Recurring Decimals…..

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Fisking an economist on football

with 5 comments

I am all for economists like Tim Hartford, Steve Levitt, Tyler Cowen and others popularizing a rather forbidding subject through books and blogs. But at certain times and instances, a line needs to drawn. For example Russell Roberts at Cafe Hayek links to a piece by Allen Sanderson, a lecturer in Economics at the University of Chicago regarding faults with soccerfootball, which is supposedly an economic analysis.

However, written with a prejudiced view, not only of football, but of Europeans and football-fans in general, the article makes unsubstantiated conjectures galore, with nary a reference and expresses a naivete of its author that bordes on silliness. In another words, all set for a good fisking (just like this article that came before).

(click on more to read the rest)

So where do we begin ?

Throughout the entire 2+ hour ordeal, I kept asking myself: Why would anyone waste good time or money watching this sport?……or incredulous, and “unnatural acts” such as not being able to touch the ball with your hands or arms, I began to apply basic economic principles to the sport, and tried to understand why 6 billion people, including my graduate teaching assistants from Milan, Rio and Barcelona, seem to care passionately and a few hundred million, mainly in the United States, don’t.

Ok – so the usual opening gambit by most Americans (who hate the game) on soccer : how come the whole world (few billions) are wrong and we (few millions) are right about this boring game. Well, thats what he is trying to examine. But on those ‘incredulous, “unnatural acts”…..’ , Mr Sanderson – they are something called the ‘rules of the game’. Its rules of the games that prevents NBA players from kicking the ball into the opponent’s court (or hold on to it for more than twenty-four seconds). But we shall let it pass, firstly, because the topic is touched upon later and secondly, in the hopes of being dazzled by brilliant economic principles and innovative analyses over this global imblance of sporting popularity.

In a section imaginatively titled (not!) ‘Like Watching Paint Dry’, he goes on to draw a parallel between the incentive-driven and just reward for hard work-based American markets (I could point to Enron and other scandals here to show that even this is not wholly true – but that would be besides the point) and the American desire to see similar competitive forces and reward mechanisms on the sporting field.

…..we appreciate competitive market forces and incentives that reward ability, hard work and ingenuity. The same is true for the sports we participate in and follow as spectators. While we can appreciate the grace, artistry or skill associated with, say, figure skating or soccer, we like it best when someone keeps score. And we like the scoring to have some measure of justice or rationality to it.

Fair point – lets see where he goes with this.

For example, when a baseball team comes up to bat, there is a non-trivial probability that it will string together a few hits and score at least one run in that half-inning.

Yes and it is also possible there are three hits and the bases are loaded and all that leads to – NO RUNS !! Oh – the injustice of it all – all that effort, all that running around, the build-up and yet, nothing to show for it ? Or what about the practice of the pitcher walking a batter so that he has a chance at the weaker batter in next ? Reward for hard work ?

Subsequently, Sanderson makes couple of valid points about American football and basketball – the latter obviously a high-scoring game – and I agree with that. Then he comes to football.

In contrast, when a soccer team has the ball, the chance it will score on that possession is effectively 0.001.

Now – where exactly did that number come from ? Does it divide the average number of goals in football games by the number of possessions. But then defensive possessions should not count. And what would be the average goals  –  does that include every  international match as designated by FIFA  ? What about club games ?

Anyway, I take his point that football is a low scoring game. But then he adds these precious gems:

Ice hockey suffers from the same defect, but there at least the prospect of violence can hold the interest of beer-sotted fans

#1 – rules were changed in ice-hockey so that there would be less violence and more scoring opportunities (an example he clearly misses in the later part of the piece, which would have strengthened his case) and #2 err…if we want violence why dont we just stick to WWF, why the pretensions of a real sport ?

But wait, there is more:

To the untutored eye/fan, scoring appears random—an occurrence that could as well happen by chance as from a clever game plan and good execution.

