The Field of Sports Economics

Posted on July 12, 2006 by


Our posts at The Wages of Wins Journal have been a bit sparse lately.  The primary reason for the lack of activity was the Western Economic Association International (WEAI) meetings, held in San Diego this year from June 30 to July 3.  The preparation needed before the conference, the time spent in San Diego, and the need to catch up when we returned to our respective schools all put us a bit behind.

What is the WEAI?  I believe this is the second largest academic meeting for economists.  Beyond being a meeting of economists of all interests, the WEAI in the past several years has become a primary gathering point for economists interested in the study of sports.  This year Tony Krautmann (DePaul University), Brad Humphreys (University of Illinois), and I organized nine sessions devoted to sports economics.  A session typically consists of three or four papers being presented and then discussed.  In all, 34 papers were presented in our sessions examining a host of different applications of economics to the study of sport, or sport to the study of economics.

The quality of the conference can be seen in the diversity of papers presented.  A sample of the topics studied in these papers included (and I would emphasize that this is just a sample and I am sure I am missing a few great papers):

The winner’s curse in baseball’s free agent market, the link between pay and performance in German soccer, the impact stadiums have on property values, the decision-making process of arbitrators in baseball, various aspects of pay and performance for soccer referees, competitive balance in sports, how to use sports law cases to teach about the economics of sports, details on professional soccer in Australia, the incentive structure of NASCAR events, and the exploitation of labor in the National Football League. 

Again, the above list is only a partial review.  The entire conference impressed upon me the various ways in which sports can teach us about economics, and of course how economics can teach us about sports. 

The variety of approaches is not surprising given the number of economists who participated in our sessions.  Just from the United States we had Aju Fenn (Colorado College), Daniel Marburger (Arkansas State University), Dennis Coates (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), John Solow (University of Iowa), Yvan Kelly (Flagler College), John Burger and Stephen Walters (Loyola College in Maryland), Donald Coffin (Indiana University Northwest), Michael Davis and Christian End (University of Missouri, Rolla), Phil Miller (Minnesota State University), Orn Bodvarsson (St. Cloud State University), Carolyn Dehring (University of Georgia, Athens), Craig Depken and Michael Ward (University of Texas, Arlington), Robert Baade (Lake Forest College), Victor Matheson (College of the Holy Cross), Jeffrey Owen (Indiana State University), Kevin Quinn (St. Norbert College), David Surdam (University of Northern Iowa), Michael Leeds (Temple University), John Crooker (Texas Tech University), Dan Rascher (University of San Francisco), Peter von Allmen (Moravian College), Rodney Fort (Washington State University), James Quirk (California Institute of Technology), Christopher Azevedo (Central Missouri State University), Stephen Shmanske  and Leo Kahane (California State University-East Bay), Jason Winfree (University of Michigan), John Fizel (Pennsylvania State University, Erie), Zenon Zygmont (Western Oregon University), and Skip Sauer (Clemson University).

Now the previous list was just economists working in the United States. I wish to especially acknowledge the economists who travel from around the world to attend our sports sessions at the WEAI.  This list includes Stefan Szymanski (Imperial College, England), Rob Simmons (Lancaster University, England), Young Hoon Lee (Hansung University, South Korea), Ross Booth (Monash University, Australia), Bernd Frick and Joachim Prinz (University of Witten/Herdecke, Germany), and Leif Brandes, Egon Franck, and Men-Andri Benz (University of Zurich).

In all, our sessions attracted more than 40 economists and include many of the top names in our field.  

It is important for me to note that these meetings have a history. Much of what we have accomplished at the WEA is due to the efforts of Larry Hadley and Elizabeth Gustafson (University of Dayton). Larry and Elizabeth began organizing these sessions in the mid-1990s.  I would estimate that in the past ten years at least 300 papers have been presented and discussed at the meetings organized by Larry and Elizabeth.

And clearly the efforts of Larry and Elizabeth have done much to grow our field.  In the past ten years there have been two textbooks written on sports economics, one by Rodney Fort and the other by Michael Leeds and Peter von Allmen.  In addition, the Journal of Sports Economics – edited by Leo Kahane – also took off as a leading outlet for our research efforts in the past decade.

This field is not just about economists who attend our meetings. Across the world we see more and more universities offering sports economics as an elective in both economics and the field of sport management.  Furthermore we see more and more prominent scholars making contributions to this field, including such names as Steve Levitt, Richard Thaler, and David Romer. 

All in all, this is an exciting time to be working in sports economics.  Everyday it seems we learn something else about economic behavior from the study of how consumers, workers, and managers behave in the sports industry. 

Given all this, I think I shall make a daring and silly forecast.  Sports clearly capture people’s attention.  And economists, like anyone else, love it when people pay attention to their work.  Given these two points, I predict that someday every prominent economist will write at least one paper in this field. In fact, I am not sure we can respect your work as an economist if you cannot make a contribution in sports economics.

One last daring and silly prediction. The growth in our field may ultimately shape the process by which people get a Ph.D. Today graduate students in economics take both courses in math and economics (okay mostly math, but there is some economics mentioned).  But with the growth in sports economics, perhaps a new requirement should be added.  Perhaps students should not be allowed to finish a Ph.D. without attending one sporting event.  This might be a fun and interesting way to introduce students to the people whose actions are described by all the math they are supposed to be learning.

– DJ

Posted in: Sports Econ