One of the
beauties of sport is that it can be enjoyed by so many kinds of people, from
little girls to grandfathers, from face-painted yahoos to deep thinkers like
Skip Sauer and his cohorts. Sauer, 50, is chair of the economics department at
Clemson and the brains behind The Sports Economist, a two-year-old blog. On the
site Sauer and nine other professors put their decades in academe to use
dissecting the sports news of the day. Think of www.thesportseconomist.com as a
highbrow version of Around the Horn.
So if the topic
is, for example, the officials' calls that went against the Seattle Seahawks in
the Super Bowl, the discourse doesn't degenerate into name-calling or
conspiracy theories. Instead one contributor, under the heading why good refs
make bad callS, wonders if rule changes haven't left officials with too much to
keep track of. The posting draws a parallel to a September 1992 study in the
Journal of Economic Literature showing that skilled accountants sometimes
perform bad audits when overwhelmed by details.
Economist is a blog for its time, because the idea of applying economic
theories to everyday situations is so much in vogue. Freakonomics has been on
The New York Times best-seller list for 66 weeks, and a more recent book that
has drawn good reviews, The Wages of Wins, is seeking to replicate
Freakonomics's success in the sporting world. One of the three co-authors of
Wages, David J. Berri, an associate professor at Cal State-- Bakersfield, is a
regular poster on The Sports Economist. And the idea that economists have
something to teach people in the sports world is not new. Economists were
delighted in 2002 when New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who was an
economics major in college, acknowledged having read a paper by University of
California professor David Romer suggesting that coaches should be more
aggressive in going for it on fourth down.
All the posters
on The Sports Economist have written sports-related articles or books. Sauer's
work includes pieces with titles such as Player Injuries and Price Responses in
the Point Spread Wagering Market and Does the Basketball Market Believe in the
Hot Hand? Sports and economics are natural bedfellows in Sauer's view.
"Economics is data driven," he says, "and there's a lot of data in
discourse on The Sports Economist resembles conventional sports talk--"The
cards are getting ridiculous," one poster mundanely complained during the
World Cup. At other times the dialogue can be more esoteric: A discussion
initiated by Washington State professor Rodney Fort on whether big-spending
college athletic programs engage in "arms races" included references
not just to the Michigan-- Ohio State rivalry but also to academic concepts
such as the Pareto efficiency, the Edgeworth conjecture and the Nash
equilibrium--which has disappointingly little to do with NBA MVP Steve
Which is not to
say that studying this site is the equivalent of doing college homework. Keep
in mind that sports blogging is these professors' version of kicking back.
"Most of the work I do as an economist has a gestation lag of about three
years," Sauer says. On the blog, publication is just a click away.
And while the
profs may talk a different game, it's clear that they are true sports fans.
Fort, 50, says he considers basketball "the most beautiful game" but
can't stand to watch the NBA version, with its welter of dunks, three-pointers
and uncalled traveling violations. "The rules and enforcement and the style
of play are geared to make as much money as they can for teams," he says,
"though knowing why it happens doesn't stop me from wishing it weren't
prefers college football to the pro game. He says the NFL "is a business
first and a competition second." So there's one thing these economists have
in common with the bleacher bums: Even they don't like it when the games become
too much about money.