Category: Sports

Yet more economics of curling

Curling is the funniest sport I have seen.  Best is how the duo scrubs the ice with brushes in front of the moving stone, while Anette Norberg barks out pagan Swedish curses, in an attempt to steer the thing after it has left her hand.  The economics of curling?  I needed only to watch it.  If the sport falls on hard times, it could sell itself as a Monty Python skit, albeit in an obscure Swiss German dialect.  Is it the only Olympic sport where you can wear earrings while playing?  Here is a curling video — be baffled, be very baffled.  The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market, as they say.

Can more bonuses improve the NBA?

Rick Barry has an idea:

If every player had money on the line in every game based upon a victory, you’d see some unbelievable competition. Sports and team concept would change dramatically.

Of course "per-victory" contracts are possible now, but most incentive clauses are based on individual performance or a victory or playoff threshold.  Why? 

1. Star players might injure themselves too frequently if they try hard every game.  Their value to the league involves an external benefit which they do not internalize when deciding how much injury to risk.  Plus an owner wants them to conserve their energy for the playoffs or for critical opponents.

2. Most fans don’t know the difference between a good game and a bad one.  They want only to see the stars, and maybe a few slam dunks.  So why impose more pecuniary risk on the players?

3. Players already try hard on offense.  Making them play tough defense would deaden the game.  This doesn’t explain why a single team doesn’t use per-victory bonuses, but it does suggest there will be no league pressure to do so.

4. Per-victory compensation will lead the players to blame each other too much for particular losses.  Team morale and thus team productivity will decline.

5. Incentives of fame and approbation already impose this incentive structure, and in a more powerful way than money could do.

6. When bargaining over a contract, a player would reveal negative information about his self-estimated talent level by accepting high-powered incentives.  If you cut a deal with big bonuses, the team must think your low-effort state of output is pretty crummy.

I put weight on all of these, but on #6 least.  Of course this relates to the general question of why firms don’t use more high-powered incentives.  Could the lesson be that fewer business variables matter than you might think?  (A related question is why don’t more firms use idea futures.) 

Would Rick Barry’s idea improve the NBA?  Comments are open…

Indoor free throws — a paradox of exercise

Outdoors I am a mediocre free throw shooter.  I hit 50 percent.  Indoors I hit about 70 percent.  This is close to the NBA average, and divided by my hourly wage it would put me at number one in the league.  How can this difference be?  Virginia is not that windy.  My outdoor free throw shooting is best when dusk is approaching, and the air is hot, thick, and still.  (I also feel I play tennis much better indoors, although that is harder to measure.)  The Great Outdoors are wonderful, but it is disturbing when the basketball clunks on the rim.  Each time I wonder what other life tasks I might perform much better, if only for some simple change in framing.   

Addendum: Forget free throws, here are videos of NBA dunks from the recent slam-dunk contest, courtesy of  My percentage there is the same, indoors or outdoors.

More economics of curling!

From Wired:

UK researchers spent $89,000 developing a sensor-laden broom in the
hopes of optimizing curlers’ strokes. Strain gauges measure how hard a
brush is being pushed, while accelerometers provide velocity info and a
thermocouple in the head monitors ice temperature. "Do you want to be
sweeping your heart out and not know what you’re doing?" asks Mike Hay,
the UK’s Olympic coach. "It’s really been smoke and mirrors until now."
The women’s team used an early iteration of the brush prior to winning
the gold in 2002. Now the men, too, are tapping the smart sweeper to
try to ice the competition in Turin, Italy.

The tennis ball problem

Natasha often says we should open more cans of tennis balls.  Last night we were playing with eight balls and she wanted to play with twelve.  Of course once all eight have been plowed into the net, you have to go collect at least some of them.

How many tennis balls should you play with?

Let’s say you had many, many balls and you could open the cans for free and never run out.  Opening a new can every four points (four balls fit in a can) would lead to a massive clean-up and carry problem at the end.  Furthermore how much help is it having more balls?  Once they hit the net you still have to deal with getting another ball into play.  In other words, the real trick is to manage your stock well (read: aim for good volleys), not to just to speed up the flow of balls into the court.

Just one ball is not efficient, because when it falls out of play it is probably far from you.  The greater the number of balls, the more likely at least one will be close.

Many problems in life, including those of dating, the number of children you should have, and optimal inventory management, resemble the tennis ball problem. 

I do not know how to solve the tennis ball problem, but I feel that twelve balls is too many.

Which sport has the most upsets?

Soccer looks random to my untutored eye and perhaps it is:

Eli Ben-Naim, Sidney Redner and Federico Vazquez at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico decided to look at unpredictability of results – how often a team with a worse record overcomes an apparently superior one – as the best measure of how exciting a league is. "If there are no upsets, then every game is predictable and hence boring," says Ben-Naim.

