An Access Advertising EconBrief:
The Triumph of Economics in Sports: Economics Takes the Field to Build Winning Teams
In the previous two EconBriefs, we spoke of a popular attitude towards sports. It looks nostalgically to a hazy past, when men played a boys’ game with joyous abandon. Today, alas, sports are “just a business,” which is “all about the money.” As elsewhere, “greed” – a mysterious force no more explicable than a plague of locusts – has overtaken the men and robbed them of their childlike innocence.
This emotional theory of human behavior owes nothing to reason. It is the view now commonly bruited by those who describe the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession as the outcome of free markets run rampant. People are irrational, so the result of “unfettered capitalism” must naturally be chaotic disaster.
Economics is the rational theory of human choice. For a half-century, it has opposed the irrationalists from two directions. Its free-market adherents have been led by the Chicago School of Frank Knight, Milton Friedman and George Stigler. That school embraced a theory of perfect rationality: perfect knowledge held by all market participants (later modified somewhat by a theory of information only slightly less heroic in its assumptions), perfectly competitive markets and (where necessary) perfectly benevolent government regulators and/or economist advisors.
The neo-Keynesian opponents of Chicago accepted individual rationality but asserted that individually rational actions produced perverse results in the aggregate, leading to involuntary unemployment and stagnant economies. Only counteracting measures by far-seeing government policymakers and regulators – following the advice of economist philosopher-kings – could rescue us from the depredations of free markets.
The debate, then, has largely been defined by people who saw market participants moved either by utter irrationality or complete rationality. But our analysis has revealed instead an evolutionary climate in which participants in professional sports pursued their own ends rationally within the limits imposed by their own knowledge and capabilities. The great free-market economist F.A. Hayek observed that capitalism does not demand that its practitioners be rational. Instead, the practice of capitalism itself makes people more rational than otherwise by continually providing the incentive to learn, adapt and adopt the most efficient means toward any end. Professional sports has exemplified Hayek’s dictum.
Early on, in its first century, the pursuit of individual self-interest left baseball owners, players and fans at loggerheads. The first owner to address himself to the task of improving the product provided to sports fans was Bill Veeck, Jr., who introduced a host of business, financial and marketing innovations that not only enhanced his own personal wealth but also treated his fans as customers whose patronage was vital. The attitude of ownership toward fans prior to Veeck can be gleaned from the dismissal by New York Yankees’ general manager George Weiss of a proposed marketing plan to distribute Yankee caps to young fans. “Do you think I want every youngster in New York City walking around wearing a Yankees’ cap?” snorted Weiss. Veeck made owners and administrators realize that this was exactly what they should want.
Although few people seemed to realize it, economics had yet to play its trump card in the game of professional sports. Economics is the study of giving people what they want the most in the most efficient way. What sports fans want the most is a winning team – and that is exactly what economics had failed to give them. It failed because it had never been deployed toward that end. Even Bill Veeck, despite his success in improving the on-field performance of his teams, had not unlocked the secret to using economic principles per se to win pennants and World Series.
As sometimes happens in human endeavor, baseball had to traverse a Dark Age before this secret was finally revealed.
The Dark Age: Municipal Subsidies and the Growth of Revenue Potential
During Bill Veeck’s swan song as baseball owner in 1975-1981, baseball had entered the period of free agency. The reserve clause tying players to a single team had been drastically modified, allowing players to eventually migrate to teams offering them the best financial terms. As we indicated earlier, this development – viewed in isolation – tilted the division of sports revenue from ownership to players.
This created the pretext by which owners were able to extract subsidies from municipalities throughout the nation. Owners could truthfully claim that they were earning less money as a result of free agency. What they left out was that they were earning more money for a host of other reasons. The obscure nature of player depreciation hid the true financial gains of sports-team ownership from the public. Moreover, the early years of free agency coincided with the advent of massive new revenue sources for owners. Television had brought baseball to millions of people who otherwise saw few games or none; broadcast rights were becoming a valuable asset of team ownership. Radio-broadcast rights increased in value as the increased visibility of teams and players enhanced their popularity. These increases were just gaining speed when the vogue of sports-team subsidies became a national pastime of its own.
