in baseball history

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