Freitag, 15. November 2013

Will talent decline?

While there are a couple of other interesting developments in sports (e.g. the significant poll results for the Olympic candidacy of Munich or the new betting scandal in Austrian professional Football (which might be just the tip of an iceberg)) I have to - finally - continue my blog by discussing the recent news on the decline of Pop Warner Football in the US.

As many news agencies report, Pop Warner participation has declined nearly 10 percent over the last three years. This is significant and substantial and some commentators have raised the question: Is the future quality of (Professional) Football in the US in danger? Before all European Football teams start celebrating and expect to beat US teams 10 or 20 years down the road, we have to take a closer look.

Pop Warner Football is a possible gate to a live or career in Football. From there on, the way can potentially lead through high school football, collegiate football to the promised land of the highest level of pro football, the NFL. Or any other professional league that offers considerable salaries and career opportunities. So if talent on the first talent pool - and this is the main argument of those who raised their warning voices - declines, we will eventually see a trickle-down effect which will endanger the quality of the game and players in the NFL.

The whole argument is certainly not far-fetched, as Football - like anything where certain skills are needed - needs institutions that teach those specific skills to the players. In one of our paper (Böheim and Lackner, 2012), we show that Football involves education like any other profession does. And it yields comparable returns if you analyze the in terms of additional entry-wages per year spent in college football. So if education on early stages is eroding, it is reasonable to conclude that the specific skills needed to play football at the highest level will eventually become scarce. But how big of a problem will this really be? Considering the fact that the maximum time to stay in the NCAA Football system is limited to 5 years (with 1 year of little participation at all), it might be something felt by NFL times as players might enter the league with a lower skill-set than in previous decades.

But what should really change? The career possibilities as well as the potential earnings for a player in the NFL are still very intriguing. True, careers in Football are shorter than those in other major leagues, but the NFL still is on the top of all professional leagues in terms of (worldwide) popularity, the amount of money and salaries involved and the general product that it offers. If the decline of Pop Warner Football does indeed damage the extremely high popularity of the NFL and its product, I could imagine that the current development is quite dangerous. But if the fish does not stink from the head downwards, the incentives to acquire the necessary skills will be there and the inflow of talent will not be endangered. NFL teams and NCAA programs, however, might have to adjust their way of further developing their prospect players' talent as they might need more additional training.

The whole discussion comes at a time, where the NFL has to deal with serious problems in terms of long-term health consequences of Football. A number of tragic cases of former players who were suffering from concussion-related long-term health issues and committed suicide, has revealed a substantial problem for the NFL. This is a big threat to the league and the popularity of the sport. It certainly also plays a major role in the decline of Pop Warner as parents will be reluctant to allow their kids to participate in a sport they perceive as highly dangerous. And this is the area where the NFL has to put most effort in. If they manage to make Football safe and deal with the past of neglected health consequences, the future of the NFL is as bright as ever and eventually kids will return to Pop Warner.

Donnerstag, 14. Februar 2013

When Business beats Tradition

Wrestling (in various different styles) is a sport which has a very rich tradition. It's origins can be traced back 15,000 years and it was very popular in highly developed cultures like the Ancient Rome or Ancient Greece. AND it was an important part of ancient Olympic games.

A few days ago, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has announced the decision to drop wrestling from Olympic Summer Games. This essentially means that beginning with the 2020 Games, freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling won't be part of competition. This end the Olympic career of this highly traditional sport - a career which has started with the first modern Olympics in 1896.

Concerning the line of reasoning, the IOC mostly names problems with selling the sport to the public and the media to be the primary causes for the discontinuation. They argue that the "declining popularity" justified the move, which was soon heavily criticized. IOC and leading members from the international wrestling federation (FILA) are set to meet, but I do not see much hope that one of the oldest Olympic sports might ultimately be saved.

In 2016 golf will be introduced as a new sport in the Olympic program. Although golf has been part of the Olympics in 1900 and 1904, it has arguably a very short tradition compared to wrestling. But there is one important difference: Golf draws huge crowds -  live on the grounds as well as on TV - and it will yield much greater returns to the IOC than wrestling. The discussion is already on which sport should replace wrestling in 2020 and beyond. Some argue that softball and baseball should come back. I am cautious, because baseball makes no sense if MLB players do not compete. It would be another "lame duck" like Olympic Soccer.

In the case of wrestling, the IOC has chosen money and revenues ahead of tradition. My guess is that this is completely at odds with the original idea of the modern Olympics.

Mittwoch, 23. Januar 2013


No, it was not me who was sabotaged as I have not posted anything recently. It was more a mixture of holidays, NFL playoffs and a heavy workload.

But now let's start the new year of sports and the recent news from the NFL are a good way to start off. Today the front pages of all sports news are filled with the alleged "sabotage" of Super Bowl XXXVII by then Oakland Raider head-coach Bill Callahan. Well, such rumor might not be that shocking if it came from the "usual" unknown source, but it definitely is almost shocking that the allegations come from two Hall of Fame wide receivers: Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, both played for the Raiders back then.

