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SABR/Sports Econ update

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  • Dean Oliver
    As I m now a couple weeks removed from the meetings in Denver, where I attended both the SABR conference and the sports economic sessions of the Western
    Message 1 of 52 , Jul 29, 2003
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      As I'm now a couple weeks removed from the meetings in Denver, where I attended both the SABR conference and the sports economic sessions of the Western Economics meeting, I realize what things have stuck with me since then.  Some are quantitative, others are more qualitative.  In no particular order:


      Barry Bonds:  Mark Pankin assembled a good study of when to pitch to Barry Bonds vs. walking him.  He looked at it in terms of how many outs are recorded, who is on base, and how many runs you don't want to lose (most likely how far ahead you are, for instance).  The results (which were supposed to be on www.pankin.com, but don't seem to be) seem to show that you should walk Barry almost any time there are 2 outs.  What has had me thinking about this study so much is that it is about strategy.  It's not a straightforward decision.  There are rules of thumb to pitch around good hitters (and he looked at who is behind Bonds) or to put him on first if there is someone on second, but when do you break those rules of thumb defines strategy.  Plus, baseball lends itself so well to strategy definition because it has states like where runners are, the out count, ball-strike count, the score, who is pitching, etc.  Basketball has time left on the clock and who is on the floor, and the score -- really the only things defining state.  That limits how much you can look at strategy in any detail or, for that matter, how much you can come up with rules of thumb.  Yet, as a coach, I know that coaching was a lot more than just who is on the floor and time on the clock.  Who is on the floor is critical.  Do they have ballhandlers?  (How do we measure that?)  Do they have inside scorers?  But also sending extra guys to the offensive boards vs. getting back -- that actually varies quite a bit across NBA teams.  There are no rules of thumb for when to do that because there is no good state that exists long enough to make that decision. 


      Clutch whatever:  People continue to look at this sucker in baseball and people continue to find that clutch hitters don't exist.  Maybe they exist for a season, but they don't repeat over multiple seasons.  In basketball, certain players definitely get disproportionately more opportunities to have clutch shots.  Does knowledge by a defense that Mr. Clutch is going to get the ball actually have an impact on clutch ability in hoops?  Because the opportunity to bat in the clutch is random in baseball and not in basketball, I have to wonder whether we could find some sort of clutch ability (or negative ability) in hoops.


      History:  My god, does baseball have a lot of researchers, a lot of topics, a lot of approaches, and a lot of history.  When I was at SABR, I started off saying that basketball is 25 years behind baseball in its research.  Now, I'd say we're infinitely behind.  We may catch up in some ways, but the recorded history of basketball is so poor and destined to remain so because of the lack of videotapes, the lack of solid boxscores, the lack of significant popularity for an extended period of time.  The dark ages of baseball records ended in the early 20th centure.  The dark ages of basketball records ended in the 1980's.


      Competitive balance:  For my book, I looked at how the NBA teams typically get shuffled from one season to the next and from over about 5 years.  I viewed turnover to be a pretty good thing, ensuring that different teams get a chance to be good.  Well, it's only partially true in the NBA, but it was nice to see the sports economists start thinking about competitive balance this way.  They have said for a while that intra-season dispersion of team records indicates competitive balance.  By that measure, the NBA is horribly imbalanced.  I've felt that this measure reflected as much the number of players impacting a team as competitive balance.  The NBA has 5 guys playing offense and defense, with often one or two guys dominating an offense and more balance on D.  The NFL or soccer or baseball has a lot more guys and they will naturally not be so varying in quality as a group as individuals.  It was nice to hear that acknowledged.


      NBA in sports economics:  Hasn't been studied as much as baseball.  Baseball has been studied intensely by sports econ guys.  They've developed manager ratings for baseball.  They've looked at competitive balance.  They've looked at what impacts ticket prices.  They've looked at naming rights for stadiums.  They've looked at the impact of free agency.  But most of their study of basketball has been on race.  Do black players make as much as they should?  Is there racism by owners?  Is there reverse racism by owners?  Is there racism by fans?  Some interesting stuff, much of which is interesting and possibly true.  Dave Berri compiled this history of sports econ on basketball, but I can't distribute it.  Neat stuff, though.  I still don't buy all his conclusions.


