DRI-275 for week of 9-28-14: Touchdown-Celebration Prayer: Time for Separation of Church and Red Zone?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Touchdown-Celebration Prayer: Time for Separation of Church and Red Zone?

Fans of the National Football League (NFL) have become inured to the spectacle of celebrations conducted by players who score a touchdown. These actions have assumed a variety of forms, ranging from ordinary excesses of joy and enthusiasm like jumping up and down to esoteric rituals like spiking or dunking the football over the goalpost. Perhaps the most common form is some sort of gyration or celebratory dance. The practice originated among certain players whose fame depended at least as much on their self-promotional zeal as upon their athletic prowess – Deion Sanders, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, comes particularly to mind.

Older readers will appreciate the striking contrast between this modern attitude and that exhibited by legendary stars of yesteryear like Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns and Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts. Brown, who may have been the greatest running back of all time, was slow to assume his stance prior to the center snap of the football and even slower to rise after being tackled when running the ball. His demeanor was impassive. He conserved his energy and saved his exertions for the time between the snap and the referee’s whistle signaling the end of a play. Did this account for the fact that his average-yards-gained per carry was the highest of any Hall of Fame runner?

Unitas was similarly deadpan on the field. As quarterback for the Colts, he terrified opponents and awed teammates with the knack for leading his team from behind in the closing seconds of a game. But fans could never have guessed by looking at him whether he had just been sacked for a loss or thrown the winning touchdown pass as time expired. If any of his teammates had ever done anything as gauche as celebrating a long run or spectacular catch, they would have been frozen solid by the icy stare known throughout the NFL as the “Unitas look.”

In the so-called “greatest football game ever played” – the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants – Unitas provided the prelude to victory by completing a daring sideline pass to tight end Jim Mutcheller in the Giants’ one-yard line in sudden-death overtime. At the post-game press conference, a reporter ventured to question Unitas’s play-calling decision: “That was a pretty dangerous pass, wasn’t it? What if it had been intercepted?” The reporter was the first televised victim of “the look.” “When you know what you’re doing,” Unitas replied without needing to raise his voice, “they’re not intercepted.”

Nowadays many players feel obligated to supplement the audio and visual record of play supplied by television by advertising what has just happened. The newest wrinkle on this style of irrepressible self-expression is praying in the end zone after scoring a touchdown.

The Abdullah Case and Ensuing Fallout

In the fourth quarter of a game between the Kansas City Chief and New England Patriots at Arrowhead Stadium on September 29, 2014, New England quarterback Tom Brady completed a pass to Kansas City safety Husein Abdullah. Abdullah traversed the 39 yards to the New England end zone, where he dropped to his knees in prayer.

End-zone touchdown celebrations are now so commonplace that rules have been drafted to cover them. One of those rules forbids celebrating while “on the ground.” The referees invoked this rule, penalizing the Chiefs 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff for “unsportsmanlike conduct.”

That did not end the matter, though. Two days later, the NFL’s league office announced that the official decision had been in error. Why? It seems that “there are exceptions made for religious expressions,” according to NFL vice-president for football communications Michael Signora. But the referees may have been confused by Abdullah’s body language; he slid on his knees rather than simply kneeling down. Probably sensing an opportune moment, the well-known organization CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) lodged an objection to the original ruling. According to an article in the Kansas City Star (“NFL Admitting Error on Abdullah Flag,” October 1, 2014, by Tod Palmer), “Abdullah is a devout Muslim.” The CAIR spokesman urged the league office to “clarify the policy” so as to “avoid the appearance of a double standard” for Muslims and non-Muslims.

The sensitivities of Americans have been abraded by over a half-century of controversy over the separation of church and state. Now the debate over public religious observance has invaded the football field or, more specifically, the end zone. Will theologians have to be on call for replay decisions by officials? Should the NFL nail a thesis on the separation of church and red zone to the main gate of its stadiums? Is all this really necessary?

The Economics of Player Celebration 

Does associating end-zone prayer with celebration seem odd? Abdullah himself referred to his action as “prostrat[ing] myself to God.” Still, the religious faithful at their devotions are often called “celebrants.” In any case, the attributes of prayer and those of celebration are virtually identical in this particular context, which allows us to apply economic principles to both types of action. Both interrupt the normal flow of play and divert attention away from the game and to the celebrant. A case exists that each kind of action might either please or annoy a football fan.