So how credible is this? When Rice made his allegations on ESPN and backed comments by his former teammate he, well, sounds like somebody who is still not over the loss. And he seemed to fully understand what he was actually saying. But could this be true? Could it really be that a coach, who has a chance to win the most prestigious title in US sports, intentionally sabotages his team to hand the win to his former boss, who happened to be his mentor and the coach of the opposing Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

To pull this off, you certainly must have the means to succeed. This could arguably be the case, as the head coach of a team certainly could influence any game in order to sabotage it. But could he do it without anybody realizing what he is doing? It is hard to imagine, as NFL sidelines are crowded with coaches who would at the very least be highly suspicious if their boss influenced the game in a negative way. The same is true for the players. It takes a joint effort of all participants to win a game and I am not convinced the effort of a single person - even the head coach - could lose a game.

But let's turn to the incentives side of things. Why would he do it? Because of loyalty to his friend/former boss/mentor Jon Gruden? Losing a Super Bowl will certainly cost you. It will cost you in terms of money and discounted lifetime earnings. In addition to this you will lose a lot of "utility", as winning this title is the ultimate achievement in any career in professional football. But could the benefit from letting Gruden win out-weight the losses and the associated risk of getting caught while doing so?

I do not think this is plausible at all. Callahan is now an Offensive Coordinator (Dallas) and I think his career would have taken some different (more favorable) turns had he won back then. I think it is save to put this to rest and think of it as the bitterness of two former great players. 

Dienstag, 27. November 2012

Learning on the Job

Or: the art of introducing a rookie Quarterback.

The most important position in team sports might be the Quarterback in Football. Quarterbacks learn how to play the game in the NCAA - or let us better put it this way: they learn the fundamentals of the game. The game of football is so different on the collegiate level that it can hardly be compared to Professional Football as it is played in the NFL.

So where do these people learn how to win in the Pros? In the past the conventional wisdom was to "bring on a QB slowly". This often meant that a rookie QB was basically assigned to be a "clipboard holder" and an understudy to the current starting QB for his first couple of seasons. Teams used "in-firm training" to develop the future franchise QBs.

This, however, has changed dramatically over the last few years. Rookie QBs are nowadays often thrown into game action on the very first days of their careers. Players like Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Blaine Gabbert, Andy Dalton, Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan and many other names are examples for this trend. And along with all rookie QBs who were inserted as starters immediately there is a second line of players who played at some point during their rookie seasons because the incumbent starter either went down due to an injury or failed to perform.

Concerning the performances of the mentioned young QBs, most of them did fairly well. This is especially true for this season, as guys like Andrew Luck, RGIII and Wilson are having sensational rookie seasons. And had it not been for the downfall of Gabbert and the major struggles of Nick Foles, rookie- (and still young) QBs flat out could be called great.

Has the collegiate game converged with the Pros? The answer is obviously: NO. College football has changed into a wide-open high-scoring shootout game, with only few programs still focusing on the art of playing defense. What might have changed, however, is the approach of the teams. Instead of waiting a couple of seasons before the actual talent of the new QB commodity is revealed, young guys have to show early what they are capable of. It is now literally: either do or die! And it is probably not failure in some games that might decide the fate of a rookie QB these days, but his ability to progress,  refine and develop his game. QBs now have to be mentally tough enough to pick up the pro-game on the fly and being a quick learner is more important than a rocket arm.

There is an interesting case in the NFL now. 28-year-old quarterback Brandon Weeden (Cleveland Browns) was put in as the starter on day 1 and has struggled heavily at times. But he is obviously progressing and he shows some promises for the future. What makes his case interesting is his age. He is a rookie at 28, an age when most other QBs are usually seasoned veterans. Having him sit for a couple of seasons would move him over the 30s. At this age some QBs already show signs of decline. We will see how Weeden's career evolves. If Weeden succeeds along with the success of some other senior rookie QBs (Luck) teams could be looking for some "experience" out of college.

Only the time will tell if the new approach to rookie Quarterbacks will pay dividends for teams and players...

Dienstag, 20. November 2012

The monster is growing.

US Today has just published the 2012 version of the NCAA Football coaches salary database. And what we see is hard to believe. As they state only "six years ago 42 major college football coaches made at least $1 million. Today, 42 make at least $2 million." Coaches salaries in FBS schools are up 12% over last season and have increased an eye-whopping 70% since 2006. Alabama's Nick Saban is the highest paid at $5.5 million.

This is amazing! Institutions of higher education are paying enormous sums to coaches, who have no academic background, to run a football program, which should at best be an activity for students to spend their free time in a healthy way. Well, that ideal is long gone. I have mentioned that numerous times in the past. But why is the monster NCAA still growing that fast? College Football is popular for a long time and the growth rates in media attention and TV contracts is far from what is going on with coaches salaries.

Is something fundamentally wrong with the labor market for FBS coaches? In the past we used to see coaches move from the collegiate level to the NFL because of greater job opportunities. Obviously, this could change. Data shows that--on average--colleges do not profit financially from their sports programs. There is also some evidence that running large sport programs can influence student achievements. It is still debated whether it is fair to leave participating students without financial compensation. Looking at the current figures in terms of coaches wages we see that, for whatever reason, colleges pay enormous sums for something they might not actually benefit from. Rents seem to be generated - and as for now it seems as they are almost exclusively shared with the coaches. Most likely this a result of the non-competitive character of the BCS system.

