[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 [23]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
                              additional police.

    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.

                               Further Reading

       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)

    [24]Robert D. Tollison
    [25]Further Reading
    Robert Tollison [27]


   24. http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/Sportometrics.html#biography
   25. http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/Sportometrics.html#further
   26. http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/Sports.html
   27. http://www.econlib.org/cgi-bin/search.pl?query=Robert+Tollison&book=Encyclopedia&andor=and&sensitive=yes
   29. http://www.libertyfund.org/
   30. http://www.econlib.org/

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