One interesting thing about this example is the diametric tacks taken by the economist and the non-economist. The non-economist feels compelled to ascertain whether prayer itself is “good” or “bad.” A particularly discriminating non-economist might put that to one side and focus on whether or not prayer is a good thing in this particular context; e.g., on a football field with hundreds of millions of spectators. The economist may or may not feel qualified to supply answers to those questions, but does not care about the answers because they needn’t be answered by any particular individual. Markets exist to answer questions that individuals cannot or should not answer. 

Professional football is an intangible product supplied by the National Football League and its member franchises (teams) to consumers (fans). That product consists primarily, but not solely, of competitive athletic performance. A rhetorical question posed previously in this space asked: If O. J. Simpson were still in full flower of his athletic skills, would he be working as a running back in the NFL, all other things equal? The obvious answer is no, because football fans do not want to watch murderers play professional football, no matter how talented they may be.

The advent of touchdown celebration allows us to add another qualifying example to our definition of the pro-football product. To the degree that some fans enjoy and even encourage end-zone celebrations, it is clear that they derive satisfaction (or utility, in economic jargon) from this practice. That means that the pro-football product is defined as “competitive athletic performance plus entertainment.”

This is not merely an ad hoc formulation cobbled together by an economist for a column. In the same edition of the same Sports section of the Kansas City Star as the story of the NFL’s recantation of the penalty on Abdullah, the adjacent story is a profile of Chiefs’ cornerback Sean Smith. Study Smith’s comments about his flamboyant style of play and the attitude of Chiefs’ coaches to the on-field exhibition of his personality.

“‘I think (the Miami game) gave the coaches a chance to see that when I’m able to go out there and just be myself and let my personality hang out there, not only do I play well, but people feed off my energy,’ Smith said.” [Quoting reporter Terez A. Paylor] “‘Smith, like his other more animated teammates, appreciates Coach Andy Reid’s philosophy. He encourages his players to play with passion and let their personalities shine through on the field, and Smith has embraced that approach this season.'”[Back to Smith again] “‘Coach emphasizes to let your personality show, go out there and cut loose, and be yourself and have fun…That’s something I definitely took personal. I’ve been a very enthusiastic guy. I like going out there and having fun and putting a smile on people’s faces.'”

This constitutes an implicit endorsement by a player and head coach, as cited by a beat reporter, of the economic model developed above.

Does this mean that end-zone celebrations are a good thing? Does it mean that players have a right to indulge them? Does it justify the NFL’s policy? Or condemn it? The answers to these questions are various forms of “no.” End-zone celebrations are one more input into the productive process, no better or worse a priori than any other. They may or may not be appropriate. Players have no “right” to indulge in them because players do not control the production process – the team does. The NFL is the franchisor; it has the right to control end-zone celebrations only if they affect its ability to provide the right competitive environment for the teams and not when only team profitability is at stake.

A last key question may be the one most frequently asked when this issue arises in public controversy. What about the player’s “right” of free religious observance?

Why Freedom of Religion Does Not Guarantee the Right to Celebrate in the End Zone 

Freedom is defined as the absence of external constraint. It does not guarantee the power to achieve one’s aims over opposition; in particular, it does not confer rights. A right can be enjoyed only when it does not abrogate the exercise of somebody else’s right. A contract is a voluntary agreement that imposes legal duties on both (all) parties to it.

These definitions lay the groundwork for our understanding of prayer in the end zone.

Husein Abdullah is an employee of the Kansas City Chiefs football team. He helps produce professional football entertainment but he does not control the mix of inputs into that product. The team decides who the other players will be, what style of football the team will play, what offensive plays the team will run, what defensive sets the team will employ, who the coaches, assistant coaches and trainers will be. If the team chooses all these inputs into the production of professional football entertainment, why should it not also control the nature of end-zone celebrations? Of course, the team may opt for spontaneity by giving free rein to players’ imaginations, just as conventional entertainers in show business may opt for improvisation over a scripted performance. Still, the team will almost certainly forbid players from celebrating by making obscene gestures to opposing players, revealing intimate body parts to fans and performing other acts virtually guaranteed to offend fans rather than entertaining them.

