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Sports, by the numbers


A close-up photo of a basketball sitting on dollar bills

Photograph When Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane sat down with writer Michael Lewis and described how he had turned an underdog team into playoff regulars, the chances of the resulting book, Moneyball, being turned into a Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt as Beane must have seemed miniscule. But that’s the thing with sports: odd, occasionally inexplicable events happen all the time. Lewis’s study of Beane created a micro-genre of nonfiction in which economists and scientists try to apply their analytical skills to sports’ enormous amounts of data to explain how the games really work. Other foundational works of the micro-genre include Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics (2009) and David Epstein’s The Sports Gene (2013).

Cover art for An Economist Goes to the Game: How to Throw Away $580 Million and Other Surprising Insights from the Economics of Sports

An Economist Goes to the Game, Oyer’s best example of sports’ economic angle is the seemingly unlikely dominance of women’s golf Even for a sports fan, it is hard to argue that a new stadium is more important than more public-sector workers, more advanced infrastructure, or cheaper healthcare.

What elevates An Economist Goes to the Game is that Oyer presents his data in an amiable, balanced way while drawing firm conclusions. For example, he believes that performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) have become so dominant in sports that they are basically indivisible from it, largely because doping makes economic sense for athletes. He describes taking drugs as an example of the prisoner’s dilemma, in a section that is so well-argued it is worth quoting at length: “The cyclists’ best choice (also known as a ‘dominant strategy’) is always to dope no matter what the other guy does. If one cyclist dopes, the other guy is better off doping because that increases his chances of winning from virtually zero to fifty-fifty. If one cyclist does not dope, the other guy is better off doping because it increases his chances of winning from 50 to nearly 100%. The only way doping is not a dominant strategy is if the cyclist in question incurs an extremely high psychological cost from lying and cheating.” Given how normalized doping has become over the last 30 years, it could be argued that this cost has diminished. Oyer is pessimistic about our chances of eliminating doping through testing, which leaves legalizing PEDs as the only option remaining. After all, he says, “Sports would still be fun to watch if PEDs were allowed.”

This is still a fairly heretical view, even if fans are comfortable with other aids to athletic performance, such as aerodynamic helmets and bouncy running shoes. Oyer has a more conventional position on cities’ bidding for tournaments and other major sporting events: in short, don’t bother. It is, as Oyer puts it, “three weeks of revelry followed Oyer is also broadly supportive of the growing legalization of sports betting, on the assumption that the relatively small number of problem gamblers would be betting regardless of legality, so the larger proportion for whom gambling adds extra excitement to the game may as well be allowed place bets, too. However, he is forthright that gambling to get rich is a waste of time: the advantages held And that is the impression to take away from Oyer’s sober assessment of sports: it doesn’t make much economic sense to pay for new stadiums, gamble on games, or try to keep drugs out. The more the sports industry grows and becomes professional, the more it will follow the laws of economics.


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