Thursday, March 09, 2006

Do You Believe in (Canadian) Miracles?

Canada beat the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic yesterday, using a team with a lot of minor-league players. The sports media treated it as more or less the same as the first time the U.S. lost a game (one of many, as it turned out) in the World Basketball Championships, to Argentina in 2002 – in other words, as a stunning event. But the result is really less surprising, because baseball is more or less the second most unpredictable of the big four North American team sports (football, baseball, basketball, hockey), trailing only the NFL.

There are several ways to measure what sports economists call competitive balance. In one of the most popular measures, you define ideal competitive balance by assuming that the probability that a team will win any of its games is 0.5. This allows you to define what the standard deviation of team winning percentages would be. The more the actual deviation departs from this, the less balanced the league is. Another way is to look at how uniformly distributed league titles are. While the stereotype is that the big-payroll teams, especially the Yankees, win all the time, over the long term this is not true. The National League is the most balanced of all North American leagues in this respect, followed by the NFL and then the American League.

One could build a very simple model of how unpredictable various team sports are simply by invoking the number of players on the field. Basketball has the fewest, five, and so one randomly great player makes a big difference compared to other sports with more participants. Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal or Bill Russell, in other words, makes a lot more difference than Hank Aaron or Jim Brown. European soccer, which also has a lot of players, is more predictable than all North American sports, according to a 2003 article by Stefan Szymanski in The Journal of Economic Literature. But in the North American leagues more steps are taken to address competitive imbalance: salary caps, reverse-order drafting, and more centralized distribution of television money to all teams more or less equally.

To the fans of teams who never win it all more competitive balance seems like something to applaud. But it ain’t necessarily so. First, teams in big markets with national fan bases make more people happy when they win than do small teams with only local followings, and so a purely utilitarian argument can be made for big-city dominance. Second, fans love to hate some other city’s winner almost as much as they love to love their own city’s. Hating the Yankees and the Lakers is part of being an MLB or NBA fan, and if they become just another team the league loses that aspect of its appeal.

One way for a team to improve its performance, if it can get away with it, is to have its players use performance-enhancing drugs. And yet fans generally consider this cheating, as Barry Bonds has known for some time, and leagues try to prohibit such practices. Given that players who use steroids, etc. have better production than those who don’t, and given that production and winning is a big part of what fans are paying for, why are such substances universally condemned rather than embraced? That is a mystery for another day.

In general I find the first real assessment of global baseball prowess fascinating, and already full of surprises -- Korea beating Japan, Canada beating the U.S., and the performance of the mysterious Cuban team. But I note that the sport is only popular in a few areas where the American cultural influence is overwhelming - Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America as far south as Venezuela and Colombia, and the Far East. The U.S. is a pretty fair exporter of sports, with baseball, basketball and volleyball popular well beyond our shores. But the all-time champion exporter of sports is Britain. Soccer is by far the world's most popular sport, and rugby, cricket, golf and the various racket sports are also extremely popular all over the world. While cricket is played at the highest level mostly in former British colonies, golf and soccer flourish everyhere.

Why? Soccer is one of the world's least capital-intensive sports: all you need is a ball and a way to mark off the goal area. This means that the world's most impoverished people can still play and excel at it. Baseball (and the other British and American sports mentioned) require far more capital stock - rackets, gloves, nets, etc. And so they don't appeal as much to impoverished societies (except in totalitarian states where the government invests a huge amount in international sport to create an artificial pride and distract everyone from the grimness around them). The only mystery is golf, which requires a full set of clubs and a lot of land but is still very popular. (I once heard that "golf" and "visa" are the only words that sound more or less the same in all the world's major languages.) But golf is a sport associated with middle- and upper-class aspirations, and so it may be appealing in rapidly growing countries so people can confirm to themselves that their country has made it. So in that sense even its popularity is reasonable to the economic mind.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I took economics of sports with you and I dont think we discussed the steroid issue much. My question is why do people hate steroid users but love homerun hitters? Like you pointed out, people like the performance of great players but if that player is found to of used steroids the fans want them erased from the record books. I do not like steroid use in professional sports. I know that it goes on but I will never accept it as something that officials can't deal with. I am a free market kind of guy but when it comes to sports I am not. I believe that there has to be restictions and rules to keep the game fun and entertaining. I get a bad taste in my mouth when I think of Barry Bonds passing Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. If you know of any literature on why people hate steroids let me know

11:10 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

I think the basic idea is that steroids are a way of shirking - of getting better results artifically instead of via a way that indicates the athlete is trying harder. So it is unlike better diet and harder training (which are not banned, and are signals of athletes trying harder), but like better equipment (golf clubs, rackets, NASCAR engine adjustments, etc.), which are heavily restricted precisely because they get better results without the athlete trying harder or being intrinsically more talented.

I am currently writing a paper on this topic, which I hope will be done by this summer. Economists at least haven't written much on it.

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Libertarian Jason said...

Maybe we should have had Alex Rodriguez bat lead off... :)

12:57 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Maybe we should have had Alex Rodriguez bat lead off... :)

LOL. That supposes that he was the best player available, which is debatable, especially when it counts.

3:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI - basketball was invented in Canada, but is widely believed to have been invented in the US. The same holds true for Superman and Winnie the Pooh.

12:53 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

I have always heard (and have never heard reliably otherwise) that James Naismith was Canadian, but he invented the game in Springfield, MA.

Neither was Winnie the Pooh "invented" in Canada. The bear on which he was based was from Winnipeg (hence "Winnie"), but the story was created, I think, in Britain by A.A. Milne.

I have no idea about Superman.

5:32 PM  

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