Category: Sports

Is it just my imagination?

Kevin Garnett recently won the MVP award in the NBA after a stellar and very consistent season. He was awarded the trophy in a ceremony before last night’s playoff game, and then had a subpar performance. I recall this same pattern holding in the past when other players receive the award before games. The example of David Robinson comes to mind; he received the trophy and was promptly outplayed by Hakeem Olajuwon. I suspect the lesson is that approbational incentives always matter at the margin, and an MVP trophy makes it harder to motivate oneself for the single basketball game to follow the trophy award. A lesson for life lies therein. If nothing else, try to isolate your awards, triumphs, and conquests from your subsequent performance.

Addendum: Here is another quantitative method of measuring the marginal product of basketball players, the best I have seen yet. Kevin Garnett comes out as number one.

Sports economics puzzle of the day

I very much enjoyed my visit this week to the University of Western Ontario. I had an especially good time trading micro puzzles with one of my hosts John Palmer. John is an economist, an artist, and founder of the Philistine Liberation Organization.

We quickly hit upon the old sports chestnut: why is soccer not a major professional sport in America?

It seems easy enough to add commercials when the ball goes out of bounds. And we have plenty of land for soccer fields. Maybe soccer is too boring on television, but hey (no brickbats please) what about baseball? Could it be that soccer is too hard to describe on radio, noting that this medium drove the initial popularity of baseball?
I have the vague intuition that soccer is too “working class” for the non-unionized United States, but it is hard to go far with this hypothesis.

My best shot at an answer was the following: Americans prefer professional sports where they know (or feel) that they are the best in the world. This applies to baseball, football, and basketball, the major professional sports in the United States. At tennis we are no joke. Chess became massively popular, but only briefly, when Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky.

The implicit prediction, of course, is that basketball will decline in popularity.

Addendum: Perhaps a country can only fit so many sports. Thanks to Scott Cunningham for the pointer. In another direction, Bob Crosby writes the following:

“Both soccer and hockey have problems gaining US audiences for similar reasons.

Both games make it very difficult for the best players to fully exploit their skills. Put differently, they are games where the difference between the great players and the mediocre players is minimized.

In hockey, (a) the unwillingness of the refs to call hooking, slashing and holding penalties and (b) the ridiculously small size of modern rinks mean that the value of speed and skill is reduced. The wide disparities in skill levels that naturally exist are reduced or eliminated.

In soccer, the off-sides rule has the same effect. It acts as a speed break. And speed breaks help slower, less talented players.

In short, the difference between the best players and the worst players is structurally minimized in those sports.

Football, basketball, baseball or golf do not have similar problems. In those sports, wide disparities in talent are encouraged and immediately and easily discernable by fans.”

Celebrity misbehavior

Celebrities appear to engage in more anti-social behavior than the rest of us. What might be some reasons for this?

1. Famous people are simply crazy.

2. Rich people can get away with more.

3. Stars seek publicity, even “bad” publicity, to boost their celebrity.

4. Many celebrities are young and thus immature.

5. Celebrities are stressed, lack privacy, and are out of touch with the real world.

6. Celebrities get away with more because they can. You cannot substitute for them very easily.

Some of these propositions receive explicit tests from Todd Kendall of Clemson University. Kendall looks at technical fouls in the NBA; this penalty is assigned when a player hits another, screams at the referee, or engages in other forms of unsportsmanlike conduct. We learn the following:

a) Technical fouls are positively correlated with bad behavior off the court.

b) The more dominant a player is on a team, the more likely he commits technical fouls. Remember this guy?

c) Youth does not predict a player’s propensity to commit technical fouls. In fact older players commit more technical fouls. (Note to self: counterexample)

d) Committing technical fouls, adjusting for other variables, is not associated with higher income (this goes against number three above.

e) On a given team, technical fouls are not “contagious.”

f) Much of bad behavior is not predicted by any particular variable and thus can be thought of as idiosyncratic.

My take: The worst offenders are frustrated, spoiled brats who hate losing, can’t stand their teammates, but carry their teams on their backs.

Addendum: It is not easy to get your parents to sue you, read this update from the world of tennis.