So we should hardly be astonished if the team should choose to regulate an action as potentially sensitive or embarrassing as an act of religious observance – should we? And, speaking as students of economic logic, we can make no objection to that – can we?

How about Husein Abdullah? Or, for that matter, any religious celebrant of any religious denomination? Is he being treated unfairly? Are his rights being violated?

No. As an employee of the team, Abdullah works at the direction of the team and for its benefit. The fact that Abdullah is engaging in a religious observance in this particular case is irrelevant. Abdullah certainly has freedom of religion. He has freedom of speech, too, but that doesn’t give him the right to say anything and everything under the sun in his capacity as an employee with no fear of repercussion.

Suppose Abdullah were an employee working in an office building. Does he have the “right” to pray at the top of his lungs while wandering around and between the desks of his fellow employees? No, he has no right to disrupt the workplace in this fashion even with the excuse that freedom of religion allows him the right of religious observance. Similarly, his “right” to pray in the end zone is circumscribed by team policy.

Does this mean that the Abdullahs of the world are inevitably booked for disappointment in their longing to prostrate themselves before God in the end zone? There is no reason to think so. We know, for instance, that celebrations were once frowned upon and suppressed yet are now practically de rigeur. There seems no way to predict what twists and turns this penchant for celebration will take because there is no way to predict how the tastes of the public will change.

Are we afraid that “discrimination” against unpopular minority groups (Muslims, for example) will proliferate? No, we are not, because in this context the term discrimination loses its familiar colloquial meaning. There is no arbitrary exercise of power against a group because no business has a duty to employ all inputs to an equal degree. Instead, businesses have a duty to their owners and consumers to employ inputs based on productivity precisely by discriminating in favor of the more productive and against the less productive. Whether the inputs are engaging in religious observance, speech or any other activity does not matter. If a player can produce a productive form of celebration, this will make money for his team and provide the player with a celebratory meal ticket. If not, the player will lose the privilege of celebrating in the end zone. Business is not about what the boss wants or what employees want – it is about what consumers want. Economists characterize this principle as consumer sovereignty.

If a player demands a right to pray in the end zone, what he is really demanding is not freedom, nor is an exercise of a valid right. Rather, it is the power to abrogate his duty to his employer at whim. As often emphasized in this space, this confusion of freedom and power suffered by the general public has been repeatedly exploited to political advantage by the left wing.

The Absurd Position in Which the NFL Finds Itself

The framework for analysis outlined above is simple and logical. It is an outgrowth of the system by which we divide labor to produce and exchange goods and services. The pellucid clarity of this system stands out in brilliant contrast to the existing framework under which the NFL currently operates.

The NFL currently has rules governing player celebrations. These rules are part of the code that governs play on the field. Violations are punished with penalties such as the one Abdullah earned for the Chiefs. Consequently, the rules must be mastered, interpreted and applied by the referees. Inevitably, as with all sports decisions made by referees or umpires, subjective perceptions and interpretations cause mistakes and controversy. (The distinction between kneeling and sliding to his knees probably reminded Abdullah of the judging on Dancing With the Stars.) Meanwhile, the entities whose interests are most directly affected – team ownership and management – must sit back and await the chance to appeal any wrongful decision later.

And the fans – the people for whose benefit the system operates – don’t get any direct say in this administrative process. Whereas in a competitive market, input from fans directly determines the nature and extent of player celebrations, the regulated market gives immediate control to the administrative mechanism of the NFL. This allows the entertainment part of the product to contaminate the competitive part when penalties are levied for unsportsmanlike conduct, whereas under a competitive system the team handles problems of unsuitable celebration outside of the context of the competitive contest.

That’s not all to object to about top-down regulation of end zone celebration by the NFL. In fact, it may not even be the worst. The Abdullah case illustrates the political hazards of the top-down approach. The NFL began by wanting to suppress inappropriate celebration, which is surely not objectionable in and of itself. By doing the regulating itself instead of leaving it to the market, the NFL left itself open to the pressures of every special interest with an ax to grind. Because the NFL has no special interest in the profits of any one team, it has no incentive to favor popular celebration. Because the NFL is a bureaucratic organization, it is open to influence by every special interest with an ax to grind, CAIR being the most recent to step up to the grinder.

