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CSUB prof's book debunks sports myths
  June 8, 2006
CONTACT:
Mike Stepanovich, 661/654-2456, mstepanovich@csub.edu,
or Jaclyn Loveless, 661/654-2138, jloveless@csub.edu

A California State University, Bakersfield professor's just-released book debunks several myths about professional sports, including that teams can simply buy wins in professional sports, the stars are the most valuable players in the NBA, fans are turned off by labor strikes, and competitive balance is a problem in Major League Baseball.

David J. Berri, an applied economics professor, together with Martin B. Schmidt (College of William and Mary) and Stacey L. Brook (University of Sioux Falls), spent 10 years conducting research on sports and economics. They were motivated to write a book when they consistently noticed, Berri said, "much of what people were saying about sports was not consistent with what our academic research showed." Their findings are reported in "The Wages of Wins, Taking Measure of the Many Myths in Modern Sport." Published by Stanford University Press ($29.95), the book has just been released to critical acclaim.

Writing for The New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell concludes: "Looking at the findings that Berri, Schmidt and Brook present is enough to make one wonder what exactly basketball experts coaches, managers, sportswriters know about basketball. It's not hard to wonder, after reading 'The Wages of Wins' about the other instances in which we defer to the evaluations of experts."

The book begins with the ability of teams to buy wins in professional sports. As Berri says, "the relationship between a professional team's payroll and wins is not as strong as people would believe. In baseball, football, basketball and hockey, payroll does not explain much of wins."

After debunking the link between pay and wins, the authors moved on to the impact strikes have on fan support. "We discovered that it doesn't matter," Berri said. "No matter how much sportswriters say the fans will be angered and won't come back, the data show that fans always return. Just look at the NHL this past season. After losing an entire season to a labor dispute hockey set an all-time attendance record."

Often these strikes are brought about because owners wish to implement policies in the name of competitive balance. The authors find, though, that the policies owners advocate are not what determines competitive balance.

"Look at competitive balance; it doesn't have much to do with revenue sharing, salary caps or other league policies," Berri said. "It's primarily about the number of people playing the game. As baseball integrated and allowed more and more talent from other countries to play, competitive balance improved.

"Or look at the NBA, easily the least competitive league. To play in the NBA you have to first be very tall, and as we say in the book, the NBA suffers from a short supply of tall players. Consequently, some teams will have tall players like Shaquille O'Neal or Michael Jordan who are extremely talented. Other teams will have to make do with tall players who are not nearly as good. When games are contested between teams at very different talent levels, the more talented tend to win most of the time. Consequently, the league ends up with very little balance."

Predictability may be an issue for the NBA, but in baseball and football it is not. Over the past 10 years the team with the best regular season record in baseball has only won the World Series once. In football, players are consistently inconsistent. To illustrate, the authors take the reader through the 2004 season of Brett Favre where from game to game his performance fluctuated from great to not-so-great.

"Although player performance is more predictable in basketball, it is not very well understood," Berri said. "How do we know that? If you look at what determines player pay, coaches voting for the all-rookie team, or who gets cut from a team, the primary statistic that matters is scoring totals. Rebounds, turnovers, or steals don't affect decision making very much, but those statistics do affect outcomes. But players aren't paid to do those things. That's why payroll and wins don't correlate in basketball, because players aren't evaluated correctly."

Beyond evaluating decision-making in the NBA, the authors also created a unique measure of player performance. "In order to do the research on basketball, we had to create a measure of performance that connects what the player does to wins. So you can now measure how many wins a player produces."

With this measure the book shows that while Allen Iverson was drafted first in the 1996 draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, and has the highest salary of the 29 players drafted in the first round that year, he only ranks 11th among that draft class in career wins produced. The authors show that while Iverson scores a lot of points, it's because he takes a lot of shots, not because he's very efficient when he does shoot. He's also prone to turnovers. "That raises the question again of how talent is evaluated in the NBA." Berri said.

Of course the authors do not deny that from the view of NBA fans Iverson is a star. They show, though, that star power matters little to the team paying the star. "It turns out what matters most for the home team is winning, not star power," he said. "We actually thought star power would be important but star power doesn't matter much for the home team. Surprisingly, star power does matter a lot on the road. But revenue only goes to the home team, so who benefits when you employ a star? Everybody but you. So Allen Iverson may be a star, but it only helps the teams the Sixers play, not the Sixers.

"The key thing is if you want to maximize profits, you want to get players who produce wins. But that means you must measure who produces wins. How do you measure the players' production of wins? We created an algorithm that allows one to translate the player's statistics into the number of wins the player produced.

"We also did the same for football, and the results debunked another myth about sports. Often quarterbacks are given the full credit and blame for a team's success or failure. The numbers dispute this practice. Peyton Manning, in his very best season, produced 5.6 wins for a team that won 12 games. So one of the best seasons ever played by a quarterback was not worth half the team's wins. What that shows is you can't point solely to the quarterback for wins or losses, because other players are important. The quarterback doesn't catch the ball, or tackle or play defense other players matter on a football team and it is the team that wins and losses games."

For more information please go to www.wagesofwins.com, or call Berri at (661) 654-2027.

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