Mittwoch, 17. Oktober 2012

Intertemporal Substitution

Week 6 of the 2012 NFl season is in the book and while we might have entered a new era of parity and competitive balance in Football, we also saw an (aging) icon of the game go down: Baltimore Ravens Linebacker Ray Lewis.

Lewis is probably the best Inside Linebacker in the long tradition of great players at this position in the NFL. He was the first draft pick of the relocated Baltimore Ravens and has lead the mostly great Defense ever since. He is an icon, not only for Ravens fans. He was elected to thirteen Pro Bowls and has one the Super Bowl once as a member of one of the best defensive units ever in the 2000 season. Once he is retired (a time that could come sooner than later) he will enter the Hall of Fame right off the bat.

But Lewis is also 37, playing his 17th season in the NFL. This is quite an accomplishment, as he clearly played longer than the average career at his position. And he played on a higher level. Only recently critics came to the front. They called him out for missing tackles and looking slow and (well actually he is in terms of football age) old. On Sunday Lewis injured his triceps while playing the Dallas Cowboys and on Monday he was ruled out for the season. Immediately speculations started if that might be the end of his career - only to be countered by the newest question: Would he be ready to play in a (possible) Super Bowl?

I am not convinced that the Ravens will eventually get to the title game, as they are beat up in terms of injuries and have played badly on Defense even when healthy. If they do it would have to be the (currently) high-powered Offense to carry the team. Sounds odd to say that about the Ravens, doesn't it?

If there is the slightest possibility that Lewis could return for the Super Bowl in February, the Ravens have to make a tough decision: Do they put him on injured reserve (IR) and sign somebody to replace him, or do they keep him on the roster and hope he will return for a game that is all but certain. There was a similar situation for the New York Jets, who also lost their best player on Defense, Darelle Revis, to injury and discussed his return for the Super Bowl. He was soon put on IR and all hopes for a return in the current season were put to rest. While I wish all the best to Lewis, my guess is that he will share Revis' fate.

In terms of economics the Ravens face a simple question: Is it good to save for the future? Are future returns larger than immediate returns? Is the team better off waiting for Lewis, or does it have to fill glaring holes on the roster? In this case we do not have a clear setup where we compare the utility of today's consumption to utility of consumption in t+1 because the Ravens do not know if they will still be there in t+1 if they do not consume today. So many interesting questions to think about!

Mittwoch, 26. September 2012

Back to the replacements

While my last entry in this blog was dealing with the possible repercussions of the current referee situation in the NFL, reality has once again overtaken me and it is now even worse than I had expected. While during the last weeks the replacement refs made many critical and obviously wrong calls, it has reached a new level with the result of Monday Night Football.

On Monday the Green Bay Packers played at Seattle to match the Seahawks. Most of the game was a brilliant defensive effort (sadly nobody is talking about that)  from Seattle and not much offense took place. And it was a "usual" replacements game, as there were numerous dubious pass interference calls, some critical penalties and a general feeling that they were not 100% in control of what was going on all the time.

But then there was th final play. And it was a big one, as Seattle was back 5 points and they needed a hail mary pass to win the game with the final play. So Seattle QB Wilson, after avoiding a sack, threw it up for grabs into the end zone in the general area where Golden Tate was waiting for it. He was surrounded by at least four Packers and Packers DB M. Jennings was in perfect position to defend the pass. Instead of doing what defenders are tought to do in such a situation, i.e. knocking the ball down, he tried to catch it. And he DID catch it and all replay angles showed he caught it first and although Tate might have had simultaneous possession of the ball while going to the ground for a split second, it was Jennings who had the ball in the end.

By now everybody knows the end of the story. The catch was awarded to Tate (even after review) and the NFL has admitted the mistake. However, they are only admitting that Tate was actually pushing off before the "catch" (enough to overturn it) and still call it a simultaneous catch which, by rule, should go to the offense. Everybody who saw what happened knows that this is wrong. There was a push off, yes, but Tate never caught the ball. It was a clear mistake that I do not think regular NFL refs would have made.

The way the NFL is handling the situation is definitely deciding games. We saw that on Monday. The integrity of the game is in danger. Some Packers have come forward and argued that the NFL was "more about money than the integrity of the game". Well, that's news! The NFL is the best sports business in the world. Of course, it is all about money. If it was just about competing in the game of football it would not be a billion dollar industry. Interesting, though, that this criticism comes from the only NFL team which is publicly owned (Packers). So there is no owner involved who wants his profits maximized rather than the success of his team on the field of play.

I agree. The integrity of the game is in danger. But I would go a step further: the only fans who might be happy right now live in the city of Seattle. If fans see that the current situation goes on and more games are decided by wrong officiating, they will turn away and the NFL as a whole product could suffer.

The NFL could have changed the call or set a rematch. They decided to stick to the result and come up with bad excuses. Fine, but please, for the sake of the game and the league, pay the regular refs and bring them back!