College sports are better when they’re worse

It’s spring break and that means catching up on both research and my social network. It also means college basketball. I remain firmly in the camp that college athletes should be paid for their incredibly high-value labor and, in turn, recapture a huge share of the surplus currently enjoyed by schools and coaches. What I am beginning to rethink, however, is the way that “professionalization” can and will play out.

This rethinking began with the the realization that my enjoyment of the product is largely insensitive to the presence of great players. The gap between NBA and NCAA basketball, in terms of quality of play, is so great that I simply don’t watch the sports in the same way. I consume the NBA the way I do Denis Villeneuve films: enjoying an artform in its closest approximation to perfection at the bleeding edge of innovation. NCAA basketball, in contrast, is a soap opera for genre aficionados. It’s Battlestar Galactica for sports fans.

There is a floating, ever-changing cast of characters supporting a handful of recurring leads. Clans and sub-clans. Rises and falls. Tragic failures and heroic redemption arcs. And, much like the latest show about wizards or post-apocaplyptic alien invasion survivors on the SciFy channel, the enjoyment of this product doesn’t require high level precision or execution. Quite frankly, the show is more enjoyable when the actors aren’t famous or especially elite; it keeps me squarely focused on the shlocky fun, rather than getting distracted by any urge to pick apart the film composition, story logic, or actor subtext. College basketball, in much the same way, keeps me squarely focused on the drama of gifted athletes doing their best to help their team achieve success in a limited window before moving on to the rest of their lives. Trying to get a little slice of glory now, while their knees will allow for greatness, before getting on with the endless particulars of adult life later.

Which brings me back to the eventual professionalization of college sports with athlete compensation. Schools will find themselves faced with a decision of whether they should spend money on the very best athletes or try to compete with less expensive players. Athletes will have to decide where the best opportunities to develop their professional game are, and how much of their human capital investment portfolio they want to dedicate to sports. What might the equilibrium look like?

We can coarsely reduce the pool of athlete’s into three categories: all-in on athletics, those looking to purely subsidize secondary education, and those aiming for a mix of both. Currently schools capture the most rents from the pure athletics all-ins, who dedicate nothing but the bare minimum to schooling while maximizing their athletic preparation. The all-ins will often be the best players, who get the most media attention and contribute the most to winning glory, attracting applications from young fans and donations from nostalgic alumni. You might expect that compensation would shift the most suprlus to them. We have to consider, however, the possibility that a proper market for elite college athletic labor would provide the prices needed to accelerate the formation of pre-professional academies and player futures contracts. The very best 18-year old basketball players may find it far more lucrative to take a $120K in income and full-time coaching today in exchange for 2% of future professional earnings.

At the same time, college basketball may similarly learn the true nature of their collective good: that it is, in fact, a zero-sum competition where the total amount of talent isn’t nearly as important for earnings as they think. While a small number of schools absorbing all of the top talent might be exciting for covers of no longer existent sports magazines, in reality 120 teams competing for a less skewed distribution of talent more predominantly interested in subsidizing the full cost of college (i.e. tuition, lost wages, etc) may actually make for more drama, which means more ratings, which means more money. Why try to compete with the academies for 1 year of the next Lebron when those same resources, will get you 5 good players for 4 years? Combined with the fact that this bundle of athletes will place greater value on (nearly) marginally costless scholarships, teams looking to compete in the long-term with a maximimally effcient allocation of resources could shift the competitive equiibrium could actually shift away from the top talent.

Sports are fun when they are played at the highest level. They are also fun, however, when a little chaos is injected into the drama. It’s great when Steph Curry casually hits shots 40 feet from the basket, when Lebron James or Nikola Jokic make Matrix-esque passes through impossible angles. But it’s also great watching players struggle at the edge of far more human limitations to a find to win on the biggest stage of their lives while wearing the jersey of one of hundreds of colleges. The highest drama includes players making shots, but sometimes it needs players to dribble off their foot, too.