Suddenly, the NFL finds it can’t simply ban a form of celebration it doesn’t approve of (by “any player on the ground”) because that would run afoul of “religious observance.” Imagine – religious observance interfering with the conduct of a football game, when previously the only thing the two had in common was Sunday. And the minute the NFL starts making an exception for “religious observance,” it then has to confront the issue of different – and conflicting – religions. Wonderful – the two things attendees at a dinner party are never supposed to mention are politics and religion, and both are now elbowing their way into the end zone. What next? Will Stars of David start popping up on player helmets as an expression of their “right of free speech?” If only the fans had the power to throw a flag against the NFL for interference!

The General Principle at Work Here 

Americans have forgotten the value of allowing markets to decide basic questions. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed commented offhandedly that we have lost confidence in free markets as a result of the Great Recession. If so, this is a monumental irony, since that event was caused by the interference with and subordination of the market process. It is not clear how much of the current attitude originates with a loss of faith and how much with simple ignorance. Regardless of the source, we must reverse this attitude to have any hope of survival, let alone prosperity. We know markets work because the world in general and the U.S. in particular would never have reached their present state of prosperity unless markets were as effective as free-market economists claim they are. The pretense that regulated, administrative markets are a vehicle for perfect “social justice” is not merely a sham – it is a recipe for tyranny. Administrators possess neither the comprehensive information nor the omniscient sense of fairness necessary to decide whose celebrations to allow, which ones to ban and what standard to apply to all.

The best thing about the example of touchdown celebrations is that they provide a side-by-side illustration of free markets and regulated administrative markets. The free market is player celebrations as they evolved in recent years, encouraged by fan response and governed by individual teams. The Kansas City Star excerpts show in so many words that this market exists and the evidence of our senses shows that this market works just as economic logic predicts that it will. And our ever-more-dismal experience with top-down, bureaucratic NFL regulation shows that rule by fiat and by ventriloquists in the chattering classes is an escalating failure.

What about the older fans who are appalled by player celebrations and long for the good old days of strong, silent, heroic players like Brown and Unitas? Why, we’ll just have to find a team that suits our tastes – or found one.

DRI-275 for week of 6-1-14: The Triumph of Economics in Sports: Economics Takes the Field to Build Winning Teams

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.

DRI-290 for week of 5-18-14: The Role of Economics in Sports

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The Role of Economics in Sports

It is a commonplace that sports today is “just a business.” Once upon a time, so the thinking goes, sports was a magical realm, a “kid’s game” in which everybody played for fun and decisions were motivated by “the love of the game.” Now, though, it’s “all about the money.” From this, we might draw the inference that sports were once an economics-free zone.

The cliché applies: Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, sports today are ruled less by economic considerations than formerly. That isn’t quite the same thing as saying that money plays a smaller role. It doesn’t; the role of money has been distorted by the introduction of non-economic factors.

By applying the logic of economics to baseball, the national pastime, we can appreciate the historical role played by economics and understand how this role has been misshapen in recent decades.

Profit in Baseball

Baseball began as a game played for fun. Its origins are shrouded in mystery but date to before the Civil War. (Thus, the celebration of Abner Doubleday, Civil War general in the Union army, as baseball’s inventor is undoubtedly misplaced.) Professional baseball began in 1869 with the first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Since then, profit has been inseparable from the game of baseball as a commercial enterprise.

Until recent decades, owners of baseball teams earned revenue from one primary source – the admission of baseball fans to watch games in person. The calculation of profit was quite straightforward: an admission price was charged to games and collected – either from advance ticket sales or at the gate prior to game time – and the revenue from the sum of all such sales was weighed against the costs of owning the team. The costs varied with circumstances, but less in true economic terms than might be supposed. For example, a team that owned its stadium would not pay rent according to a lease, but an economist would still reckon that rent as an implicit cost, since the team is foregoing the rent it could earn by leasing the stadium out to somebody else. Salaries paid to players and administrative staff, wages paid to low-level employees, travel costs, marketing costs – these comprise the standard costs of operating a baseball team and are subtracted from revenue in reckoning profit.

