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The Year In Sports Research

2012 December 31
by Eric Horowitz

Think that being an academic is incompatible with being a die-hard sports nut? Think again. The greatest minds of our time are still hard at work figuring out exactly what’s going on with athletes, teams, and fans. Here’s the best of what they uncovered in 2012:

Tax rates matter. A pair of new studies examined how local income tax rates influence a team’s ability to sign free agents. Cornell’s Nolan Kopkin analyzed the NBA free agent market from 2001-2008 and found that an increase in the marginal income tax rates paid by players on a given team leads to a decrease in the average skill of free agents the teams signs. In other words, higher taxes mean worse free agents. Tulane’s James Alm led a similar study that looked at MLB free agents. Alm and his team found that teams in states with higher income tax rates pay higher free agent salaries, and therefore teams in low tax areas have the advantage of being able to pay lower salaries. Don’t be surprised if you see Grover Norquist start taking credit for World Series titles.

It’s good to be a generalist. New research by Long Wang and J. Keith Murningham suggests there is more interest in players with a general skillset even when specialized skills are needed. Not only do fans prefer players with a wide variety of skills, general managers have the same bais. Wang and Murningham analyzed the contract outcomes of free agent guards who they categorized as either two-point specialists or three-point specialists. They found that the salaries of three-point specialists were based on their two-point scoring rather than their three point scoring. Oddly, three-point shooters were evaluated based on their more general, but less apt, two-point scoring ability. No word on whether the sample was weighted toward decisions made by the Wizards, Bobcats, and Kings.

The Wonderlic Test matters for draftees, but only for certain positions. Few tests have received as much attention as the 12 minute “intelligence” evaluation given to potential NFL draftees. While the importance of the test as a predictor for future success has been downplayed in recent years, two Cal State-Fullerton economists found that scores still have an impact on a player’s draft position if they’re a quarterback, tight end, or offensive lineman. The findings mean kickers can continue their tradition of staying up to get drunk the night before the test.

The benefits of national sports fandom are progressive (in Germany). We can’t be sure what a study of Americans would show, but a survey of over 5,000 German residents found that when Germans were victorious, the biggest increases in happiness and pride were among women, individuals with a low educational background, and people with low incomes. So it turns out all those  Ivy League rowers do care about the poor.

NCAA basketball officials want to appear fair. Fans like to comfort themselves by saying that calls will even out in the end, but when it comes to NCAA basketball that might actually be true. In 2009 Kyle Anderson and David Pierce found evidence that college basketball officials tend to even up foul counts, and a new study by Cecilia Noecker and Paul Roback both confirms and extends those results. Their study examined Big Ten, Big East, and ACC games from the 2004-05 and 2009-10 seasons. They found that every increase in the foul differential between home and visiting teams increased the chances a foul would be called on the home team. In addition, they found that offensive foul calls, which tend to be more subjective, are more likely to be influenced by the foul differential between the two teams than the rate at which other fouls are called during the game (with no bias, the latter metric would be a better predictor.) Evening up foul counts may seem unfair, but remember that these are student athletes, and thus we need to protect them from the cruel reality of an objective world.

Teams might actually get caught “looking ahead.” Northwestern’s Jennifer Brown and Cal’s Dylan B. Minor examined the relationship between the strength of future opponents and player performance in tennis tournaments. They found that strong players were more likely to win when their expected opponent in the next stage of the tournament was weaker. Because opponent strength is all relative, you could spin the result around and say that players are less likely to win when their expected future opponent is stronger. In other words, it’s better for a looming opponent to be weak than strong. Does that mean postgame analysis from talking heads about “looking ahead” deserves a shred of legitimacy? Meh.

Better to host a soccer tournament than the Olympics.  People are growing more skeptical about the economic effects of hosting a sporting event, and this study in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics will only add fuel to the fire. The study looked at the impact of event hosting on “foreign direct investment” (FDI). The researchers found middling effects, although the more-detailed version of their analysis suggests that countries hosting the World Cup or UEFA Euro Championship saw more FDI than those hosting the Olympics. A muli-level regression also found that hosting non-Olympic tournaments allows you to create less-idiotic mascots.
Kopkin, N. (2011). Tax Avoidance: How Income Tax Rates Affect the Labor Migration Decisions of NBA Free Agents Journal of Sports Economics, 13 (6), 571-602 DOI: 10.1177/1527002511412194

Wang, L., & Keith Murnighan, J. (2013). The generalist bias Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 120 (1), 47-61 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.09.001

Hallmann, K., Breuer, C., & Kühnreich, B. (2012). Happiness, pride and elite sporting success: What population segments gain most from national athletic achievements? Sport Management Review DOI: 10.1016/j.smr.2012.07.001

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