We don’t have to limit earnings to capture that glory. We don’t have to take money from young people whose particular talents put them in the sliver of the human population whose greatest earning potential might be age 20. We don’t need to appeal to platitudes or false nostalgia to explain why they’re being compensated with something better than money. We can just pay them. Some things will change, but I think you’ll be shocked to see how little the experience of college basketball will change. College sports will remain largely the same, but it will be a bit less shady, a bit less hypocritical. It will place greater value on, and care for, the players they have directly invested in.

Which, at least to me, would be a little more fun.

Word Golf is a new online game

If you like Scrabble or Family Feud, then you might enjoy playing Word Golf. You can get started for free immediately by going to word.golf

You play by thinking of word associations to click from one concept to another. The challenge will get you thinking. Every game only takes about one minute, and there are simple instructions on the website to get you going right away. Unlike chess, you can do this for fun even without any time commitment.

Like Mike and Jeremy before me this week, I am writing about something I saw at the Emergent Ventures conference. It was an inspiring type of event. I met the young creator of Word Golf and was inspired by his vision for a new intellectual sport.

The game is built from data on how often words appear together on the internet. That’s why I compare it to the TV guessing game show Family Feud. You are not just thinking of synonyms to jump from one word to another. The challenge is to think of what words other people typically use in the same online article.

Word Golf is probably a better use of time than Candy Crush or Solitaire. (I played a lot of computer FreeCell at one point in my life but not anymore.)

Data continues to improve sports performance

Joy: As a Data Analytics teacher, I often think about the applications of machine intelligence to work processes. Samford undergraduate Copeland Petitfils has written the following blog, which is a reminder to me that there are still many potential areas for growth.

Since “Moneyball”, we have seen the growth of analytics throughout sports. However, many teams have stuck to the same old way of playing baseball, like the Braves. This past May, the Braves took a new innovative approach and saw room for growth on their defensive side.

The general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, implemented a radical strategy and improved the defense by using shifts with data analytics. While “Moneyball” looked at the statistics of acquiring cheaper players who had good batting averages and improved the offensive side, the Braves looked at improving the defensive side and the way they shift between pitches to improve their chances of getting a ground ball out. A defensive shift in baseball refers to the infield changing positions from normal to a certain area of the infield based on the pitches and using stat cast to predict where the batter is most likely to hit the ball depending on the type of pitches. Shifting can increase the probability for players to get ground balls out rather than hits.

Statistically, the Braves ranked at the bottom of defensive shifts in the MLB, and Anthopoulos, the general manager, saw this as an opportunity to improve. The Braves started the 2021 season with no shifting at all to shifting on 50.6% of pitches by the end of the year, which was the highest in baseball this year only behind the Dodgers. The shifting ultimately allows the Braves to improve in converting ground balls to out rather than turning into hits. At the start of the season, the Braves converted under 75% of ground balls into outs which ranked middle of the pack in defense. However, since implementing the shift the number jumped to 77%, which was the second-best in baseball. Although these jumps in percentages seem small, they allowed the Braves to field 25 more ground balls into outs rather than hits.

The data analytics the Braves used allowed the players to be put in a better position to succeed, and as the season progressed, they started to get better and better at it. These decisions turned around the Braves’ season, and now they are on their way to the World Series for the first time since 1999 after beating the Dodgers in the NL Championship.

Coda by Joy: That said, guess who failed at data driven decision making? Zillow!

In a statement Tuesday, Chief Executive Rich Barton said Zillow had failed to predict the pace of home-price appreciation accurately, marking an end to a venture the company once said could generate $20 billion a year. Instead, the company said it now plans to cut 25% of its workforce… “We’ve determined the unpredictability in forecasting home prices far exceeds what we anticipated and continuing to scale Zillow Offers would result in too much earnings and balance-sheet volatility,” Mr. Barton said.