Like so many things in life, though, even this simple calculation has its complications. Revenue always has been, and remains today, a function of market size. The larger the potential number of fans, the greater is a team’s revenue potential. But for most of its history, revenue was also a function of stadium size. The Philadelphia Phillies have been a National League mainstay for over a century. For the first third of the 20th century, they played their games in the Baker Bowl, a tiny stadium whose capacity never exceeded 20,000 people and was typically less. The New York Yankees, on the other hand, played in a stadium befitting the nation’s largest city, as New York City was for nearly the first century of professional baseball’s existence. Yankee Stadium, built expressly to house the Yankees in the early 1920s, could hold around 70,000 people. Even the Polo Grounds, home of crosstown National League New York Giants, held over 60,000. Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium held over 80,000. If that seems incongruous, given the city’s comparatively modest size, our later discussion will rectify that impression.

Economists have developed a theory of the firm. They teach it to students in microeconomics courses. It is designed to apply broadly to business firms of all kinds, shapes and sizes. Given the tenuous connection traditionally made between sports and business, that attitude might seem arrogant. It turns out to be well-justified confidence.

The traditional formula for profit maximization in the economic theory of the firm requires equality between marginal revenue and marginal cost. But in order to apply the theory, we must have a measure of output. Businesses exist in order to produce goods and services. What do baseball teams exist to produce, anyway? In the ultimate sense, they produce satisfaction by entertaining fans. But this feeling of satisfaction is subjective; it is a non-operational definition of output. Is there something hard-edged and quantitative that we can measure as a source of this satisfaction?

Yes. It is winning games. If this doesn’t make baseball fans happy, it is hard to think of something else that does. Now all we have to do is identify the process by which the wins are produced – what economists call the production function. Inconceivable as it seems, it is only in the last 15 years that any real headway has been made in quantifying this formula. For over a century, professionals and amateurs alike were content to apply more or less subjective criteria to this concept.

Everybody always knew that good players and athletic talent were the raw material from which the production function sprang. But exactly how did they interact to produce winning baseball? Everybody had their own pet theories. Owners and their administrative staffs applied the theories to the selection and grooming of talent. Really, all that was done was to throw money at the problem. The amount of money and the direction of the throw varied widely from team to team and owner to owner. And baseball fans throughout America developed a time-honored set of prejudices, educated guesses and conventional thinking about the subject.

Bigger Market = More Revenue = Larger Expenditure on Player Salaries = Better Team

Even without a clear theoretical idea of the production function, though, we can still say a lot about how economic logic influenced the conduct of baseball operations and the course of baseball history. Regardless of how you go about calculating the marginal revenue associated with an additional win, it will be larger for a (say) New York City than (say) a Kansas City. (That is true even though New York City has two baseball teams to Kansas City’s one.) That an owner in New York City will find it profitable to expend a larger amount on player salaries than will an owner in Kansas City. All other things equal, this should produce better teams in New York City. In the broader context, that means that larger-market teams should tend to be better teams.

“All other things equal” (or “ceteris paribus,” as economists prefer to disguise it) is the great weasel phrase joining theory to reality. As we will see in the second installment of this discussion, those things became unequal indeed when a few wise guys cracked the code for the production function in baseball. But this generalization certainly worked well for over a century of baseball history.

No baseball team has come within a country mile of the Yankees’ 27 world championships. The St. Louis Cardinals hold second place, and for most of baseball history St. Louis was among the most populous cities and metropolitan areas in the nation. The New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers also rank among the most successful teams in history despite vacating New York in the 1950s. The Los Angeles Dodgers picked up the mantle doffed by their Brooklyn predecessor.

Chicago might seem a conspicuous exception to this rule of thumb, but even there it held good in the early days of the modern era. The Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs were two of the most successful teams in the first two decades of the modern era beginning in 1901. The Cubs set the all-time record for wins in a season in 1906 and appeared often in the World Series until 1918. The White Sox vied with the Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers for American League supremacy during that era and upset the Cubs in the 1906 Series. The Cubs enjoyed periodic success until after World War II, their final World Series appearance to date being 1945.