The movement of baseball teams had long been viewed as analogous to the movement of businesses. Even the loss of popular teams like the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to westward expansion of baseball in Los Angeles and San Francisco was grudgingly accepted, since baseball still remained in New York City and the Mets were added as an expansion franchise in 1962. But when the Athletics moved from Kansas City to Oakland in 1967, Missouri Senator Stuart Symington decided that the federal government could not countenance “unfettered capitalism” in the baseball business. He demanded that major-league baseball replace Kansas City’s lost franchise. This opened the floodgates to the intrusion of politics in baseball.
If it was fair for politicians to dictate where major-league baseball should operate, then franchises should be able to demand favors from local governments – or so reasoned baseball owners. And demand them they did.
Owners demanded that teams build new, larger, better-appointed stadiums for their sports teams. Cities should fund construction, own the stadiums, operate them, maintain them and lease them to the sports teams for peanuts – otherwise, owners would pack up and move to a city that would meet their demands.
What was in it for the host city? After all, not everybody is a sports fan. Owners sensed that they needed something to offer the city at large. Thus was born one of the great con games of the 20th century: the notion of sports as economic-development engine of growth. Owners seized on the same thinking that animated the dominant neo-Keynesian economic model. They sponsored “economic-impact studies” of the effect sports teams had on the local economy. In these studies, spending on sports took on a magical, mystical quality, as if jet-propelled by a multiplier ordained to send it rocketing through the local economy. And everybody “knew” that the more spending took place, the better off we all were.
It is hard to say what was worse, the economic logic of these studies or their statistical probity. It was not unusual to find that a study would add (say) the money spent on gasoline purchases at stations adjacent to the stadium to the “benefits” of sports team presence. Of course, this implies that locating the team as far as possible from the fans would increase the “benefits” dramatically; it is a case of cost/benefit analysis in which the costs are counted as benefits. This novel technique inevitably produces a finding of vast benefits.
As time went on, sale of team artifacts and memorabilia was added to the list of supplemental revenue. Larger stadiums, lucrative TV, radio and cable rights, team product sales – all these drove revenues to owners through the roof as the 20th century approached its close. With municipalities subsidizing the ownership, maintenance and improvement of stadiums, it is no wonder that the capital gains available to owners of sports teams were phenomenal. Ewing Kauffman bought the Kansas City Royals’ franchise for $1 million in 1968. At his death in 1993, the team’s value was estimated at well over $100 million.
One might have expected the usual left-wing suspects to recoil in horror from the income redistribution from ordinary taxpayers to rich owners and rich ballplayers – but no. Newspaper editorialists threw up their hands. The economists who supported free agency said that the major-market teams would get the best players, didn’t they? And hadn’t things worked out just that way, before free agency as well as after? If small-market taxpayers want to win – or even have a team at all – they’ll just have to ante up and face the fact that “this is how the game is played in today’s world.” Besides, doesn’t economic research show the economic-development benefits of sports teams?
Heretofore, economics had operated beneficially, albeit in a gradual, piecemeal way. Now the distortion of economics by the owners and their political allies meant that it was serving the ends of injustice.
Economics – and baseball fans – needed a hero. They got one – several, actually – from a pretty unlikely place.
Middle American Ingenuity to the Rescue
Bill James was born in tiny Holton, KS, in 1947. From childhood, he was a devoted sports fan. Like countless others before him, he was fascinated by the quantitative features of baseball and studied them obsessively. He was unique, though, in refusing to take on faith the value of conventional measures of baseball worth such as batting average, fielding average and runs batted in. James developed his own theories of baseball productivity and the statistical measures to back them up.
In 1977, he published the first edition of his Baseball Abstract, which subsequently became the Bible for his disciples and imitators. James was suspicious of batting average because it deliberately omitted credit for walks. (Ironically, walks were originally granted equivalent status with hits in computing batting average; “Tip” O’Neill’s famous top-ranking average of .485 in 1887 was accrued on this basis. The change to the modern treatment took place shortly thereafter.) While it may be technically true that a walk does not represent a “batting” accomplishment, it is certainly the functional equivalent of a single from the standpoint of run-producing productivity. (Veterans of youth baseball will recall their teammates urging them to wait out the opposing pitcher by chanting, “A walk’s as good as a hit, baby!”) Moreover, walks have many ancillary advantages. Putting the ball in play risks making an out. A walk forces the opposing pitcher to throw more pitches, thereby decreasing his effectiveness on net balance. Waiting longer in the count increases the chances that a hitter will get a more hittable pitch to hit, one that may be driven with power. For all these reasons, James made a convincing case that on-base percentage (OBP)is superior to batting average as a measure of a hitter’s run-producing productivity.
