11 September 2006

Competitive Balance in Baseball vs Other Sports

More on "The Wages of Wins"...unlike my previous post, this will be mostly complimentary. :)

Chapter Four, "Baseball's Competitive Balance Problem?" attempts to establish whether commentators, owners, and Bud Selig are right to believe that "competition on the playing field has become acutely imbalanced."(1) The authors conclude that the imbalance, while fluctuating upward in the past four or five years, has remained fairly consistent over the last 50 or 60 years. The methodology is not completely original to them, but tells a compelling story. In particular, their comparison of competitive balance across sports inspired me to post.

They found that football and soccer have the highest rate of balance(2) relative to the other major sports, with basketball (the NBA and ABA) the lowest. They argue that one of the primary reasons for this is the relatively large pool of potential participants for the former. As they love to say, there's a "short supply of tall people", so basketball should be prone to imbalance; whereas soccer and football have very large pools of potential participants with the requisite physical attributes.

My only question is whether the authors took relegation into account when calculating the Noll-Scully for the various soccer leagues. It's much easier to maintain a high level of competitive balance when you toss your bottom three teams to the minors and bring up overachievers. It effectively creates an N-team league out of N+3 teams' worth of players.

1 Costas, Bob. 2000 Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball. From the forward by Andrew Zimbalist, referenced from Berri, Schmidt, and Brook.

2 30,000-foot view of the measurement used to determine balance: the Noll-Scully, which takes the idealized standard deviation (determined by schedule length for the league) and compares it to the actual standard deviation.


EarlsDonuts said...

dear lord tell me they accounted for the fact that the NFL has had revenue-sharing since the 1960s or I might have to start a blog to go ape-s on the book myself.
King Kaufman on Wellington Mara's legacy

R.A. Porter said...

Ai-ight, here's the summary. The chapter's primarily devoted to determining whether there's a competitive balance issue in baseball; the cross-sport comparison is provided near the end to show that relative to other sports, baseball isn't radically different, using the Noll-Scully as the scale. However, it appears that they believe the primary factor is the "biomechanical limit".

From a Stephen Jay Gould(!) hypothesis that athletes are nearing the biomechanical limit (most obvious in the asymptotic drop of 100-meter dash times,) the authors argue the following:

"The idea that there is a limit to athletic ability is important to our story of competitive balance. Consider how many athletes we can expect to see close to the biomechanical limit. This number depends upon the size of the population. If you have a very small population, few athletes will approach this limit."

They follow later with the assertion that soccer "is a sport played by the largest population of athletes in the world...[s]o although there are several top soccer leagues, the population of athletes is sufficient for each league to field fairly competitive teams." In an endnote, they discuss football vis a vis the size requirements, but brush it off because that form of size "may be manufactured via diet, exercise, and pharmaceuticals...[h]ence, professional basketball faces a much more rigid restriction relative to professional football."

I don't believe they put much stock in revenue sharing as an agent of balance, anymore than they acknowlege (or seem to be aware of) relegation in soccer. In fact, they don't seem to think that any of the attempts to alter competitive balance - at least those attempted by baseball - can have much effect on said balance.

What kills me is the assumption they seem to be making that football and soccer have larger athlete pools than baseball. I can certainly agree re: basketball. Really, there are only so many *tall* dudes...but baseball - while it requires great eye-hand coordination - isn't substantively more demanding than soccer or football. Yet more of the authors' bias showing, I think.

EarlsDonuts said...

Nevermind the number of POTENTIAL participants in a sport, how about the number of actual participants on the playing surface at any one time? It seems the structure of the sport itself dictates the impact of exceptional players and whether their talent can be diluted or maximized through effective game strategy. Barry Bonds only gets 4.3 plate appearances a game--12% of his team's ABs, whereas Kobe Bryant can get 30-35 FGA per game or 35-40% of his team's attempts.

As far as the depth of the football talent pool vs. the baseball pool, consider a healthy D1 football team carries 75-100 players, while a similar D1 baseball team would carry 25-30, if that.

Certainly if all the players are more or less equal in ability and the structure of the sport mitigates against exceptionalism (everyone gets a turn to bat) you can achieve some measure of competitive balance. At that point the financial resources of the teams factor into talent acquisition/development--whether it's the Yankees buying any player they want or the Mavericks holding 17 assistant coaches on staff.

