What Are Sports Economists Like? The WEA, Part 1

In San Francisco last month the world’s sports economists–pretty much all of them–gathered for the 87th annual Western Economics Association conference to present and discuss their latest research. Think of this event as marking the scientific yang to the MIT Sloan Conference’s artistic yin. What was the WEA like? What is David Berri like in person? What can some of this new research tell us? I will answer these and other questions in this post and two more that follow up on what I learned at the 2012 WEA Conference.

Within minutes of arriving Stefan Szymanski–author of Soccernomics and leading cricket expert–leaned over to me with a wide grin and said, “Oh, you’re gonna hate this.” Others spoke forlornly of an ESPN reporter (Kevin Arnovitz) who “didn’t even last two sessions” a few years earlier. Is it possible I would be bored to death?

What they did not know is that Dave Berri had successfully lobbied to lower my expectations weeks ahead of time to somewhere near jury duty levels. The windowless, grey, dimly lit conference room at the Hilton where the sessions were held fit my expectation to a tee.

FOREGROUND: David Berri and Stefan Szymanski listen to the first talk. Dave prepares his remarks as discussant. There may not be a more prolific writer than Stefan (his blog at Forbes.com, Soccernomics, Playbooks and Checkbooks, Fans of the World, Unite!, and National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer), though Dave notes that he owns more sport coats (six) than Stefan (who appears to be wearing the same sport coat as on the University of Michigan website).

BACKGROUND: Kevin Quinn (blue shirt, from St. Norbert College) is author of Sports and Their Fans: The History, Economics and Culture of the Relationship Between Spectator and Sport as well as Editor of The Economics of the National Football League, Mike Leeds (red shirt, from Temple University, co-author of The Economics of Sports, which is perhaps the leading textbook in sports economics), Stacey Brook (red hat, has a blog called Hawkonomics, co-author of Wages of Wins so needs no introduction), and Jeff Owen (elbow up, from Gustavo Adolphus, holds the distinction of being the tallest sports economist).

The adjustment of my expectations helped–I had a blast. The presentations were generally challenging to follow. As a non-economist and pseudo-journalist armchair quarterbacking this event, I decided to arm myself with Dave’s advice from his Guide to Evaluating Models and a large coffee in order to bring you a few stories.

Did I meet Henry Abbott or Larry Coon or Mark Cuban or the GM of my hometown NBA team’s management like Andres did at Sloan? No, but I did meet sports experts like Victor Matheson (who I’ve quoted to my city council), Stacey Brook (who claims to still use a typewriter), Szymanski, Joe Price (of NBA referee bias fame), and others. Know this–if you took the “sports” out of “sports economists” you would be plucking fish out of water. These people are diehard sports fans. They are also extremely skilled and committed to the “freakish” research they do.

They were very open, collegial and friendly to me as an outsider (though I noticed a few check my badge wondering who this “Jeremy” guy with no college affiliation was). I had the pleasure of going to the Giants game–unfortunately the one where Matt Cain broke the shutout inning streak in the top of the 1st and they lost–with a big group. After two beers I chewed Szymanski’s and Matheson’s ears off about basketball. To be fair, I warned them ahead of time that I was the worst fan to attend a sporting event with.

I came away impressed by the entire framework these economists have for forming theories, selecting the best research tools, discussing work, and offering peer review. This is science, not dabbling in numbers. In contrast, at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference the majority of presentations are acted out as if they were research by sprinkling in statistics to jack up the “scientific” flavor of stories that tend to confirm preconceptions. But economics ain’t like MSG.

What Is Dave Berri Like?

Of course, I also met David Berri for the first time. In fact, this marks the first time a contributor to this blog has ever met Dave in person. To the Wages of Wins contributors let me say that Dave is much taller and lankier than his picture. He does not walk around in a sport coat carrying a baseball with that austere squint like his press photo. His favorite comment about this blog was, “My own blog has been taken over from me. I’ve had my comments removed for being too snarky!” To this, someone in the audience replied, “It’s gotten better since!”

To adequately capture his personality at the conference, let me offer this conceptual graph (without units of measure) to put him in context:

Dave is a dervish of big gestures, loud remarks, playful barbs, and self-referential quips that stand in contrast to the majority of his colleagues (and the public at large). I liked him right away.

Note: One thing about Dave’s conduct, I think, is that it shows an insight into how he does research. He approaches it as someone who feels his work is too important to take too seriously. His experience comes across in incisive remarks–often wrapped inside quick jokes–that seem to cut down the curve and get his audience pointed in more productive directions. This allows him to move more freely, quickly, and broadly through his own research than I imagine many academics would. To me this explains why he connects with a broad audience and can rub them the wrong at times too. He’s challenging.

Stay tuned for part 2 of our WEA converage titled, Six Cutting Edge Pieces of Sports Research.

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