Category: Sports

Division of labor is limited by the extent of the market

His specialty is static apnea: holding your breath while remaining immobile in a swimming pool. It requires some of same skills as being buried alive for a week, Mr. Blaine said: “It’s all in your mind. You’ve got to stay calm and slow everything down.”

The guy can hold his breath for sixteen minutes; here is the article, interesting throughout.  He is also versatile:

As a self-described endurance artist, he’d spent 35 hours atop a 105-foot pole and survived a week buried in a coffin. He’d fasted for 44 days in a box suspended over the Thames, a nutritional experiment that was written up in The New England Journal of Medicine (with Mr. Blaine listed as a co-author).

Nor had I known this:

Immersing the face in water produces a protective action in humans similar to that in dolphins, seals, otters and whales. Called the mammalian diving reflex, it quickly lowers the heart rate and then constricts blood vessels in the limbs so that blood is reserved for the heart and the brain.

Why did the Houston Rockets draft Yao Ming?

Yao Ming is (was?) a very good player and of course he looked great on paper.  He’s now injured for the third season in a row and out for the year.  He has never been past the first round of the playoffs and it is not clear he will ever be healthy.  It is clear that players over 7’4" almost always have persistent injury problems; human beings with that frame were not meant to play professional sports, least of all contact basketball.  There are plenty of people that tall, but who has had the most successful basketball career?  I believe the answer has to be the not totally impressive Rik Smits

So why did the Houston Rockets draft Yao Ming?  They couldn’t not draft him.  The lessons for financial markets are obvious.  Drafting Yao Ming is like writing the disguised naked put.  You see the money in front of you, you see the return in front of you, you see the potential in front of you, none of the alternatives are so glamorous, and so you can’t not do it. Besides, other players get injured too.

Yao Ming, the naked put.  Think about it.

Betting markets in everything, Super Bowl edition

I have found odds on how long Jordin Sparks
will take to sing "The Star Spangled Banner” (wager under or
over one minute and 42 seconds) and which advertisement shown
during Super Bowl will top USA Today’s Ad Meter popularity
contest.  Budweiser is the -200 favorite (bet $200 to make $100
profit), followed by Go Daddy at +300 and Pepsi at +600.   

Looking through betting Web sites I have found more than
2,000 different "proposition bets,” the name bookmakers give
to markets that are about what happens around the game rather
than on the result.      

Here is the full story, and thanks to John De Palma for the pointer.  But in baseball, regulators are shutting down one nascent market.   

Bargaining theory

Bryan Caplan says:

When the bachelor gets married, he almost certainly starts doing more housework than he did when he was single.  How can you call that shirking?

Megan McArdle says:

I’m no neatnik, but this is . . . daft…Does Mr Caplan think that "person with the lowest standards wins"
should be a general rule for marriage? Can women unilaterally quit
their jobs because they’re content with a lower standard of living, or
spend the retirement fund on shoes because they don’t mind spending
their golden years in penury?

I believe there is no simple Coasian answer to this problem.  Even if bargaining were possible the final deal would depend on the initial allocation of the property right.  That’s a sign that an apparently "small thing" (after all, how much do you spend on a maid, relative to family wealth?) is treated as having large symbolic importance.  And what does economics tell us about symbolic goods?  Symbolic goods usually have marginal values higher than their marginal costs of production; Americans for instance love the idea of their flags but the cloth is pretty cheap, especially if it comes from China. 

Going back to marriage, the theory of symbolic goods means the man should take the woman’s most irrational requests (flowers?  the placement of the toilet seat?) and go to the greatest lengths to satisfy them.  Expand output where marginal cost is low, which in this case refers us back to the gestures not the real efforts.  That’s part of the Nash bargaining solution, namely to make concessions where it costs the conceding party the least.  If there is a case for the man not cleaning more, it’s that greater net gains may be had from satisfying other, less rational demands of the complaining party, in this case the wife.

In other words, it is OK not to clean more, provided you insist on the contrary on your blog.

Oops.  Time to go clean up.

Football games make us angry

Some people at least.  Daniel Rees writes to me:

…we find that college football games are associated with sharp increases in crime.  For instance, assaults increase by about 9% when a community hosts a college football game, vandalism increases by about 18%, and DUIs increase by about 13%.  We also find evidence that upsets result in larger increases in crime than games that do not produce an upset.  For instance, an upset loss at home is associated with a 112% increase in assaults and a 61% increase in vandalism.  We discuss these results in the context of psychological theories of fan aggression.

