Notes from a Panel Discussion on Blogging About Sports and Economics

Posted on July 20, 2010 by

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A few weeks ago, the annual meeting of the Western Economic Association was held in Portland, Oregon.  From what I understand, this is second largest meeting of economists (the meetings of the American Economic Association are the largest).  To put the size of the meeting in perspective – the NAASE (North American Association of Sports Economists) — along with the International Association of Sports Economists — sponsored sixteen sessions where 62 papers on sports and economics were presented (and critically discussed).  All these papers, though, only represented about 7% of all the papers presented at the WEA.

These other papers aren’t really the focus of this current post.  In fact, the sports papers aren’t what I want to talk about either.  In addition to all the NAASE sessions, we also had a panel discussion on the subject of blogging about sports and economics. 

The panel discussion was at 8:15am on July 1st.  It was my intention to post a comment on this discussion soon after the panel was over (at 10am).  But after the panel I had to chair a session (from 1o:15am to 12pm), attend two meetings of the NAASE (from 12:15pm to 2:30pm), meet with Rob Simmons (we are working on a number of projects), meet with a potential publisher of my next book, and then go to dinner with about 20 sports economists (followed by another meeting with a different co-author).  So posting on July 1st didn’t happen.  It also didn’t happen on July 2nd (very busy that day), July 3rd (yep, more stuff to do at the meetings), or July 4th (traveling all day and I was tired).  And then after I got back from the meetings it turned out I had other stuff to do that I had been neglecting (due to all the stuff I had to do for the meetings).

So here it is, 19 days later and I still haven’t written anything about this discussion.  And that’s too bad, since it was a great discussion.  At least, I think it was great.  After 19 days, I am not sure I remember all that we said.

Let me see if I can jog my memory by first noting the participants in the panel.  We begin with our moderator.

Dennis Coates – Professor of Economics at University of Maryland-Baltimore County and contributor to the The Sports Economist blog (named one of the Top 30 economics blogs by the Wall Street Journal in 2009).  Dennis was also the first President of the NAASE.

And here are the panelists:

  • Kevin Arnovitz – journalist and frequent NPR contributor, who currently writes for ClipperBlog and TrueHoop.
  • Brad Humphreys – Professor and Chair in the Economics of Gaming at the University of Alberta and contributor to The Sports Economist blog. Brad also served as President of the NAASE in 2009-10 and is a co-editor of Contemporary Economic Policy.
  • Justin WolfersAssociate Professor of Business and Public Policy at The Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania), frequent NPR commentator and contributor to the Freakonomics blog.  Justin has also written for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.  In addition, he has appeared on the Today show and numerous other television and radio programs.  In sum, Justin is really famous (for an economist).
  • David Berri – Yes, that’s me.  Just to be official…. Associate Professor of Economics at Southern Utah University and co-author of Stumbling on Wins and The Wages of Wins.  Plus I write for The Wages of Wins Journal (obviously) and the Huffington Post. I am also the current president of the NAASE.

Okay, those were the people on the panel.  Now, what did we talk about?

During our discussion I was actually taking notes (again, with the plan to post something that day).  Unfortunately, my note taking skills have diminished over time (and I am not sure they were that great to begin with).  So again, what I have to say about this discussion may not entirely capture all that was said.

With that caveat in mind, here is my recollection of what we had to say about the various questions and topics raised by our moderator (and members of the panel as well as the people in our audience).