      Organizational economics:  There was one very conceptual talk about organizational economics that pretty much said that neo-classical economics, which is so common now to explain baseball labor problems, etc., is WRONG.  It was interesting because it said that the health of a league matters more than the profit of the owners.  Profit-maximizing owners is all that needs to be assumed for neo-classical economics to make all sorts of predictions, many of which have been hard to show in the data (that big market teams always win, for example).  In this organizational economics, owners recognize that the legitimacy of competition among teams in the league is vital and will make moves to also aid that.  So, yeah, the Yankees always win, but why don't the Mets?  Why do the Packers have such great success as a small market team?  One prominent voice suggested that the Packers are not a small market, but that rubbed a few people wrong (like changing the definition of values to fit the theory).  Not being an economist, I get a chance to listen and absorb.  Given that this organizational economics actually sounds a lot like the methods I've used to give credit to teammates on basketball teams, I'm listening and absorbing more about organizational economics these days.  But I also did order a neo-classical textbook on sports economics because I like the balance (and because I seem to need to torture myself with academic exercises).


      At the end of the conferences, I also got a call from a friend with the Celtics who just read Moneyball and said that a lot of NBA people were reading it.  They're looking for the Bill James-like wisdom that inspired that book.  He said he mentioned my book to a few other teams.  So, yeah, maybe in a few years we will have teams looking at what we're doing now.




      Dean Oliver


      Journal of Basketball Studies


      6052 Chabot Rd. #9

      Oakland, CA 94618

      (510) 655-4087


    • igor eduardo küpfer
      ... From: Gary Collard To: APBR_analysis@yahoogroups.com Sent: Thursday, August 07, 2003 12:13 PM Subject: Re: [APBR_analysis] SABR/Sports Econ update ... That
      Message 52 of 52 , Aug 8, 2003
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        ----- Original Message -----
        Sent: Thursday, August 07, 2003 12:13 PM
        Subject: Re: [APBR_analysis] SABR/Sports Econ update

        Jim Armstrong wrote:
        > On Mon, Aug 04, 2003 at 04:00:38PM -0500, Gary Collard wrote:
        > > I'm not sure why that was so controversial.  The concept of market size in
        > > the NFL is pretty much meaningless, since most league revenue is shared
        > > equally.  The reason that a Yankees in baseball have such an advantage is
        > > that they have local TV revenues that are an order of magnitude or more
        > > greater than most (all?) of the other teams and is significant compared to
        > > national revenue, thus they can afford to have a payroll that is 60%
        > > greater than any other team even before they pay the luxury tax as they do
        > > in 2003.  In the NFL, there is no local TV at all, and (over a period of
        > > years, letting spikes in bonus payments wash out) little payroll deviation,
        > Actually, if you look at the distribution of team player payrolls, the NFL
        > and the NBA are quite comparable (see standard deviation in data below).

        That is why I specifically said "over a period of years, letting spikes in
        bonus payments wash out" in the case of the NFL.  The one year payroll
        numbers you listed are meaningless to my point, do you have the data to run
        them for the last 5 years or more?  That will tell you who has the "harder"

        Gary Collard
        Maybe the coefficient of variation (SD / Mean * 100) is a more apt measure for comparing the variation of payrolls for different sports across seasons.
        Year     NHL     NFL     NBA     MLB
        1994    28.3     8.7    15.2    26.6
        1995    26.6    12.7    24.1    27.7
        1996    43.3    11.9    21.9    31.4
        1997    #N/A    15.3    28.9    33.0
        1998    #N/A    12.1    27.0    37.4
        1999    33.4    12.0    23.0    43.1
        2000    37.4    13.8    23.6    38.3
        2001    31.1    13.5    24.6    38.3
        2002    33.0    18.1    20.6    36.6
        2003    35.9    #N/A    24.0    38.9
        On this measure, NBA teams show less variation in payroll than baseball and hockey teams, but the NFL teams are more level than any of them.

        Data from Rodney Fort's excellent resource: http://users.pullman.com/rodfort/SportsBusiness/BizFrame.htm
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