Prof Sanderson, to an untrained eye a baseball batter hitting a home run is random; to an non-fan, golf is nothing but some well-dressed dudes hitting a ball with sticks and walking a lot (for four whole days); to an untrained eye, signals made by the catcher to his pitcher means I want to have wild gay sex with you in the shower tonite. The whole point of appreciating a sports is to be aware of its nuances – and they do not even have to be the most subtle ones.

At this point, I would like to point that I have nothing against baseball – I do find it boring at times, but over the years, helped by some American friends, I have developed an understanding for the finer points as well as appreciating where it stands in American history and culture.

So on we go:

While France and Italy were two of the stronger teams in the tournament, they were certainly not favored to win it all. For various reasons, Brazil, England and Spain fell by the wayside;

(England – favorites ? yikes !)
The Yankees are favored to win the MLB World Series every year just by the strength of their roster – do they ? Colts were highly favored to win last year’s SuperBowl – did they ? Has this guy ever heard of ‘upsets’ (apparently he has as we shall see in a later section, just that he refuses to believe in them).

…..over the course of 90 minutes in a decidedly low-scoring affair, a referee’s call or a 30-second burst by an arguably weaker opponent means something akin to a fluke can determine who advances.

True – but how many fluke wins did actually happen in the World Cup due to referee’s blunder ? In fact, an upset was almost prevented due to a bad call by a referee (Italy versus Australia pre-quarters).

So, Sanderson’s overall thesis in this section is that soccer is a low-scoring, random affair where effort and superiority is not rewarded. As I have said – some randomness and unfairness exists in all sports – and besides in most football games, the superior team mostly wins anyway. And unless you try to understand football, the game-plans and such will not be obvious to you.

But now, he makes a leap of faith and connects all this to some abstract feature called ‘European sensibilities’:

That may well suit, and be consistent with, European sensibilities about equality, risk-taking and economic outcomes…..
……(but)….is inconsistent with most Americans’ preferences for some semblance of strategic decision-making, coupled with observable effort, that leads to a predictable outcome—more sales, a raise, a better mousetrap, or more points.

First, how does concept of equality relate to low-scoringness in sports ? What exactly is the correlation here?

I agree, many soccer games do end in ties – but that is why they have the penalty kick system (which is somewhat random) for knockout games. Besides, be it a national league, continental club championship or the World Cup, there is eventually a winner – and every team plays hard to win. There is no sharing of the World Cup! And look how much the fans get worked up to support their teams.

Second, if your talking about strategies and such, during Euro 2004, the Greek team took a strategic decision to play hard, defensive football and try to score quickly on counter-attacks. They took observable efforts to stop some of the best offensive players from scoring and themselves scored on lightning quick counter-chances (in fact their scoring rate was near perfect). The outcome (not predictable perhaps but likable for the Greek fans) was that they won the tournament. Yes, on a game-by-game basis there were less points (but that was true for the Chicago Bears or any other defensive minded team in the NFL as well) – but point is that there was a significant net outcome. Greece, by the way for geographically challenged Americans, is a part of Europe.

Of course, Sanderson does not stop with Europeans – certain Americans have been drawn in as well.

However, there are clearly some Americans who are uncomfortable with competitions that produce winners and losers, and soccer appeals to their egalitarian, risk-averse streak.

Remind me again – which soccer tournament ends with no winners at the end.

(The same crowd usually also can be counted on to oppose globalization.)

Now this is just drawing conlcusions out of a hat. No substantitation of any sort.

Moving on, in the next section, Sanderson goes on harping on the merit versus random chance issue.

In the United States we structure most competitive contests to ensure that talent and performance are the main determinants of outcomes. Although random events, luck and bad calls by officials are always present, we do not want them to determine the final outcome.

An admirable idea no doubt – although I suspect the Buffalo Sabres of ’99 or the New York Giants of 2002 (among others) might have something to say about that.

We seed swimmers—the best two get lanes 4 and 5—on the basis of previous times.

The whole world does that, sir. Not just swimming, also in athletics, the best times in heats (that’s what they are called – heats – not ‘previous times’) get the center lanes or the whatever the best lanes are. I belive part of this to provide a better TV picture – rather than any competitive advantage.