Here is the paper.  I guess those people should have gone to see a violent movie instead!

Addendum: Here is some outside coverage, see also Justin Wolfers at Freakonomics blog as well.

Another way to limit draws in chess

A compromise is that a draw offer should remain valid for some fixed period,
  say ten moves. This will allow the person who has been offered a draw to test
  whether the offer was truly justified, e.g. by trying a daring line which may
  or may not be refuted by the opponent. If it is he can claim the draw on his tenth move, even if his position is losing. The limitation to ten moves avoids the potential problem of people playing on interminably after a draw offer, waiting for their opponents to blunder or overstep the time.

That is John Nunn, here is more.  A draw, of course, is a form of trade, albeit one with some negative social externalities (a quick draw makes chess more boring for the spectators).  If you want to limit trades in some markets, a similar rule could be contemplated.  If you offer to buy a currency at a particular price, you have to keep a similar offer open for one week to some number of other market participants.  Solve for the resulting equilibrium, and see how it matters.

The age-performance profile in baseball

[Economist Ray Fair] asked… Which players have exhibited the most unusual age-performance profiles? Specifically, are there any players who got better with age?

Over the
entire period between 1921-’04, Fair found only 18 hitters who appear
to have defied Mother Nature, logging four or more seasons after the
age of 28 in which their OPS (on-base plus slugging average) exceeded
their age-specific expected level by more than one standard error.

And you know what?  Except for good ol’ Charlie Gehringer (1939), they all come 1987 or later.  Goodness gracious!  Who would have thought?  Check here for the list and further discussion, and thanks to John de Palma for the pointer.

Thoughts on steroids, redux

I don’t usually recycle posts but this one is from the early days of MR, and my view on steroids hasn’t changed much.  Excerpt:

Note that the Olympics probably prosper more from competitive balance
than from a single dominant country. Was it really so much fun for the
rest of the world to watch the Soviets win all those medals? This would
predict that the Olympics should take special care to ban
performance-enhancing drugs, which is indeed the case.

Baseball is again thrown under a cloud, and one obvious question is how much we have close substitutes for our increasingly damaged pride in the sport.  The likely eventual outcome is a long-run equilibrium where all performance enhancements are allowed, thereby placing an inefficient tax on amateurs and performers who don’t need to be the very best.  Unless you think real enforcement is possible, the publicness of today’s not-even-surprising revelations means the game has no other way to go.  Common knowledge does matter.  So even if some of you think it might be more efficient to simply allow steroid use and then look the other way, that is not obviously an attainable equilibrium.

Prudie meets Trudie

In Discover Your Inner Economist the economist and blogger Tyler Cowen provides quirky and insightful advice for life based on his signature urbane style of economic reasoning.  On his blog,, Cowen offers economic advice in his periodic "Dear Trudie" posts.  Presumably Cowen offers good economics.  But dare one take an economist’s advice?  Emily Yoffe, author of Slate‘s popular "Dear Prudence" advice column, will advise.  Please join us for an advice-off, as Trudie meets Prudie to discuss the practical benefits of economic reasoning (or lack thereof) in everyday life.

That’s this Thursday, noon, at Cato, also webcast live at  To register, visit, e-mail [email protected].

Here are my previous Trudie posts.

Can super-agents raise player salaries?

Robert, a loyal MR reader, asks:

I was recently
reading about ARod’s decision to leave the Yankees. The article
mentioned "superagent Scott Boras." It’s widely believed in the sports
community that Boras has the ability to increase the salaries beyond
what they would get with a regular agent. Considering that there are
only 30-odd teams that might want a player, I find it hard to believe
that an agent could make such a big difference.

I know more about Mark Alarie than ARod, but super-agents may matter through the following mechanisms:

1. The super-agent manages an otherwise incompetent or unruly player.  The agent is about improving the quality of the player as much as extracting surplus from the team.

2. A super-agent, especially if he has repeat business with teams, may credibly certify the unobservable qualities of players, even star players.

3. Boras may be very good at marketing his players to management and getting owners to open up their pocketbooks.

4. If Boras represents multiple stars, clubs will be reluctant to cross him.  The equilibrium here is tricky.  But if the agent has discretionary power to steer a player to one equal offer or the other, and the club reaps surplus from each player, a club may overbid for one player to stay on the agent’s good side and receive favorable discretionary treatment later on.  Repeat dealings with the agent also mean that the club is more likely to follow through on its implicit commitments to both the player and the agent.