La Dolce Vita Economica

I thought about writing about soccer (again). I thought about writing about time management and personal production functions. I considered writing about Lebron James or how I manage multiple research projects. I thought about writing about a classic, and entirely addictive to the point of career ruination, video game. They all seem a little redundant at the moment, though, because they are all the same basic story.

One soccer manager is over-exhausting their resources because of a confluence of bad contractual incentives while another team is witnessing a renaissance in a player they essentially forced to take 7 weeks off. While so many NBA careers of the 80s evaporated in a cloud of cocaine and clubbing, Lebron James’ entire life is built around managing the only two resources whose limits are salient to his life: his body and relationship with his family. Playing baseball growing up I watched pitchers blow out their arms before they finished puberty in service to Little League glory, while modern professional pitchers are (finally) on strictly managed pitch counts to maximize their expected output.

There are two manners in which I armchair quarterback the rest of the world. One is the things in which I have just enough knowledge to be frustrated by others decisions, but no so much as to actually know what I am talking about. These frustrations are ephemeral, they flatter myself to the point of mild embarrassment upon reflection, and, if I am being honest with myself, are fun.

The other manner is resource management. These are the times when armchair quarterbacking is less fun and more exasperating because they are the moments when outsiders, with inferior levels of narrowly-applicable expertise, are often actually right. Which is not to say the knowledge that resources are being poorly managed is uniquely held by outsiders. Insiders are more often than not quite aware of the suboptimal deployment and conservation of resources, but are unable to overcome the status quo institutions, incentives, or inertia of decision-making power loci. It’s obvious to lots of people that athletes, CEOs, doctors, and congressional representatives are over-extended. What’s not obvious is how to get out of these equilibria.

When I see most attempts at self-improvement, I am generally skeptical of anything that doesn’t start with the identification of a key resource that is salient to outcomes and the options available to better manage it. Maybe its calories and how to budget them. Maybe its time and how to better partition and conserve it. It could always be money, but in general I find that money is so immediately identifiable as a finite resource and entirely fungible that people who ostensibly are managing it poorly are, in actuality, failing at managing a different resource (time, emotional energy, vices, etc) that is intertwined with financial resources.

When I see successful firms, teams, and individuals, what I most often find myself admiring is not (just) a worldly talent, but a facility with managing resources that others haven’t yet adopted or mimicked. An appreciation for sleep, a protection of time blocked for creativity, an adeptness trading low opportunity competitive minutes for higher opportunity cost moments on the biggest stages. Or even just the ability to recognize that this is the moment to savor a 600 calorie dessert with a loved one because the emotional sustenance will make it easier to walk away from three vending machine Hostess pies during the high-stress moments in the week to come.

Once you learn to manage your donut-based caloric intake, the spreadsheet of your life will be revealed before you, an endless cascade of resources to be managed and optimized. A life with the right donuts at the right time. The dolce vita economica.

Self interest and self care

“Self care” is all the rage. It’s heralded as a novel and progressive notion.

The stance one takes on Simone Biles is largely colored by one’s theory of self care.

So, as Biles occupies the headlines for days, why isn’t more credit going to Adam Smith and his intellectual descendants? “Self interest” was condemned, yet here we are in 2021 with “self care”!

James had a similar post yesterday! He went back in history much further than Adam Smith.

Simone Biles and the Trojan War

When star gymnast Simone Biles decided to sit out the Olympics this week to ‘focus on herself’, both those praising her and those criticizing her seemed to treat this like a unique story that wouldn’t have happened in earlier generations. But it reminds me of one of the oldest recorded stories in the world, one that predates even the first ancient Greek Olympics of 776 BC- Achilles’ decision to sit out the Trojan War.

Here is Biles this week:

We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day we’re human, too… We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.

