Review of “15 Sports Myths and Why They’re Wrong”

Jill Harris earned her Ph.D. in economics from Oklahoma State University. She has taught Principles of Microeconomic theory, Economics of Sport, and Economics of Crime for more than 20 years in public and private institutions and is currently teaching at Pitzer College and Pomona College. Her research interests include cheating in the NCAA, detecting the Hot-Hand in sports (especially water polo), and non-compliance behavior in organizations and industry. In this post, Jill reviews a new book by sports economists Rodney Fort and Jason Winfree.

“15 Sports Myths and Why They’re Wrong” (Stanford Press)– by Rod Fort and Jason Winfree — is a timely collection of “myth-busting” essays written with the general public in mind.  The authors (almost) represent the Alpha and Omega of the economics of sport. Fort earned his Ph.D. in 1985 from Cal Tech and is a Professor Sport Management at the University of Michigan.  He is a respected scholar in the field with dozens of peer reviewed publications on the topic of sports and economics.  Jason Winfree is no stranger to the world of sports scholarship; he is the coauthor of Sports Finance and Management and is an Assistant Professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Idaho (he earned his Ph.D. in 2003). The partnership between these two authors works well; the writing style seems a natural extension of both economists’ voices and perspectives.  Although some of the anecdotal wisdom and reflection injected in the narrative is a bit jarring, the book invites you in to a good conversation-in-progress about the 15 myths identified in the title.

It is no secret that “…commonly held beliefs about sports are inconsistent with the data.” (see page 10 of The Wages of Wins).  Berri, Schmidt and Brook took on 10 tenants of conventional wisdom in the book that birthed this forum.  Fort and Winfree’s offering is different in scope, approach, and style.   The first seven chapters are devoted to college myths while the remaining eight focus on misconceptions in the professional realm.  With each topic Fort and Winfree do their best to uncover the motivation of those beholden to the myth.  For example, in “Athletic Budgets are a Drag on University Budgets” (Chapter 3) the authors peel back the thin veneer of this blanket statement to reveal a naive assumption that dollars not spent on athletics would magically flow to other more deserving causes.  Implicit in this belief is the idea that athletics and “deserving cause exhibit A” cannot coexist.  The opportunity cost of athletics programs is prohibitive somehow.  By developing a return on investment argument the authors show most athletic programs show a positive return (they use 5% as a benchmark) once benefits and costs are evaluated.  All of this analysis is served up with plenty of data and a sense of humor.  The myth-busting goes down smoothly and–unlike some economic analysis–is unlikely to cause indigestion.

One less than palatable feature of the book is frequent use of colloquialism.  In the same chapter on budgets mentioned above Mark Twain is quoted four times.  I like Twain as much as anyone, but found the interjection of these thoughts distracted from the meat of the arguments laid out.  In “Player Salary Demands Increase Ticket Prices” (Chapter 10), Fort and Winfree conclude “…understanding the economics behind this situation may lessen the resentment between fans, players, and owners.  And wouldn’t that make the world a much happier place?” These quotes and informal phrases are peppered throughout the text and and make the style of the book more conversational; however, the trade off is sometimes reduced clarity.

My favorite busted myths are:  “Pay-for-Play Will Bankrupt College Athletics” (Chapter 5) and “Owners Should Be More Vigilant in Policing Performance-Enhancing Drugs” (Chapter 13).  Fort and Winfree argue clearly and effectively the money to pay collegiate athletes already exists; a pay-for-play scheme would simply transfer the dollars from coaches, facilities enhancement, and other resources to athletes.  They also handle the “myth within a myth” that pay-for-play would sabotage women’s programs by pointing out that a school with a female gymnastic team under current conditions would still field that team under pay-for-play.  They (rightly) suggest the only impact would likely be that football players will make more and coaches earn less in the bargain.  The PED chapter contains some of the best analysis economists bring to thorny issues.  With the A-Rod case galloping across headlines and blog posts on a weekly basis, this is perhaps the most timely and contentious subject matter of the book as well.  Relying on some of the authors’ own research they assert fans care about absolute quality of play as well as relative quality.  During the surge in hitting power of the late ’80s attendance drifted up; controlling for other factors, a study by Fort and Lee (2013) suggests fans showed up to see players on PEDs crush the ball.  Laments about the potential damaging influence on young athletes and about the negative effects of PEDs on pro athletes are handled with logic and sound economic reasoning.   This is some of the most effective myth-busting the book serves up.

Some sports economists might disagree in form or substance with a couple of the finer points made by Fort and Winfree while they beat down the myth mantras.  “Owners and General Managers are Inept” (Chapter 8) comes to mind.  There are quite a few studies of the “Moneyball” issue in sports that contradict the premise of this chapter (see Stumbling on Wins for a sample of this work).  Even though this research does not align with Fort and Winfree’s premise, I think other economists would agree with Fort/Winfree’s concluding thought:  fans are no better at “managing” teams than General Managers (if for no other reason than the quality of fans making decisions cannot actually be tested!).

15 Sports Myths belongs on any true fan, sports manager, or sports economist bookshelf.  Any of my (minor) complaints about the writing style are overshadowed by the benefit of listening to these two sports economists talk about common misconceptions in the world of professional and amateur sport.  While other economists who are paid to think about such things (as Fort and Winfree describe themselves in the concluding remarks) may find fault in some of the arguments presented, the rest of the world can learn a thing or two (or at least 10?) by reading.

- Jill Harris