Regular-season performance generally creates a Home Field/Court/Ice advantage for the stronger team. We play “four out of seven” to determine a champion in baseball or basketball, which reduces the probability that the weaker squad will pull an upset.

Home and away advantages are provided to football teams too – whether in club competitions or when national teams go through a gruelling six months of qualification stage to play at the main World Cup event. Also, last year in the NFL, the Indianapolis Colts won 13 straight  – but were toppled in the one knockout game – at home.

Our enormous sympathy for the outmanned underdog is certainly present in our society and in our action and sport films—from James Bond to Jerry MaGuire, to Rocky and Cinderella Man in boxing, to Hoosiers and Glory Road in basketball—but overall we generally prefer that the better team—or individual competitor—win.

Whoa – when did we go from sports to action movies ? Anyway, James Bond is a British (in Europe, again for the geographically challenged) character and hardly an underdog with all those gadgets, women and a licence to kill (no less) at his disposal. And Cinderalla Man, is based on true events.

Getting back to sports:

In U.S. sports we employ many more officials and also rely on videotape and Instant Replay to reduce the error term. (Having multiple referees with diffuse power might also reduce the likelihood of gamblers bribing a single very powerful referee, a problem that has plagued European soccer recently.)

Yes and in the NFL it sometimes takes a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to decide who had the final posession or if the ball is to be spotted on the 45.5 or 44.87654 yard line ! Besides if Sanderson is under the delusion that ‘fixing’ does not take place in US sports – he needs to talk to his UofC colleague Steven Levitt.

The next section (Dont Use Your Head) by Sanderson is just plain silly and it pains me to have to try and fisk it. I shall try, nevertheless – but be warned.

In American contact/collision sports where there is some risk of injury to the head or related body systems, we try to protect one of our most prized possessions—our brains, aka “human capital”—from harm.

Err…..hmmm – do not want to be uncharitable here or appear insensitive, but let’s say American football players. And brains ? Enough said.

Only in boxing and soccer, where the head is “in play” and even used as a vital input, do we see one’s brains so unprotected. Even macho Indy Circuit drivers, cyclists and snowboarders wear helmets.
Fielding” a soccer ball with one’s head is not likely in the same league as facing Mike Tyson at close range (even with ear muffs), but it would be hard to find a neurologist who thinks it’s good for you.

Now you realise why I warned you? So show me a soccer player who has brain damage even in old age, I will show you several American football players who have suffered neurological damages from neck injuries or suffered concussions from direct hits to a (well-protected and helmeted) head. To my knowledge, so far, no football player has dropped unconscious on the ground after heading in a goal.

Again, not surprisingly, with higher levels of income, Americans are more likely to take more precautions with their heads relative to citizens in poorer countries, and boxing is decidedly a sport whose athletes have always come from the lower economic rungs.

Now, I am not going to comment on this one other than that the naivete of this statement just might be explained as: sometime in his childhood, while out playing with the big boys, Sanderson’s head was not protected well enough.

Sanderson’s next problem is another non-issue about the “illegal use of hands” in football. He tries to tie this in with some evolutionary claptrap.

Whatever the evolutionary path humans took escaping from the seas or caves, much of it must have constituted a “full-body workout.” And it is no accident that most of our work, activities and sports involve upper-body strength, sheer speed, an extensive amount of hand-eye coordination and the use of some form of instrument—a hammer, keyboard, bicycle, skis or club-equivalent that we hold in our hands, strap to our feet, throw, or climb into. As Yogi might have said, you can make a list: baseball, basketball, football, golf, tennis, auto racing, swimming, skiing, cycling, table tennis, wrestling, bobsledding, fencing, volleyball, weightlifting, bowling, archery, badminton, pole vault, shot put, lacrosse,….

Now football does require total body workout – you cannot run without moving your hands and strong upper body is necessary to support the constant pressure on the lower body. If you have a beer belly (which many baseball players do have) – you cannot be a good footballer. After all you need to keep running, often under extreme conditions, continuously for 45 minutes in each session and do not have the convenience of an oxygen tank on the ground.