“Free Agency Will Be the Death of Baseball”

Much has been made over the years of the fact that major-league baseball enjoys exemption from the anti-trust laws, thanks to a federal-court decision in 1922 (Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League et al). While it is technically true that “major-league baseball” constitutes a combination of businesses that restricts its membership via the issuance of franchises, this exemption means very little in practice.

Over the course of baseball history, various competitive leagues have arisen. The American League itself was once one of those, just as the American Football League once competed with the National Football League. And major-league baseball has often reacted to its competition by absorbing it, as the NFL did the AFL. At other times, the Federal League (in 1915) and the Mexican League (in the late 1940s) briefly constituted significant threats to the major leagues.

Even more significant, though, has been the very substantial inter-industry competition provided by competing forms of sports and entertainment generally. Today, pro football and pro basketball have supplanted major-league baseball in the attraction of athletic talent. Insofar as the antitrust exemption applies to the product market in which major-league baseball operates, it has become a dead letter.

By far the most important antitrust issue faced by baseball concerned its input market. Economists have traditionally contended that baseball teams should compete with each other for players in the labor market. Until 1975, labor-market competition for players was severely restricted by the reserve clause. That clause granted exclusive bargaining rights to a player to the team first to sign that player. In recent years, a draft has assigned initial bargaining rights in baseball, as in football and basketball. It is still true that the right of players to initiate transfers to different teams is restricted in various ways.

The first economist to publicly question this arrangement was Gerald Scully in 1974 in a pathbreaking article in the American Economic Review. Scully maintained that competitive bidding normally drives a worker’s wage at or close to marginal revenue product – the value of additional output created at the margin by the input. In the case of uniquely talented inputs such as athletes – the antithesis of homogeneous unskilled labor – a player should earn his incremental contribution to revenue. By allowing freedom of player movement, players would naturally move where they would earn the most money.

Owners and baseball administrators spoke with one voice in response to this theory. They hated it. They loathed it. They reviled it. Almost unanimously, they proclaimed that to allow players the freedom of movement, or “free agency,” would be the death of organized baseball. Owners would be unable to recoup their “investment” in players. They would be unable to make enough profit to stay in business – the result would be carpetbagging teams moving from city to city in an effort to skim the cream of popularity off the top before moving on to the next city. Most of all, fans would lose their sense of identification with players who rented their services to the highest bidder rather than establishing loyalty to a city and its fan base.

An often-repeated fallacy is that the higher salaries associated with free agency would cause ticket prices to skyrocket upwards. Economists often use this as a case study in their microeconomics classes. Assuming owners want to maximize the revenue earned from ticket sales, they will choose the ticket price (or range of prices) that accomplishes that objective – with no regard whatsoever for what players are paid. The profit maximizing price depends on fan tastes, incomes and the substitute forms of entertainment available, which are the parameters of what economists call the demand curve. It is unrelated to supply-curve considerations such as player salaries.

But don’t fans pay player salaries ultimately, through ticket payments and various other means? Indeed they do. In fact, it is useful to employ the framework of the late, great Nobel laureate Ronald Coase from his classic article “The Theory of the Firm.” A business firm is a middleman between the players and fans. It is too costly for fans to contract directly with players for entertainment, so the team acts as a business intermediary. Free agency settles the question of how the fans’ payments are divided between players and team, not how much the total payment will be. The reserve clause allocated more to the team (e.g., the owner) than was economically efficient; free agency changes the division to favor the players more.

Of all these predictions, the least likely was the one that was most widely subscribed. Most people believed that free agency would cause players to move between teams much more freely and often than before. But economists like Scully contended that this would not happen. And years after the case of outfielder Curt Flood set in motion the eventual destruction of the reserve clause, they produced studies showing that player movement was no more rapid or frequent after the reserve clause was gone than in its heyday.

Although Scully and his colleagues thought they needed econometrics to persuade the public, simple logic should have sufficed. On second thought, a glance backward at baseball history should have been enough. This is how Scully put it in his contribution to the Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics: “When players are not free to move, does a small city that acquired a star player… keep him? …A small-city franchise…holding the contract of the player expects him to contribute, say, $1 million in incremental revenue to the club. In a large city that same player’s talents might contribute $3 million. Since the player is worth more to the big-city team…the big-city team will pay more for him [so] the small-city franchise has an incentive to sell the player’s contract to the big-city team and thereby make more money than it could by keeping him. Thus, players should wind up allocated by highest incremental revenue, with or without restrictions on player-initiated movement.”