Rather than the familiar totals of home runs and runs batted in, James argued in favor of a more comprehensive measure of power production in hitting called slugging percentage (SP), defined as total bases divided by at bats. This includes all base hits, not just home runs. Instead of runs batted in, James created the category of runs created (RC), defined as hits plus walks times total bases, divided by plate appearances. James also sought a substitute for the concept of “fielding average,” which stresses the absence of errors committed on fielding chances actually handled but says nothing about the fielder’s ability or willingness to reach balls and execute difficult plays that other players may not even attempt. Moreover, fielding must be evaluated on the same level with offensive production since it must be just as valuable to prevent run production by the opposing team as to create runs for the home team.
These measures and maxims formed the core of Bill James’ theory of baseball productivity. His Baseball Abstract computed his measures for the major-league rosters each year and analyzed the play and management of the teams each year. Gradually, James became a cult hero. Others adopted his methods and measures. The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) sprang up. The intensive study of quantitative baseball – eventually, sports in general – came to be known as “sabermetrics.” Even with all this attention, it still took decades for Bill James himself to be embraced by organized baseball itself. That, too, happened eventually, but not before sabermetrics left the realm of theory and invaded the pressbox, the front office and the very baseball diamond itself.
Moneyball Takes the Field
Billy Beane was a high-school “phenom” (short for phenomenal), a term denoting a player whose all-round potential is so patent that he “can’t miss” succeeding at the major-league level. Like a disconcerting number of others, though, Beane did miss. He played only minimally at the major-league level for a few years before quitting to become a scout. He rose to the front office and was named general manager of the Oakland Athletics in 1997. Beane’s mentor, general-manager Sandy Alderson, taught him the fundamentals of Bill James’ theories of baseball productivity. To them, Beane added his own observations about player development – notably, that baseball scouts cannot accurately evaluate the future prospects of players at the high-school level because their physical, emotional and mental development is still too limited to permit it. Thus, major-league teams should concentrate on drafting prospects out of college in order to improve their draft-success quotient.
Beane hired a young college graduate from HarvardUniversity – not as a player but as an administrative assistant. Paul DiPodesta was an economics major who was familiar with the logic of marginal productivity theory. The theory of the firm declares that managers should equalize the marginal productivity per dollar (that is, the ratio of output each unit of input produces at the margin to the input’s price) between inputs by continually adding more of any input with a higher ratio until the optimal output is reached. Of course, the problem in applying this or any other economic principle to baseball had always been that the principles were non-operational unless a meaningful measure of “output” could be found and the inputs contributing to that output could be identified. That was where Bill James and sabermetrics came in.
In 2001, the Oakland team had won the Western Division of the American League. But their star player, Jason Giambi, has been wooed away by a seven-year, $120-million dollar contract offered by the New York Yankees. It was the age-old story, the “Curse of the Bambino” all over again in microcosm. Oakland’s success had ramped up the value of its players on the open market; replacing those players with comparable talent at market rates would bust the payroll budget. Various other Oakland players were lost to injury or disaffection or free agency. Throughout baseball, opinion was unanimous that the Athletics were in for hard times until the team’s talent base could be rebuilt through player development.
Beane and DiPodesta used the most basic sabermetric concepts, such as ONB, SP and RC, as their measures of productivity. Using publicly available information about player salaries, they calculated player productivities per dollar and discovered the startling number of players whose true productivity was undervalued by their current salaries. Methodically, they set out to rebuild the Oakland Athletics “on the cheap” by acquiring the best players their budget could afford through trade or purchase of contracts. They substantially remade the team using this approach. Despite a slow start, their rebuilt club eventually tied the all-time major-league baseball record by winning 21 straight games and successfully defended the Western Division championship in 2002 and 2003. Author Michael Lewis outlined their story and the rise of sabermetrics in baseball in his 2003 best-selling book Moneyball, which later became a 2011 movie starring Brad Pitt that received six Academy Award nominations.