Here is Achilles, greatest of the Greek warriors, thousands of years ago:

Him do I hate even as the gates of hell who says one thing while he hides another in his heart; therefore I will say what I mean. I will be appeased neither by Agamemnon son of Atreus nor by any other of the Danaans, for I see that I have no thanks for all my fighting. He that fights fares no better than he that does not; coward and hero are held in equal honour, and death deals like measure to him who works and him who is idle. I have taken nothing by all my hardships- with my life ever in my hand; as a bird when she has found a morsel takes it to her nestlings, and herself fares hardly, even so man a long night have I been wakeful, and many a bloody battle have I waged by day against those who were fighting for their women. With my ships I have taken twelve cities, and eleven round about Troy have I stormed with my men by land; I took great store of wealth from every one of them, but I gave all up to Agamemnon son of Atreus. He stayed where he was by his ships, yet of what came to him he gave little, and kept much himself….

Agamemnon has taken her from me; he has played me false; I know him; let him tempt me no further, for he shall not move me. Let him look to you, Ulysses, and to the other princes to save his ships from burning…. I will draw my ships into the water and then victual them duly; to-morrow morning, if you care to look, you will see my ships on the Hellespont, and my men rowing out to sea with might and main. If great Neptune vouchsafes me a fair passage, in three days I shall be in Phthia. I have much there that I left behind me when I came here to my sorrow, and I shall bring back still further store of gold, of red copper, of fair women, and of iron, my share of the spoils that we have taken; but one prize, he who gave has insolently taken away. Tell him all as I now bid you, and tell him in public that the Achaeans may hate him and beware of him should he think that he can yet dupe others for his effrontery never fails him.

As for me, hound that he is, he dares not look me in the face. I will take no counsel with him, and will undertake nothing in common with him. He has wronged me and deceived me enough, he shall not cozen me further; let him go his own way, for Jove has robbed him of his reason. I loathe his presents, and for himself care not one straw. He may offer me ten or even twenty times what he has now done, nay- not though it be all that he has in the world, both now or ever shall have; he may promise me the wealth of Orchomenus or of Egyptian Thebes, which is the richest city in the whole world, for it has a hundred gates through each of which two hundred men may drive at once with their chariots and horses; he may offer me gifts as the sands of the sea or the dust of the plain in multitude, but even so he shall not move me till I have been revenged in full for the bitter wrong he has done me. I will not marry his daughter; she may be fair as Venus, and skilful as Minerva, but I will have none of her: let another take her, who may be a good match for her and who rules a larger kingdom. If the gods spare me to return home, Peleus will find me a wife; there are Achaean women in Hellas and Phthia, daughters of kings that have cities under them; of these I can take whom I will and marry her. Many a time was I minded when at home in Phthia to woo and wed a woman who would make me a suitable wife, and to enjoy the riches of my old father Peleus. My life is more to me than all the wealth of Ilius while it was yet at peace before the Achaeans went there, or than all the treasure that lies on the stone floor of Apollo’s temple beneath the cliffs of Pytho. Cattle and sheep are to be had for harrying, and a man buy both tripods and horses if he wants them, but when his life has once left him it can neither be bought nor harried back again. 

My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I shall not return alive but my name will live for ever: whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me. To the rest of you, then, I say, ‘Go home, for you will not take Ilius.’ Jove has held his hand over her to protect her, and her people have taken heart. Go, therefore, as in duty bound, and tell the princes of the Achaeans the message that I have sent them; tell them to find some other plan for the saving of their ships and people, for so long as my displeasure lasts the one that they have now hit upon may not be

In either case, economists aren’t surprised to see people stop showing up to work when they think the costs to them exceed the benefits, even when that work is itself unusual and could benefit their country.

Overfitting Celebrity Pitches

The Washington Post created a fun infographic of celebrity baseball pitches.

I use this graphic in my Data Analytics class. Students are tempted to draw inferences about individuals from this data set. John Wall and Michael Jordan are great athletes, but in this case they are underperforming Avril Lavigne and George W. Bush. Do we conclude that Sonia Sotomayor missed her calling as an MLB player?

The first lesson here is that we should not assume we can predict where Harrison Ford’s next pitch will go based on observing just one pitch. A single pitch should be considered a random draw from a distribution centered around Ford’s average ability. Any single pitch could be an outlier.

