Sports Philosophy

Sports are a common topic across academic disciplines.   In addition to Sports Economics, there is Sport Management, Sport Marketing, Exercise Science, and even Sports Philosophy.  I know very little about the last item on this list, but nevertheless, this column is still going to offer a few philosophical thoughts about sports.

A typical entry at The Wages of Wins Journal begins with a question and ends with an answer.  And if the answer says that Kobe Bryant (or Gilbert Arenas, Allen Iverson, etc…) isn’t the greatest, we then see a number of comments where regular readers of this page debate those with arguments that torture logic in a fashion that probably violates the Geneva Convention (assuming we still think that’s important).

In the last column of 2007, I am going to take a different approach. Today’s column is going to focus on a question that I don’t think I can answer.  And I hope the WoW Journal readers might have some ideas.

My question begins with the WoW Journal blog roll (on the right).  The blog roll presents a mix of blogs ranging from economics, to sports economics, to just sports.  Included in this list is The Disappointment Zone, a site maintained by life-time Cleveland sports fan, Joel Witmer.

This past year has been one of highs and lows for Witmer and the other fans of Cleveland professional sports.  Ohio State managed to reach the championship game in college football and men’s basketball, only to lose to a team from the University of Florida each time.  Next came the Cavaliers, who made it all the way to the NBA Finals, only to be swept away by the San Antonio Spurs.  Then the Indians came within one win of advancing to the World Series, only to see the Red Sox take three straight and eventually a World Series title.  Finally, the Browns managed to win 10 games, only to miss out on the playoffs when the Colts couldn’t come back and defeat the Titans on Sunday.

Witmer’s website was named The Disappointment Zone before the series of disappointments he experienced in 2007. In Witmer’s lifetime, Cleveland has had a number of close calls with championship glory.  The Browns advanced to the AFC Title game twice in the 1980s, only to be thwarted by John Elway and the Broncos.  The Indians reached the World Series in 1995 and 1997, only to lose each year. In essence, Witmer has seen his team come close to a title, only to be thwarted each time.

His experience this past week led me to wonder about consumer demand for sports.   Sports fans tend to follow a specific collection of teams.  We invest into these teams with time, money, and emotion. When our teams win we feel like we have won.  When they lose, we feel like we are losers.  In sum, our teams can make us happy or sad.  Or if I were to pretend to be an economist, teams can increase or decrease our utility.

Obviously when our teams take the title our utility level has been increased.  But titles are few and far between for most sports fans.  In my lifetime as a Detroit fan I have seen the Pistons take three titles, the Tigers win once, and the Lions…. well, they got to the NFC title game once but in general, the Lions are not too good.  If we start my clock as a fan when I am eight years old, I have invested 30 years into these three teams, and in those 90 seasons only seen four titles.  So 95.6% of the time my teams have either finished the season with a loss, and/or missed the playoffs entirely.

Okay, here’s my question.  Given that winning the title is unlikely, how would we prefer our teams finish the season?  Consider baseball for a moment. Obviously when the regular season ended, Witmer was happier with his Indians than I was with the Tigers.  The Indians were in the playoffs, the Tigers were not.  But like every playoff team outside of Boston, the Indians season ended without a title. In fact, the Tigers won their last game in 2007.  Witmer’s Indians, despite being the better team, finished with three disappointing losses.  When we look at the entire picture, Witmer was clearly very happy to see his team eliminate the Yankees (as was I) and quite happy to see his team take three out of four from Boston.  But the last three games of the Boston series clearly reduced his utility.

Did the net effect of this experience leave Witmer worse off than a Tigers fan? Would he have been better off if the Indians missed the playoffs entirely?

Again, I don’t have an answer to these questions.  But one wonders about this answer for fans of each NFL playoff team.  Right now fans of twelve teams are thinking that if things break right for them (and maybe if Tom Brady breaks a bone or two), maybe their team can win a Super Bowl.  Fans of eleven of these teams are going to be unhappy in a few weeks. Would they have been better off just being a fan of the Lions, who were eliminated a few weeks ago?

Okay, I know the answer to that question.  No football fan is better off being stuck witht the Lions.  But let’s not go there.   

– DJ

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