[Paleopsych] Robert D. Tollison: Sportometrics
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The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics: Library of Economics and Liberty
[Bob and I went to graduate school together at UVa. He taught at George
Mason for many years and we spoke with him on numerous occasions. He was
one of the readers of my doctoral disseration in 1985, which I did not do
at UVa but rather at George Mason. He has authored or co-authored a
fabulous number of papers spanning almost every area of Public Choice
economics. He's the principal Founding Father of sportometrics.]
Until recently, economists who analyzed sports focused on the such
things as the antitrust exemption, the alleged cartel behavior of
sports leagues, and the player draft (see Sports). Sportometrics
is different. It is the application of economic theories to the
behavior of athletes in the real world to see if we can explain what
they do, and to see if what they do can help us explain the behavior
of people in other professions. Instead of being about the "economics
of sports," sportometrics introduces the idea of "sports as
In other words, sportometricians view sports as an economic
environment in which athletes behave according to incentives and
constraints. Economists have, for example, shown how incentives and
costs can explain how much effort runners exert in a footrace (see
Higgins and Tollison). Using data from sprint events of the modern
Olympics from 1896 to 1980, the cited study found that running times
were faster when there were fewer contestants in a race. This makes
sense. With fewer runners each runner's chance of winning is greater,
and therefore, each runner's expected gain from putting out additional
effort is greater. This cannot be attributed to decreased congestion:
because each runner is given a lane, congestion does not diminish when
the number of contestants falls.
The study also found that the harder an Olympic record is to break,
the less effort contestants will expend to break it. Can any fan ever
forget Carl Lewis's pass on a third attempt to break Bob Beamon's
long-jump record in the 1984 Olympics? Horse racing is an even better
contest to analyze, because there prerace odds were used to control
for the differential abilities of the racers. The study found similar
results: an increase in the number of competitors leads to an increase
in average race times.
The economic activity called arbitrage also enters into sports.
Arbitrage is what economists call the exploitation of price
differences for the same commodity. For example, if wheat sells for
$3.00 a bushel in Chicago and $3.30 in Indianapolis, and if it can be
transported to Indianapolis for 20% per bushel, then an arbitrageur
can make 10% on each bushel he buys in Chicago and sells in
What does this have to do with professional basketball? A lot. Each
player has an incentive to build up his individual performance
statistics, particularly the number of points he scores. But a good
coach enforces a regime in which shots are
allocated--arbitraged--among players to maximize the probability that
each shot taken will be made. Players who make a higher percentage of
their shots should, thus, be given more chances to shoot. Using data
from the National Basketball Association, Kevin Grier and I found that
coaches who are better at enforcing such an allocation of
shots--better arbitrageurs--are more likely to win games and to have
longer tenure as head coaches. Among the better coaches, we found, was
Cotton Fitzsimmons, the former coach of the Phoenix Suns. He became
head coach of the Kansas City Kings in 1977 and, in his first full
season, led the Kings to forty-eight wins and a shooting efficiency
rating of 66 percent, which is very high.
In each case studied, economists gain insight not only on the behavior
of athletes and coaches, but also on more general economic problems.
The behavior of runners is analogous to that of bidders for a
government contract: a bidder will expend more effort--lobbying and
the like--the fewer competitors it has for a contract. Coaching a team
is analogous to managing a company: within a company, managers
"arbitrage" tasks among employees.
Analyzing sporting events, moreover, provides insights into the
workings of all competition within well-defined rules--just as we see
in our economy. Incentives and constraints are spelled out clearly;
players behave as rational economic actors; sporting events and
seasons can be seen as the operation of miniature economies--and so
on. One of the first sportometrics analyses done (see McCormick and
Tollison) showed, for example, that basketball players respond
rationally when an additional monitor (referee) of their behavior is
on the court. Using data on the Atlantic Coast Conference Basketball
Tournament, the study found that, other things being equal, adding one
referee reduced the number of fouls per game by about seventeen, a
reduction of 34 percent! A more general application of this research
is to the issue of how we can reduce the number of crimes by adding
Most economic analysis is based on the idea that when the incentive to
do something increases, people will do more of it. Kenneth Lehn,
formerly chief economist at the Securities and Exchange Commission,
showed that this idea applies even to the amount of time baseball
players spend on the disabled list. After players were signed to
multiyear, guaranteed contracts with no extra pay for each game
played, their incentive to play diminished. Sure enough, Lehn found
that the amount of time players spent on the disabled list increased
from 4.7 days in the precontract period to 14.4 days after--an
increase of 206 percent.
Sports data have been used to understand other interesting issues.
Another study (see Fleisher, Goff, and Tollison), using data on how
the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) enforces its
rules, studied cartel behavior by colleges and universities. Although
this study is closer to what I called the "economics of sports," it
produced the novel finding that the NCAA apparently enforces its rules
to help the old-time football powers that have long controlled the
organization. As other teams improve on the playing field, we found,
they are put on probation as a way to protect the athletic success of
old-time schools such as Notre Dame and Ohio State.
Yet another study (see Goff, Shughart, and Tollison) found that the
structure of high school basketball competition affects the career
longevity of NBA players. "Open" competition refers to situations
where all schools compete for the state championship, as in the movie
Hoosiers. Under "classified" competition, schools compete in divisions
that are based on school size. We theorized that NBA players from the
open states should be "fitter" and better "adapted" for survival in
the NBA. Using a large sample of NBA players, that is exactly what we
found. Players from open competition states, such as Indiana, have
careers in the NBA that, on average, are 1 to 1.5 years longer than
players from states with classified competition. Given an average
tenure for NBA players of about five years, that is an increase of 20
to 30 percent.
About the Author
Robert D. Tollison is a professor of economics at the University of
Mississippi. He is a leader in using economic analysis to explain
behavior of politicians and of athletes.
Fleisher, Arthur A., Brian L. Goff, and Robert D. Tollison. The
National Collegiate Athletic Association: A Study in Cartel Behavior.
Goff, Brian L., William F. Shughart II, and Robert D. Tollison. "Homo
Basketballus." In Sportometrics, edited by Goff and Tollison. 1990.
Goff, Brian L., and Robert D. Tollison, eds. Sportometrics. 1990.
Higgins, Richard S., and Robert D. Tollison. "Economics at the Track."
In Sportometrics, edited by Goff and Tollison. 1990.
Lehn, Kenneth. "Property Rights, Risk Sharing, and Player Disability."
Journal of Law and Economics 25 (October 1982): 343-66.
McCormick, Robert E., and Robert D. Tollison. "Crime on the Court."
Journal of Political Economy 92 (April 1984)
Robert D. Tollison
Robert Tollison 
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