And of course, bowling – yes I can see the ‘full-body’ workout there!  And basketball – wait – he has something approaching sensible to say about that:

“Illegal use of hands” constitutes a foul in football and other sports (and teenage dating), and one may not use one’s foot or leg to deflect the basketball. But at least there is not a total ban on the use of arms and hands. 

Dammit – he missed again – so close this time.

Mr Sanderson, pray enlighten us how we are supposed to play basketball if there was a total ban on arms and hands? Also, just as basketball players need their legs to run, footballers need their arms to keep blance while dribbling, sometimes to do some legal blocking, some even score and get away with it (and of course, you need the hands to protect – vital organs – while defending close free-kicks).

In his (thankfully) final section, Sanderson asks:

Why hasn’t soccer changed more? Is it risk aversion—why ruin a good thing when most of Earth’s 6 billion inhabitants are happy the way things are? Or FIFA’s intransigence and monopoly power? Or an easy way to express some anti-American sentiment? Or just the athletic equivalent of European and South American labor and product markets trading the prospects of a larger economic pie for a more egalitarian distribution of the existing one?

Me thinks Sanderson answers the question himself in the first line and as an economists should have caught it. If the market is supporting the current model – why change ? Rule changes in basketball, ice hockey, football and other American professional sports happened in response to market pressures – boring games equal less crowds at the game equals less revenue. Even international field hockey changed rules when it started getting unpopular. So when football is loved the way it is – where is the incentive to change ? Or is it Sanderson’s thesis that it should be changed just so that Americans like it more ? No – he wouldn’t suggest that.

Btw, I am not saying that football is perfect the way it is. Certainly there are scopes for improvement, as the recent World Cup has shown. And FIFA is trying to respond to the grumblings of the fans. FIFA did make changes in rules in mid-90s to increase goal scoring – not sure if Mr Anderson is aware of that.

One of the appeals of soccer in many areas of the world may be its low cost—a bunch of guys (and/or gals), a ball and a goal, which could be either a make-shift net or just two stones or t-shirts; no fancy gear or playing surface necessary. At higher levels of income one may gravitate to more luxury or elite competitions.

Mr Sanderson, do you have any idea of how much some of the soccer players are worth ?

The U.S. may only constitute four percent of the world’s population, but we also account for about a fifth of world output. And our economic vote will likely continue to engage in and watch something other than soccer. And just maybe in this arena as well as others, 60 million Frenchmen can be wrong.

Don’t even get me started on cricket.

No sir – I dont know about the French or why you hate the French, but its 6 billion people against a few million – there is a probability that the former are not wrong. I have nothing against America – I have lived here for eight years and have found consistent pleasure and enjoyment; and I am certainly no America-baiter. But to convince me that America is right in this matter will require much better than your half-baked (actually not even that – this is in the dough stage), pseudo-economic analysis.

And, no matter how strong the US economy (which btw you should attend to before China starts pulling the balance of trade plugs), when it comes to football, the rest of the world, frankly dear, doesnt give a damn.

(And please do get started on cricket – we shall have much fun fisking your ignorance on that as well. )


Written by BongoP'o'ndit

August 11, 2006 at 2:36 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Looks good. Have to come back to read it in its entireity. Spotted it due to the incoming link to my blog 🙂


    August 11, 2006 at 2:51 pm

  2. jabardast hoyechhe dada. bhalo laglo o anek kichu shikhlaam


    August 15, 2006 at 8:20 pm

  3. read the article and it was highly irritating….and you’ve done a great job fisking!!
    Why are americans so anal about sports that are played outside America?? Do they have some complex about baseball, basketball and american football??? Is that why the baseball championships are called the World Series??
    Argghh…..Sanderson should sell his thesis to zidane…i bet he’d get a hadbutt in return.


    August 16, 2006 at 11:15 am

  4. pro evolution soccer for psp

    pro evolution soccer for psp

  5. OK guys, post season is over, it’s time to remember your wife or girlfriend. Maybe you better make up for ignoring her for most of January. How about a Valentines gift from (


    February 10, 2008 at 2:18 pm

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