The marginal product of NBA players

Most of you have read Moneyball by now, so why not measure the marginal products of NBA players as well? After all, playoff time and the MVP award are just around the corner. Wayne Winston, professor of decision sciences at Indiana University, has tried to crack the numbers:

“Basketball’s a team sport, and lots of things aren’t tracked,” Winston says. “Like taking the charge, going through a screen, tipping a ball to your teammate, saving a ball from going out of bounds. That’s where our system comes in. All these little things should translate into points.”
One problem: Traditional plus-minus systems tend to overrate average players on good teams and underrate good players on lousy ones. After all, a zero plus-minus rating on the Los Angeles Lakers is not the same as a zero rating on the Los Angeles Clippers, mostly because one team has Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal and the other has Marko Jaric and Chris Kaman.
To compensate, Winval’s ratings are weighted to take into account every other player on the floor. For every time segment a player is in a game, the system tracks the other nine players on the floor, the length of the segment and the score at the start and end of the segment.”

In other words, he tries to measure marginal product in terms of points, adjusting for the values of the other players. The system is called Winval, here is the article, the paper version has more information. And who comes out on top? Please sit down, the five best players in the NBA, according to this measure are:

1. Hedo Turkoglu (who? he plays for San Antonio but doesn’t even start)
2. Vince Carter (a well-known star, but universally considered soft and a choker)
3. Kevin Garnett (the likely MVP for this year)
4. Brad Miller (very good player, but not elite)
5. Manu Ginobili (very good player, perhaps headed toward elite status)

Shaq, Kobe, and Tim Duncan are not in the top ten. None of the five, except for Garnett, crack a recent USA Today straw poll for NBA mvp. (By the way, here is last year’s Winval list.) Now maybe these rankings are right and conventional wisdom is all wet. Marginal product is, well…marginal product. But what are some other options?

1. A player with a high rank could have a really bad replacement, thus boosting his measured marginal impact.
2. Some players are “momentum” players, they are put in when the tide is turning.
3. Some players are wonderful for the time they play but could not keep it up for the whole game. They look great when you see them, but they are not worth very much overall.
4. The econometric model is somehow misspecified, but of course you can always say this.

The bottom line: I’m still puzzled by how much the measurements diverge from common sense. The NBA offers gobs and gobs of measurable information. Yet intuition remains indispensable when we try to estimate marginal product. By the way, Winval predicts that Mitchell Butler (who?, 13.4 minutes per game) is the best Washington Wizard.

Stadium Construction and Broken Windows

USA Today reports on a study by University of Dayton economists Marc Poitras and Larry Hadley: privately financed sports stadiums pay for themselves. Tax dollars aren’t necessary to make them viable. Somehow I doubt that the study will slow the pace of publicly financed sports stadiums. While it may make it more embarrassing for franchise owners to ask for public handouts, what’s a little stigma among friends? The success of the begging strategy is mainly due to the threat of exit–owners demand public financing as a way of extracting money from cities fearful that teams will leave. There isn’t free entry into sports leagues–leagues tightly control new entrants–so cities are always vulnerable to the threat of a team leaving.

The claim that sports teams and new stadiums are good for the economy is a classic case of the “broken window fallacy” of Bastiat. The benefits are seen–the jobs building the stadium, the fans who spend money at the restaurants near the stadium. Unseen are the jobs lost elsewhere and the restaurants on the other side of town that lose business. Roger Noll and Andrew Zimbalist found that the net benefit of public stadiums is basically zero–there’s no stimulus to the local economy worth talking about. Their conclusion:

In our forthcoming Brookings book, Sports, Jobs, and Taxes, we and 15 collaborators examine the local economic development argument from all angles: case studies of the effect of specific facilities, as well as comparisons among cities and even neighborhoods that have and have not sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into sports development. In every case, the conclusions are the same. A new sports facility has an extremely small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment. No recent facility appears to have earned anything approaching a reasonable return on investment. No recent facility has been self-financing in terms of its impact on net tax revenues. Regardless of whether the unit of analysis is a local neighborhood, a city, or an entire metropolitan area, the economic benefits of sports facilities are de minimus.

The U of Dayton study is here.

You can find the entire Noll and Zimbalist book online here.