For the first time, baseball management had explicitly used an economic production function – marginal productivity theory with an operational definition of product or output – to maximize a meaningful object function – namely, “wins” by the team. And they succeeded brilliantly.
Money See, Money Do
In 2003, new Boston Red Sox owner John Henry hired Bill James as a consultant to management, to put the theories of sabermetrics into practice in Boston. During 2001 and 2002, the team had lugged the second-highest payroll in major-league baseball to disappointing results. But in 2003, with a lower- (6th-) ranked payroll, the Boston Red Sox laid the ghost of Babe Ruth by winning their first World Series since 1918. Over the succeeding decade, the Red Sox became the success story of baseball, winning the World Series three more times.
Was this a case of what Rocky’s manager Mickey would call “freak luck?” Not hardly. Thanks to the success of Oakland and Boston and Michael Lewis’s book, the tale of Bill James and sabermetrics traveled. Throughout baseball, sabermetrics ran wild and economics reigned triumphant. In 2003, the Detroit Tigers lost an American-League-record 119 games. In 2006, with only the 14th-highest payroll out of 30 major-league teams, the Tigers won the American League championship. In 2008 and 2009, the Washington Nationals were the worst team in baseball. In 2012, with baseball’s 20th-highest payroll, they had baseball’s best record. In 2010, the Pittsburgh Pirates lost 105 games. In 2013, with baseball’s 20th-highest payroll, they made the post-season playoffs. The Cleveland Indians rebounded from sub-.500 seasons to playoff finishes twice between 2006 and 2014, despite never ranking higher than 15th in the size of their payroll; usually, they ranked between 20th and 26th.
The crowning achievement was that of the perennial cellar-dwelling Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Cellar-dwelling, that is, in the size of their payroll, but not necessarily in the season standings. After years of dismal finishes, the 2008 TampaBay team became American League champs despite ranking 29th (next to last!) in the size of their payroll. They have made the playoffs in four of the six subsequent years, but their payroll continues to languish at the bottom of the major-league rankings.
The New Frontier
Does this mean that the generalization about large-market teams getting the better players and enjoying the better results was and is a lie? No, it was and still is true. But like all economic propositions it is subject to qualification and careful statement.
First, it is a ceteris paribus proposition. It is true that “you can’t beat the stock market (averages)” but every year some people (particularly professional investors) do it. You can’t do it systematically by trading on the basis of publicly available information. The few people who succeed do it on the basis of (unsystematic) luck or by uncovering new information (legally) before it becomes generally known. The market for professional sports is not nearly this efficient; techniques of sports productivity evaluation are not nearly as refined and efficient as those of stock evaluation and trading, which leaves much more room for systematic exploitation by techniques like those of sabermetrics.
Second, the term “large market” is no longer limited by geography as it has been during the first century and a half of U.S. professional sports. Ted Turner’s promotion of the Atlanta Braves using his cable-TV stations blazed the trail for turning a local team into a national one, thereby increasing the value of the team’s broadcasting and product rights. Today, there is no inherent geographic limitation of the size of the market for any team – no reason, for example, why the Kansas City Royals or Chiefs could not become “the world’s team” and sit atop the largest market of all.
The Evolutionary Approach to Free Markets
The correct approach to economics is not the irrationalist view that has clouded our understanding of professional sports. Neither is it the perfectionist view of the ChicagoSchool, which has oversold the virtues of free markets and damaged their credibility. It is certainly not the remedial view of the neo-Keynesian school, which has failed whenever and wherever tried and is now undergoing its latest serial failure.
The evolutionary approach of the true free-market school, so nobly outlined by Hayek and his disciples, fits the history of baseball like a batting glove. It is now in full flower. Taxpayers need no longer be violated by owners who promote false economic benefits of sports and hide the real ones. Fans no longer need languish in a limbo of psychological unfulfillment. Economics – not politicians, regulators or academic scribblers – has come to the rescue at last.