It seems the premise is again flawed (or hidden) in that the authors seem to be okay because baseball isn't BECOMING more imbalanced--it's always been imbalanced. The fans' complaint isn't that the playing field is becoming MORE unlevel--it's that it's unlevel and some teams have NO chance. The Senators/Twins--> new Senators/Rangers--> Expos/Nationals have always sucked. The Yankees didn't win 26 championships in the last 10 years.

R.A. Porter said...

I don't think they consider the variance from the ideal deviation to be very significant. It's traditionally hovered in (I don't have the book handy, so I'm going off recollection) 1.8 times the ideal std. dev. of win percentage. The cross-sport comparison was an attempt to give than number some context. They did find, interestingly enough, that all leagues of given sports had very similar Noll-Scullys. So the ABA and NBA were similar, the various world soccer leagues are all similar, NHL/WHL, etc. I believe this is what led them to their Gouldian theory.

They also contend that while there's a correlation between payroll and win percentage, it's not that large. Payroll increases rapidly diminish in effectiveness - your first star player will get you X wins, each player after will only get you so many more, etc.

In the next chapter - which I did not have the energy to start yet - I believe they're going to explain why a lack of competitive balance in basketball doesn't hurt it. Unfortunately, I'd guess they'll rely on attendance figures again which, while important, mask the reality of basketball's reduced significance in the American sports landscape. B-Walsh certainly wouldn't be "one of the last 20 NBA fans on the planet" if the sport were still wildly popular.

And before it starts again...we don't need to argue about the Jordan effect, or the Bird/Magic effect, or the Lakers/Celtics effect. I know that in the last 20 years the NBA has been mismarketed as a game of solo-superstars. It was great for short-term growth, and seems not to have effected international appeal, but for long-term American growth it's been terrible. Without superstars and superstar match-ups, the fans are disinterested; with the focus on solo play, too many of our future ballers learn very bad habits that are hard to break.

R.A. Porter said...

Chapter 5...here's the smoking gun:

"Competitive balance appears to be dictated primarily by the underlying population of talent, not league policy."

They do go on the posit that fans may not care a whit for balance and that "[t]he relationship between team revenue and wins suggest that perfect competitive balance would actually lower league revenues."

EarlsDonuts said...

On the second point, well duh--it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. I suppose fan interest in Boston and New York would wane if they were 82-80 every year; and the league-wide revenue lost from those fans would not be made up by rejuvenated fan interest in Kansas City/Pittsburgh teams going 80-82. But if I own or am a fan of KC or Pittsburgh, what the hell do I care about league-wide revenues if there is no revenue sharing? My revenues are up because my team is more competitive. And sure Jordan Effect/dynasties may generate more casual fans and league-wide revenue, but it also generates New Orleans Hornets and Memphis Grizzlies (which not ironically, were also crappy vagabond ABA franchises that couldn't pay their players).

Re: the previous comment on payroll/win percentages--sure there is going to be a law of diminishing returns--no team is going to go 162-0.

But look no further than Johnny Damon, who was in conversations for MVP in 2004 for Boston; he now plays for the Yankees--the proverbial 5-point swing in basketball.

Look up and down the Yankees lineup and they have somebody else's best or near-best player:
AJob (Seattle/Texas)
Giambi (Oakland)
Damon (Oakland/Boston)
Abreu (Phil)
Mussina (Balt)
Johnson (Ariz)
on top of their own franchise players Jeter and Rivera.

Look at the Mets:
Beltran (KC)
Delgado (Toronto, Florida)
Green (Toronto, Ariz)
Floyd (Montreal)
Glavine (Atl)
Pedro (Montreal, Boston)
Wagner (Hou, Phil)
along with their "homegrown" franchise players Wright and Reyes.

Doesn't seem to be a 'shortage' of talent issue, it's a talent distribution. Who's the best player on the Diamondbacks these days?

R.A. Porter said...

You should pick up the book so you can be as irritated by it as I am, directly, rather than second-hand. Their analysis in basketball indicated that wins were the biggest (though not only) factor in home attendance. For road attendance, the biggest factor was "star power".

If you look at the data and conclude that stars are necessary to increase the gate at away games - games where the other team is making more money - you might infer that a league with no stars, but a bunch of equally talented performers, would do poorly in attendance across the board.

So, if NY and Boston went 82-80 every year, they would presumably have less revenue from the home gate. Then they might have less money to spend on the best players, leading to heat-death of the league.

I don't agree with this argument, obviously. As in other cases, I think the boys are cracked.