Snoop Dog features twice on this graph. In 2012 he got the ball in the strike zone. Had we only seen that, we would want to conclude that he is a great pitcher. However, in 2016 he was way off to the right. In either case, overconfidence that he is predictably near a single pitch would have been a mistake.

Lastly, I use this graph to illustrate the concept of overfitting (investopedia definition). I suggest a model that is obviously inappropriate. What if we conclude from these data that anyone with the last name of Bieber will not be able to throw the ball in the strike zone? That model surely will not generalize. The problem is that if we test that prediction on the same data we used to train the model, the misclassification rate will be zero. If possible, start with a large data set and set aside some portion of the data for validation, before training a model. Having validation data for assessment is a good way to check that you haven’t modeled the noise in your training set.

The Revealed Preferences of the National Hockey League

American sports leagues are different from their international counterparts for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the simplest and most important is that they exist as singular entities, otherwise natural cartels whose network effects are explicitly codified as clubs whose barriers to entry ensure a steady stream of profits so long as their sport remains sufficiently popular. Negotiating against player unions of varying levels of organization, they routinely negotiate collective bargaining agreements that neatly establish the division of proceeds between capital and labor.

A common mistake made is questioning the choices made by teams as if they were independent firms competing against each other in a ruthless marketplace for economic survival like Sony, McDonalds, or Manchester United, when in fact their survival is largely pre-ordained by the cartel, their choices salient only to the prestige and short-term windfall profits of annual trophies.

Tom Wilson plays for the Washington Capitals, which happens to be my favorite team in the National Hockey League. He is extremely good at hockey. He scores goals, makes good choices in transition, plays commendable defense, and is extremely adept at physically hurting other players. It is for this last bit that he has received the most attention. His team gains a notable advantage when he is on the ice simply because the other team must allocate a disproportionate amount of their attention to where Wilson is and their own relative vulnerability. The other teams in the league, and many of their players, are increasingly of the publicly held opinion that this advantage is not gained in a manner within the rules of the game. Tom Wilson is a cheating bully who threatens the safety of every other player beyond an acceptable level who simply must be stopped immediately.

To be clear, they do not believe this.

The other teams and their players believe he is dangerous (he is). But they clearly do not think he is too dangerous. Tom Wilson is occasionally suspended or fined, his salary donated to charity. The players’ union (the NHLPA) has worked tirelessly to minimize the punishments he incurs for physically injuring the other members of the same union. The other teams within the league cartel has never once imposed a punishment on his employing team. Based on the relatively modest punishments doled out and the minimal interest the players union has in ensuring their members’ physical safety, it would be foolish to conclude that the NHL views Tom Wilson as a net negative or even symptomatic of a net negative institution within hockey.

The NHL sells hockey. Their cartel members aren’t competing with each other, they are competing as a league against other sources of entertainment, principally other sports. They are competing for attention. Three John Wick movies have left me convinced that violence is an excellent means of eliciting attention. The NHL isn’t punishing Tom Wilson or the Washington Capitals because every time he punches a player prone on the ice in the back of their neck, the possibility that a player may be paralyzed or killed receives twenty-five fold the attention that Connor MacDavid receives for being the most skilled player I’ve ever seen.

To be clear, the NHL doesn’t sell hockey or violence, they sell a bundle of goods that includes athletic skill, regional identity, cultural identity, and violence. Compared to the other major US sports, it’s not unreasonable to consider the violence within hockey to be the bundle component that overlaps the least with other competing products and, as such, contributes the most, at the margin, to their share of the market. Violence may literally be the most profitably thing the NHL sells.

Every time Tom Wilson or another players seriously injures a player, possibly ending a career or reducing the quality of the rest of their life, people will speculate on what sort of event will cause the NHL to change the nature of their sport, but I don’t know why there is any uncertainty.