There are countless examples of this principle in operation. The most famous example involved baseball’s greatest player.

“The Curse of the Bambino?” No, Just Economics at Work

In 1920, Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee was in trouble. His trouble wasn’t baseball-related. The Red Sox had won the World Series in 1912, 1915, 1916 and 1918. They had baseball’s greatest player, Babe Ruth. He was the American League’s best left-handed pitcher who had lately taken to playing the outfield in his spare time – and had led the league in home runs in 1919 and 1920.

No, Frazee’s troubles were related to his main business, which was bankrolling Broadway shows. Financing shows was and still is a high-risk business. Now Frazee was in debt up to his ears. He was contemplating selling baseball’s best and most popular player, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees, in spite of the pleading of his general manager, Ed Barrow.

Eventually, Frazee did just that. He got $100,000 (the tax-free equivalent of several million today) plus a $300,000 loan. And Babe Ruth went on to set a flock of records in a Yankee uniform and earn more in a single year than the President of the United States. Frazee went on to sell numerous other players to the Yankees in the next few years for another $305,000 in sale proceeds. And he produced successful shows such as “No, No, Nanette.”

According to baseball history, Frazee was an idiot who sacrificed his fans to his personal bank balance. But economics tells us that the Red Sox could never have paid Ruth anywhere close to his maximum potential salary. Only the Yankees, with their tremendous geographic and demographic reach, could have paid Ruth the salary he later commanded. It is no coincidence that Barrow, who criticized Frazee so sternly at the time, later went to work for the Yankees himself, became baseball’s most famous general manager and entered the Hall of Fame in his own right. Barrow also became rich by working for the Yankees.

Is it a coincidence that all the great power hitters, the players who commanded the biggest salaries and drew the most fans to the park, played for large-market teams? Lou Gehrig played alongside Ruth on the Yankees. Joe Dimaggio joined Gehrig in the 1930s and flanked Mickey Mantle in Mantle’s formative years. Roger Maris dueled teammate Mantle on his way to hitting 61 home runs in 1961. Yogi Berra was their teammate. Willie Mays played for the New York Giants, then moved with them to San Francisco, finishing up his career back in New York with the Mets. Duke Snider’s glory years were spent in Brooklyn before he, too, ended up with the New York Mets. Jimmie Foxx’s two primary teams were the Philadelphia Athletic and Boston Red Sox. The exceptions, Harmon Killebrew (Minnesota) and Ralph Kiner (Pittsburgh), were one-dimensional players who were slow runners and mediocre defensive players; thus, their value was limited by their liabilities.

Misers? Or Profit-Maximizers?

Connie Mack was one of baseball’s most beloved figures. Prior to that, he was a well-known and skillful major-league catcher. He owned and managed the Philadelphia Athletics for 50 years, from 1901 to 1950. He managed his teams to 8 World Series appearances and 4 championships. He retired as manager at age 87 and died at 95. Late in life, he was universally revered as the “grand old man” of the game.

Yet on three separate occasions he created furious controversy by selling his star players wholesale or (less often) trading them. He didn’t merely trade away one popular, talented player. He either sold or traded all his stars and started all over again with young players. At the time, he was not much more popular in Philadelphia than Frazee had been in Boston. He was even accused of being “no better than a miser, selling the contracts of players to line his own pockets.”

In order to have meaning, the word “miser” must denote inordinate stinginess. It must imply actions of thrift and economy that exceed in intensity those of ordinary men. But when we examine Connie Mack’s actions by the standards set by Scully and the principles of economics, they resemble instead the same kinds of profit-maximizing actions that any businessman would take.

In 1907, pitcher Rube Waddell was arguably the best pitcher in the American League, certainly the best left-handed pitcher. He had just set a season record for strikeouts (349) that was to last for over half a century. His off-the-field behavior was just as fast and even less controllable than his blazing fastball and wicked curveball. His drinking and carousing gave Mack the excuse for selling his contract to the St. Louis Browns, where he set a single-game league record for strikeouts (16) in 1908. Mack also disposed of Waddell’s batterymate, catcher Ozzie Schreckengost. The sale of the popular duo was highly unpopular with the public, although team members were more willing to bid goodbye to Waddell’s eccentric antics. The players had been instrumental in the two American League pennants won by the Athletics in 1902 and 1905.