5. Robert suggests that some (non-super) agents may in fact be in league with the owners, not the players.

Can you think of other possible mechanisms?

Addendum: Here is J.C. Bradbury on Boras.  And here is a New Yorker story on Boras, courtesy of John de Palma.

Fun debates

The Economist will import its highly regarded debate series into America.  The first debate is November 10, in New York City.

The debators?  Will Wilkinson and myself against Jeffrey Sachs and Betsey Stevenson.  Here are the details.  The proposition is: "America is failing at the pursuit of happiness."

I hope to see some of you there.  Can you guess which side I am on?

Thinking about Sports and Economics

I spent last Saturday at a very interesting conference on Sports Statistics, run by the Sports Stats section of the American Statistical Association.  It was a fun day, involving academics, sports journalists, and those Moneyball-inspired quants working for various sports teams.

But at some point I asked myself: Why do economists work on sports?

  1. Sports provide unique opportunities to test economic theories.  Cribbing from a New York Times article, this is the Thaler defense:

    “‘My justification for doing this is that it’s the one really
    high-stakes activity where you get to watch all of the decisions,”
    Thaler said. ”If Bill Gates invited me to watch all of his decisions,
    I’d talk more about that.”

  2. Sports shapes broader national debates.  Sports is a microcosm of our broader society and our national narrative on the important issues, from drugs, to race, to cheating, to sexual harrassment often play out on our sports pages.  In honor of a particularly compelling example, let’s
    call this the Jackie Robinson defense.
  3. Professional sports are an important part of the economy.  I call this the Dog defense, not as a dyslexo-religious statement, but simply because dogs raise an important question: aren’t pets a bigger part of the economy than professional athletics?  If so, why are there so many papers on professional sports and so few on the economics of dogs?
  4. Sports participation is an important activity.  It seems important to learn whether sports make us happier, healthier or more productive.  For instance, it is important to learn, say, what the broader effects of Title IX were.  Under this view, research on sports is part of the human capital agenda, leading me to call this the Gary Becker defense.
  5. Sports provides a useful teaching metaphor.  Many of those teaching Sabermetrics-inspired courses argue that sports provides a useful vehicle for teaching something far more important – basic quantitative reasoning.  When I teach my class on behavioral economics, I do so by analyzing anomalies in sports betting markets.
  6. Doing research on sports is fun.  It was no mistake that the conference I attended was on a Saturday.  Many of the academics in attendance were giving up leisure, not more important work. But for some, sports provides a chance to mix work with leisure; of course, if non of the above arguments holds, then it is just a chance to mix leisure with leisure.

Let me now translate this into advice, because I often hear from students wanting to write a thesis on sports.   My first response is always: Don’t.  Too often, we find our sporting heroes more interesting than other people do.  (Yes, I have been guilty of breaking this rule.)

But if you must work on sports, make sure you have a defense to this charge. I find the Thaler and Becker defenses most compelling, because they speak to the broader economic issues or yield policy implications.  The Jackie Robinson defense is also important, but not applicable often enough.  The Dog defense is often raised, but rarely compelling; neither pets, nor professional sports, are really a big part of the economy (estimates to the contrary usually turn out to be more applicable to the Becker defense).

How to sound smart around the water cooler

The baseball playoffs begin today. (Go Red Sox!)  But if you haven’t been following the 162-game season, you may risk sounding foolish around the water cooler.

Here’s how to sound like an expert: Research tells us that prediction markets yield accurate forecasts.  Indeed, a prediction market forecast is likely smarter than any expert.  Simply point your browser to your favorite prediction market, and make the following observations confidently around the water cooler:

  1. Note that the American League looks much stronger than the National League.  (HT: Mike Giberson at Midas Oracle.)
  2. Sigh, while you say that "Once again the American League race looks like being the Red Sox or the Yankees."
  3. State emphatically that "the National League is anyone’s race.  Heck, even the come-from-behind Phillies are a chance."  (Say this as though you didn’t already know they were the betting favorites)

That’s it.  You are now an expert.  (How else do you think an Aussie can keep up a conversation about U.S. sports? I’ve been faking it for years… but shhh, don’t tell David Stern.)