The team analysed results from more than 300,000 games over the last century from the US’s national hockey, football, baseball and basketball leagues and the top English football league. Rugby and cricket were omitted because they do not have a big following in the US.

Their results showed that the "upset frequency" was highest for soccer, followed by baseball, hockey, basketball and finally American football. But when they looked only at data from the past 10 years, the English football Premiership and baseball swapped places, which suggests that soccer might have become more predictable in recent years.

Here is the story.  I have long favored basketball.  In any given year, barring major trades or injuries, only three or four teams (if that) have any chance of winning the title.  You know who the titans are, and you know who the peons are.  Limiting randomness and divvying up the ponds in this fashion boosts suspense and status.  The old Celtics-Lakers match-ups were ideal.  The league is driven by star teams and players, so let’s promote those stars.  Chess has the same property, but a few good pitching nights can turn a World Series around.

The implied prediction is that basketball and football will have large bases of casually informed fans, typically relying on mass media.  Baseball and soccer will have more fanatics, more trivia contests, and will be more deeply rooted in niche media.  You have to know about many players and teams to figure out what is going on, who is likely to win, and why.

The politics of why Yao Ming is not a great player.

The crude forms of weight lifting practiced in China — squats, for example, were performed by lifting a teammate on your back [TC: how’s that for the Ricardo Effect?] — were off-limits for Yao…

…the Shanghai coaching staff in fact protected Yao as if he were a priceless Ming-dynasty vase.  During most of his first two years at Meilong, the fragile recruit only joined the vets of the junior team for the low-impact shooting and dribbling exercises.  Once the practices moved into fast-paced drills or full-contact scrimmages, coaches pulled him off the court…"…we gave him lighter workouts to slowly build up the strength of his heart and lungs."

I had not realized that Yao has been prodded, tested, measured, and virtually controlled since his childhood.  There is more:

In Yao, Wei had found the ultimate guinea pig on whom to test his theories about human growth and athletic performance…The rumpled researcher tried to accelerate the usually unhurried processes of traditional Chinese medicine…If those who helped engineer Yao’s growth were proud of the way they harnessed traditional Chinese medicine, they showed reluctance to discuss a much more sensitive issue: rumors of the use of human-growth hormones…

Wei claims to have made Yao several inches taller, while noting, perhaps correctly, that his secret concoctions "would pass any NBA drug test."

That is all from Brook Larmer’s fascinating Operation Yao Ming: The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business, and the Making of an NBA Superstar.  If you want to know where China is headed over the next twenty years, this book is one of the better places to start.

In a related post, Matt Yglesias made a good point:

Yao is never going to be just like Patrick Ewing. He’s taller and skinnier and more Chinese.

I have a simpler theory: being taller than 7’1" is a disadvantage on the basketball court.  My second theory is that Yao will have to retire by the time he is thirty years old.

How to make this year’s NBA season interesting

The standard fantasy is that Antoine Walker is better than his reputation, Jason Williams will fly straight, Shaq isn’t finished, and Miami will flourish.  A more ridiculous fantasy involves Denver, a team with too many green or broken-down players.  When it comes to Houston, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming will fail coordinate their styles.

My fantasy is that Detroit is underrated.  Hardly anyone is picking them and they are running only seven to eight percent in  Two years ago they won the title and last year they took the Spurs down to the wire.  All their key pieces are in place, no one should be worse, and unlike all the other top teams, they do not appear to have potential chemistry problems.  They are more offense-oriented than before, and the defensive influence of Larry Brown will linger for at least the rest of the year.  Why not?

My second fantasy is that Larry Hughes (and not Lamar Odom) is the Scottie Pippen-in-waiting.  LeBron James will continue his path to being the next Michael Jordan.  Donyell Marshall will hold up and they will trade their stiff and slow center (don’t expect me to spell his name) for a dynamic front court player.  Offer up your own NBA fantasy in the comments, if you wish…


This book presents Stephen Shmanske’s innovative research combining two of his passions, golf and economics. He develops two themes – the use of economics to explore institutional aspects of the business side of golf and the use of golf statistics to shed light on several vexing issues in economics. These two themes are addressed in two settings – the economics of golf course management and the economics of professional golf. Examples from golf course management are covered in separate chapters on golf cart usage, golf course maintenance, and the problem of slow play. Examples from professional golf include the causal relationships from practice to skill to earnings, the tournament compensation model, and the measurement of gender discrimination.

Buy it here.  If the $48 price tag intimidates you, try these two chapters on-line.  Here is a review.