Mack set about rebuilding his team. He produced a group of players – Frank “Home Run” Baker, Jack Barry, Eddie Collins and Stuffy McInnis – who became known as the “$100,000 Infield” because of their defensive positions and their aggregate salaries. They spearheaded pennant-winning seasons in 1910, 1911, 1913 and 1914. The first two of those were also World Series championship years.

Yet following the Athletics’ stunning upset loss to the Boston Braves in the 1914 World Series, Mack broke up this winning team through sales and trades over the course of the next three years. At the time, this action was explained by Mack’s financial troubles caused by competition from the new Federal League, which raided major-league teams for players and reportedly drove up player salaries with their competitive forays. But Mack’s actions caused a furor throughout professional baseball and were front-page news in Philadelphia, where he was bitterly criticized in the press.

Once more, Mack slowly and painfully rebuilt his team. Despite having to play in the American League against the powerful New York Yankees of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt, Mack eventually assembled a powerhouse squad that included future Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Al Simmons and Mickey Cochrane. They won consecutive American League pennants in 1929, 1930 and 1931 against the “Murderer’s Row” lineup from New York and took two World Series titles in 1929 and 1930.

And once again, Mack pleaded financial exigency – this time citing the Great Depression – as his justification for selling or trading away all of those great players and others. This succession of transactions was nearly as unpopular as the previous one, and this time there was no comeback. Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics won no more American League pennants and mostly occupied the lower rungs of the league rankings until Mack’s retirement as manager at age 87 in 1950.

In retrospect, the citation of financial necessity was flimsy and unnecessary. Mack’s philosophy of player management and development was well-known and documented. He believed in using young players in preference to older ones. He was convinced that maximum value could be extracted from a player by trading or (preferably) selling him before his abilities declined markedly. Sure enough, players such as Waddell, Baker, Collins, Grove, Foxx and Cochrane produced productive years with their new teams. Collins and Grove went on to have unexpectedly long careers; the rest declined in ability and retired or became benchwarmers within a few years after leaving the Athletics.

Mack was obviously following the philosophy of profit-maximization to the best of his knowledge and ability. He used his formidable contacts throughout the baseball industry to scout and develop young talent. He could hardly be accused of stinginess when he paid the impressive talent he developed the high salaries that eventually made the team payroll a financial burden to him.

Economist James Quirk did voluminous research into the financial history of major-league baseball and found that only in the major-market cities like New York City did owners typically earn large profits from their teams. It is also important to note that the large-market owners, like Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees, were already independently rich before entering the baseball business. This enabled them to undertake any investments necessary to capitalize on the opportunities presented by their market size. The norm was represented by hardscrabble owners like Connie Mack, who worked with small- to medium-size stadiums circumscribed by downtown urban environments. Mack played the game better than most of these lower-class owners, which explains his amazing longevity.

Connie Mack borrowed the money he used to buy part-ownership in the Philadelphia Athletics in 1901. He remained part-owner until 1937, when he was 75 years old. Yet he was able to hand on through difficult business and economic circumstances for a half-century as both owner and manager of a leading major-league team. He was a classic example of economics at work in major-league baseball during its first century.

The Changeover

The great manager Casey Stengel is famous for remarking, upon viewing the lack of talent assembled by the expansion-team New York Mets, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” There is no doubt that for baseball’s first century it was a business, not just a game. The problem was that most of its practitioners lacked the acquired skills and natural talent to play the game of baseball from a purely business standpoint. A baseball genius like Connie Mack was able to exist and earn a comfortable living for over fifty years without stacking up the fortunes earned by today’s moguls.

The watershed came when baseball owners started treating the game less like a hobby – as it was viewed by rich, large-market owners – or just a way of earning a decent living – as the lower-level owners experienced it. A man came along with the marketing skills, business acumen and love of the game to take the business of baseball to a new level. That paved the way for the ascension of baseball – and professional sports generally – to the economic level it now occupies. The man’s name was Bill Veeck. His story will be told in our next EconBrief.