Category: Teaching

Me on the Twitter: New schools getting into this football business. Does it make sense?

Earlier this week, I was involved in a conversation about the economic value of football to colleges, and UNC-Charlotte’s decision to field a football team. After CBS/SI guy Seth Davis mocked Joe Nocera’s latest NCAA column for being disappointed that more schools aren’t dropping football, someone cited UNC-Charlotte as an example of an ambitious school looking to add football to its menu of attractions.

Andy Schwarz, a California sports economist, was in this fray, too. I’ve tweet-versed with Andy a few times—he and I broadly agree on the need for the NCAA to operate like a normal (and legal) business. Here’s a typical post from his blog, Sportsgeekonomics.

More pertinently, here’s his Dec. 8 piece for VICE Sports about the decision by the University of Alabama at Birmingham to cease its football operations. Some of the disagreement I had with him over that piece spilled into this Twitter-stream about UNC-Charlotte and the economics of college football.

Here’s the Twitter conversation, which started after this Davis tweet:

Here’s Schwarz a little later:

Then two other people led the conversation to UNC-Charlotte:

Here’s me:

Then Jay Smith, a UNC history professor known for his criticisms of big-time sports on campus (and who is writing a book with whistle-blower Mary Willingham), jumped in:

Whatever may be terrible about Twitter, it’s a great space for a few obsessives to find each other.

Sports pages: Peculiar economics of losing teams and ripping off cheerleaders

Luke DeCock’s column in today’s News & Observer is a neat illustration of one of the strange, unintended consequences of North America’s model of sports ownership.

This isn’t the point DeCock intended, exactly. His column concerns what is now obvious: The Carolina Hurricanes hockey team is terrible, and it won’t get better. The team is dead-last in the Eastern Conference and a tiebreaker away from being the worst team in the league.

While the Hurricanes have kept it close lately, there just isn’t enough talent here to beat better teams – a pathetic seven goals over the past five games drives the point home nicely – and while Peters and general manager Ron Francis would never admit it publicly, because they have players to motivate and tickets to sell, the future of the Hurricanes is now better served by losing games than winning them.

What he means, of course, is that the Hurricanes should focus on coming in last place, or near to last, in order to get the top draft pick next year. While it’s debatable whether one carefully selected young player would appreciably improve the team, DeCock’s argument reveals a fundamental oddity in North American pro sports: Sometimes it’s better to lose.

As far as I know, there’s no other economic system in the world where a failing company can get better by getting worse. What distinguishes North American pro sports is that the team owners have agreed to set prices, salary caps and share revenue. This system ensures that everyone who is a member will be taken care of.

In short, it’s a cartel.

“Cartel” is a scary word, and in most contexts these arrangements are illegal. But pro sports leagues in North America have long enjoyed de jure and de facto antitrust protection.

Fifty years ago, an economist named Walter C. Neale wrote a classic account of this arrangement in a cheeky paper called “The Peculiar Economics of Professional Sports.” Writing as an unabashed supporter of antitrust exemptions for sports leagues, Neale nonetheless explained the inherent paradox: Sports teams strive to win, but they also must have viable opponents to play. In other words, unlike a real-world business environment in which successful companies chase unsuccessful ones from the market, sports teams have to all be viable and (theoretically) competitive.¹ (I’ll be studying this paper more closely as I prepare for the course I’m teaching this spring.)

So, the Carolina Hurricanes have hit the skids and the lead sports columnist for the local paper is calling for them to tank the season. But there’s little at stake, and no danger they’ll go bust: The Canes are protected by being in the fellowship of NHL owners.

Meanwhile, Hurricanes attendance is embarrassingly poor, with PNC Arena often just half-full. It’s unclear how hard the team’s office staff is trying to sell tickets. As Chip Alexander reported last month, the team has only 11 full-time sales staff, the lowest in the league (although they vowed to beef it up). No doubt other owners would be annoyed that an underperforming member of the cartel is intentionally losing games and not trying hard to sell tickets, but if it’s only a one-year slack-off, there’s probably no hard feelings.

In other sports stories, the NY Times’ Michael Powell published a fine piece about former Buffalo Bills cheerleaders filing a lawsuit alleging that they haven’t been paid for hundreds of hours of work and side commitments that often consisted of being paraded in front of wealthy men. The big point of contention in the comments section is whether the women are entitled to damages if they voluntarily entered into a position for which they would not be paid.

¹ In soccer leagues in Europe and elsewhere, there is a system of promotion and relegation between leagues. Therefore, teams would never intentionally lose games, because to finish at or near the bottom would mean being relegated into the next lower league. Imagine if the worst major league baseball team had to play the next season in Triple A. That’s what happens in soccer leagues around the world (but not in the US).

History of Soccer Week 6: Readings and videos on the World Cup, old stadiums and modern soccer

A few short readings in advance of our final class. Not compulsory, of course!

First, George Vecsey of The New York Times was covering international soccer long before it became cool in this country. He’s sort of a columnist emeritus now, and he recently wrote a nice reminiscence of attending his first World Cup in 1982, which was won by Italy but is best remembered for the brilliant Brazil squad led by a midfielder called Sócrates.

The World Cup should be a blast this summer, but as you’ve no doubt heard, they are behind schedule on stadium construction, and there have been many public protests. Even Péle is getting angry.

A third column, also from the Times, prompts me to put down some thoughts about stadium safety and how it relates to the changing demographics of soccer fan base. This is a guest column by a Italian journalist named Beppe Severgnini, in which the Corriere della Sera columnist describes and condemns the hooliganism that plagues Italian football matches today. Hooliganism is unquestionably a problem there, and I’m in agreement with Severgnini’s prescription to rid stadiums of riot police and barbed wire.

However, I’m struck by several things about his argument. First of all, there’s his sniffy description of “Genny the Swine,” the leader of the Napoli ultras, complete with an unsubstantiated allegation of mob ties (I mean, come on… you can say that about almost anyone in public life in Naples).

Second, notice this passage:

It’s madness, and it’s been going on for 30 years. In 1985, just before the beginning of the European Cup final between Italy’s Juventus and Britain’s Liverpool at the Heysel stadium in Belgium, 39 fans were crushed to death during a stampede. In 1989, 93 fans were killed at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, England. The British government decided it was time to step in with seating-only stadiums and zero tolerance for hooligans. It worked, and the Premier League is now a major money-spinning machine watched all over the world.

The author’s linkage of these two stadium disasters is blithely misleading. The first disaster, at Heysel, was first and foremost an atrocity of fan misbehavior, as well as of operational incompetence. Liverpool’s supporters shouldered most of the blame, and as a result, English clubs were banned from European competition for five years (and Liverpool was banned for six). Here’s videoContinue reading