  • What is the purpose of blogging? This is the big issue facing academics who blog.  We are not paid to blog.  So it is not entirely clear why we bother.  Justin, though, offered a couple of explanations for why academics engage in this activity.  First, blogging allows one to communicate academic research to a non-academic audience.  It also helps one learn how to write (something academics are not generally taught in graduate school).  None of us noted an inner need to seek attention (because that is not why anyone blogs and no one should suggest otherwise!!).  Kevin had a different take on this question (and I will get to that in a moment).
  • What is the appropriate length of a blog post?  Related to the previous discussion was Justin’s observation that a 400-word limit (which apparently Freakonomics imposes) really forces one to learn how to be concise.   Brad also confirmed the notion that blog posts should be about 400 words.  Readers of this forum, though, know that I have trouble restricting my posts to less than 1,000 words.  In fact, this post might pass the 1,500 word mark.
  • How long does it take you to write a blog post? Brad argued that his blog posts at the Sports Economist only take 20 minutes to write. Justin found that assertion hard to believe.  In fact, Justin said if Brad started writing a blog post right now, 20 minutes later he would definitely still be writing.  I also don’t think Justin bought my argument that my blog posts don’t require much time at all, since I tend to write these as I watch television at night (not sure I buy that argument, either… but it’s what I said).
  • What is the role of blogging and the sports media? Kevin not only came to the panel, but he hoped to come to a number of sessions.  Unfortunately – unlike the rest of us – his job kept him away from much of the meeting (apparently stuff was happening in the NBA around the beginning of July).  Still, he did have much to say about the role of blogging for the sports media.  Two issues he raised:  First, Kevin emphasized that he saw part of his work – and the work of Henry Abbott at TrueHoop – was to bring statistical analysis to basketball fans.   In fact, one was left with the impression that this was a significant part of the TrueHoop mission.  Kevin also noted the role blogging plays in the media.  In the past, journalist wrote a story and that was it.  Now the people employing journalists expect reporters to blog, tweet, etc… Kevin didn’t think many members of the media liked this trend (although one definitely got the impression that Kevin liked all of this stuff).
  • Statistical Analysis and Sports: Kevin came back on more than one occasion to the topic of how blogs are bringing statistical analysis to a larger audience.  Kevin covers the Clippers, and he noted how statistical analysis was specifically mentioned by the Clippers in justifying their choices on draft night.  Kevin also recounted the story of Kevin Durant being toldhow his performance was viewed by adjusted plus-minus.  Kevin told this story to emphasize the point that historically, statistical analysis typically didn’t find its way to the players.  I should add that Kevin and I did make some effort to discuss how stats can be used to evaluate players in the NBA, but Brad wisely told us to bring the discussion back to the topic at hand (which was not stats and the NBA).
  • On the subject of comments:  We had quite a discussion on the topic of the value of comments from the readers.  In general, comments were seen as having benefits and costs.  Here are some of the issues raised: 
    • Justin offered three rules for reading comments: 1) Make sure you have a thick skin, 2) comments will let you know if you failed in your effort to communicate, and 3) comments can also further the conversation.  The issue of having a thick skin was raised more than once.  We all seemed to agree that you cannot present work to the general public without a thick skin.
    • Justin also mentioned briefly the idea of having readers vote on the quality of comments.  This would draw attention to the “best” comments and cause the less useful comments to fade to the bottom of the queue.  Not sure how this is technically done, but it sounded like an interesting idea.
    • It was noted that comments probably are not an accurate cross-section of your readers (most readers don’t comment).  From what I recall, there was also not much enthusiasm for responding to comments from readers.  For example, it was argued (not sure by who) that one is often better off just ignoring the comments.  I would note that I do read all of the comments (or almost all) offered in this forum.  And I do respond from time to time (although, I am not sure that’s always a good idea).  My sense, though, was that my fellow panelists were not in the habit of actually responding to reader’s comments in the comments section of a blog post.
    • On a related note, I also noted how odd it was responding to people who adopted some of the “unusual” names you see in the comments section.   
    • Brad noted that he had to spend time policing comments at the Sports Economist (in other words, comments can tax a person’s time).  The issue of policing comments has led some people – like Greg Mankiw – to eliminate comments at his blog.  Basketball Prospectus also doesn’t seem to allow comments at their Unfiltered Blog (at least, I can’t see where one would comment).  So the downside to comments have led some people to just eliminate this feature from their blog.  All of the people on our panel, though, allow comments on their blog.

One last note on comments… I did note that I have taken the unusual step of essentially turning The Wages of Wins Journal over to the people who previously wrote comments.  And I think that experiment is working out well. 

Beyond these issues, we also spent a bit of time discussing the Dunning-Kruger effect (discussed in this forum and recently at the New York Times) and the issue of “truthiness” (a subject raised in an article Dennis had us read from Public Choice).   This latter discussion centered on the tendency of people going to blogs that already confirmed what they believed. 

Let me close with one last discussion.  This occurred before the panel actually started.  Kevin and Justin briefly discussed the virtue of Twitter.  Kevin says his Twitter feed has quite a following.  Justin wasn’t sure why people bothered.  It was interesting to see – in a discussion of new forms of communication (i.e. blogs) – skepticism of the latest method of communication.  I will add, although Kevin makes a good case for Twitter, I am not planning on doing this anytime soon.  At least – as everyone can see – I can’t see how I could say anything within the limits of Twitter.

Okay, I think that is all I remember.  Hopefully I can offer – in the next few weeks — another comment discussing some of the research that was presented.  In the meantime, I look forward to your comments on this post (and really, I do read these).

Update: Seth Gitter – one of the sports economists at our meeting – also offered a comment on this panel.  Seth, though, was much faster. His comment appeared the day of the panel.

– DJ

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Posted in: Sports Econ