Defending Sports Economics

Yesterday the Wages of Wins Journal’s Blog Stat passed the 100,000 mark. So let me start by thanking everyone who is making our thoughts on sports a part of their day.

In looking at what to write about today I thought about commenting on King Kaufman’s column at yesterday. As of now, all I would say is that there is a sentence in our book right after the quote Kaufman takes from the Wages of Wins. And that sentence contradicts the point he is making on Rodman and Jordan. Perhaps I will say more on this topic in the next few days.

For today, I have two objectives. First, I want to make a few comments about our field, Sports Economics. Additionally, I want to introduce a new feature proposed by Stacey. First the comments (and I apologize at the start for the length of this post).

Marty, Stacey, and I are participants in a growing field in economics dedicated to the study of economics, via the data generated by sports; and the study of sports, via the tools of economics. As participants in this field we regularly present papers at academic conferences and publish articles in peer reviewed journals. And it is our participation in academic conferences and peer reviewed work that we believe gives our work some legitimacy. As a fellow sports economist recently told me (and I paraphrase): Publications are what separates us from someone on the street spouting off on sports.

I wanted to build on that point by going back to a comment I posted — both here and at The Sports Economist – discussing an article in Business Week by Peter Coy. The brief article reviewed two perspectives on the recent success of the Oakland A’s. On the one hand we have the Moneyball perspective, or the argument that the A’s were able to take advantage of the market undervaluation of plate discipline. This argument is offered by Michael Lewis – author of Moneyball – and Jahn Hakes and Raymond Sauer, who authored a paper entitled “An Economic Evaluation of the Moneyball Hypothesis.” This paper appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. An opposing point of view was offered by Steve Levitt – co-author of Freakonomics – who argued that the A’s are successful because Oakland is simply able to employ better pitchers.

My post led to a fair amount of conversation at The Sports Economist. Much of this conversation focused on the actual Moneyball debate. My purpose in posting this comment, though, was not to weigh in on that particular discussion. Although I am sympathetic to the perspective offered by Hakes and Sauer, my purpose in highlighting the Coy article was to counter the statement Coy made that the Journal of Economic Perspectives is a “not-quite-so-serious” journal.

A difficulty economists have in studying sports is that this is often perceived as a “not-quite-so-serious” topic. Part of the problem is that sports are often the subject of “bar-room” debates. Unlike the finer points of macroeconomics – Martin Schmidt’s primary field – or international trade – my original field – people both inside and outside of academia have strong opinions and views on many of the topics we examine in sports economics. On the flip-side of this argument, people outside of economics are not often devoting much time to debating the latest international trade theory. Although the popularity of sports creates a larger audience for our work outside of economics, other economists might wonder if all we are doing is participating in “bar-room” debates.

I would argue that in our academic work this is not the case. The economists who publish in this field are often making an effort to further our understanding of economics in general. The Hakes-Sauer paper highlights this point. This paper is not just about how the Oakland A’s built a playoff team, but about how decision-makers process information in a complex environment. And although sports economics has contributed to our understanding of a variety of topics in public finance, industrial organization, and labor economics – it is the investigation of how information is processed by decision-makers that I think is the most important area where our field can contribute to the larger discipline of economics. So in that sense, what Hakes and Sauer have done is quite important.

So the message for people inside economics is that the study of sports is indeed a serious effort. For those outside of academia looking upon our investigations I would emphasize a different point. Specifically, I would like to discuss briefly how investigations of sports in academia differ from what you see in other forums.

The Hakes-Sauer paper reports that this research was reviewed by a number of people insider economics. And this review process caused the paper to be revised until it was finally deemed acceptable by the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Clearly Sauer – as the leading scholar at The Sports Economist – could have skipped this entire process and posted his story on-line. Such an approach would have gotten this story out quicker, but likely would have reduced the quality of the paper. And ultimately in sports economics it is quality we are striving to achieve.

Yes, blogs are nice and do provide quick feedback. But writers like JC Bradbury 0f Sabernomics fame, the contributors at The Sports Economist (Dennis Coates, Rodney Fort, Brian Goff, Brad Humphreys, Victor Matheson, Phil Miller, John Palmer, Stefan Szymanski, as well as Sauer and some guy named Berri), and the contributors at The Wages of Wins Journal, all maintain an active research agenda by writing for academic journals, at academic conferences, and books. Ultimately it is the research in academic forums that we take seriously, and we often are quite skeptical of findings that have not been exposed to this peer review process. And that is true even of the material we post ourselves on blogs.

It is important to note that the peer review process does not end with the publication of this paper. It is possible that others might read Hakes and Sauer and disagree with its findings. If that is the case, these critics could choose to respond to the paper in some on-line forum. Such critics might have some academic credentials and might even even argue that their own work is on the “cutting edge.” Of course, serious academics typically don’t defend their position by reminding everyone of their credentials. And few people note that their own work is on the “cutting edge”, even when it is.

No, if one wishes to dispute a published finding you have to do more than note that you perceive yourself as an authority. The route those who disagree must follow is ultimatly the same academic route as everyone else. He or she will have to demonstrate that they have empirical evidence that comes to a different conclusion. And this empirical evidence would be submitted to a peer review process before it could be published in an academic forum.

The purpose in noting this process is to emphasize that the same system of peer review we see in all academic fields is employed in sports economics. Our hope is that by rigorously applying the same standards to the study of sports and economics that we see elsewhere, our work will have the same level of quality.

For the most part, I think the work in sports economics is of the same high quality we observe in other fields. Work in this field has appeared in virtually every top journal in economics, including The American Economic Review, Quarterly Journal of Economics, the Journal of Political Economy, and yes, The Journal of Economic Perspectives. And it is my hope that in the future when we see writers like Hakes and Sauer follow all the rules and land their work in a top journal, it is not stamped with the “not-so-serious” label.

Okay, this essay has gone on a bit too long. And if you made it this far you clearly are  falling in to the same trap I am in; you are just avoiding your work for Friday. But before closing the post, I do want to make the announcement I promised at the onset of this post. Stacey has suggested a new feature for The Wages of Wins Journal. The new feature is going to focus on research in the field of sports economic offered by people other than Marty, Stacey, and myself. Our hope is to use this forum to shine a spotlight on all the wonderful work that is done in our field. Stacey has already started on the first installment of this feature, which should be up in a few days.

– DJ

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