They’ll change when revenues decline because fans prefer less violence in their sports entertainment consumption or when young athletes with brief peak earning windows express willingness to receive smaller wages in exchange for safer working conditions. Such things have been happening steadily for the last 25 years with all of the major sports, but hockey has put itself in a uniquely bad position to continue transitioning away from selling violence, one what may demand that teams earn smaller profits, and players smaller wages, in the short run in order to enjoy greater success in the long run. I guess it could happen naturally through artful negotiation, earned trust, and thoughtful planning.

You ever know a joke that you know only a small fraction of people will understand, but you tell it anyway?

The Top Shot Blockchain Phenomenon

Samford Business student Wes Crane writes: Remember when people used to buy and sell physical sports trading cards? Recently the NBA has partnered with Dapper Labs, a company that specializes in blockchain (the same technology used for Bitcoin and Ethereum), to create and sell a digital art form of non-fungible tokens, or “NFT”s, that contain video clips of highlight moments which can be traded online at https://nbatopshot.com.

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I could do better

My favorite soccer team has been badly coached for 2 years and I am regularly convinced I could do better.

These are not the thoughts of a rational man and its causing me no small amount of consternation, bordering on intellectual crisis. Which is, of course, a lie, but adding a touch of intellectual melodrama never hurts when you’re trying your damnedest to write something new every week.

It is a puzzle, to be sure. There have been two coaches in the last two years, the second having only been there a week. The first was experienced, accomplished, and internationally famous. I’m quite confident he was wrong in the majority of decisions he made, but I at least had a model for why he was so often wrong.

When an ostensible expert appears to be failing at their job far worse than a hypothetically cheaper replacement, I always look for the rational reason why someone might be choosing to fail. In this case, we were observing an individual who could achieve mediocrity without effort. His past accomplishments gave him credibility with the players and his stock of knowledge as of 2011 was sufficient to carry him to large pay checks. To achieve mediocrity required near minimal effort. Could he update his tactics, both within the structure of the game and his management of personnel? Of course. But doing so would require enormous amounts of effort. His salary had peaked, his future managerial prospects dimmed by age and recent results, and as such the returns to effort were dwarfed by the returns to leisure. Allow me to enter ego into the calculus. What sounds more cognitively costly: acquiescing to reality that your human capital has been rendered obsolete and rebuilding your modus operandi from scratch with the full knowledge that you may spend your wealth-laden golden years failing in public? Or denying it fully, shifting all blame for failure onto the personnel, and bemoaning that it is not your human capital that is obsolete, but rather that the labor pool available to you is fundamentally flawed? To me its a no-brainer, and it’s why I am fully of the belief that there actually are bloggers in their mom‘s basement who could have better managed a team.

The new manager is a temp. He’s never managed a team before. Then again, neither have I. He has, however, played professional soccer at the highest level. He has been placed on the management training track by a world-class organization. He has none of the maladapted human capital or rational-addiction-adjacent reasons to fail at his job. He has all of the local and tacit knowledge from being on the training pitch and in the locker room that I don’t.

I’m still confident I could have done a better job than he did today. Why is that?

I can construct a model to rationalize my beliefs, but that model gets awfully “just-so” very quickly. It relies on assumptions I can’t justify and broad generalizations that, if evenly applied, would hurt the case for myself as superior even more so than the current job holder. Of course, I can invent a narrative where I am the superior sports team manager, but that narrative would have to rewrite my entire personal history going back so far as to render me a completely differ human, and one who no doubt would have just as many (and possibly the same) blind spots.

I guess what I’m saying is that I know I shouldn’t be the manager. Every rational bone in my body knows that is a silly idea and I would fail miserably. But I think there is a case to be made that sometimes we can look at the person making decisions for our favorite team, look at their track record, and confidently say “They would be making better decisions if they talked it over with me.” When the armchair quarterback says ‘the coach is an idiot” they’re not saying they want to be the coach. They’re saying they want to be in the room. They want a voice because they think they could contribute.

Someone tell Tottenham Hotspur that I’m available. I’m not free, but I can be had.