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Original Issue

Numbers Crunchers

It can get wild when a bunch of economists get together to talk sports on a smart and funny blog

One of thebeauties of sport is that it can be enjoyed by so many kinds of people, fromlittle girls to grandfathers, from face-painted yahoos to deep thinkers likeSkip Sauer and his cohorts. Sauer, 50, is chair of the economics department atClemson and the brains behind The Sports Economist, a two-year-old blog. On thesite Sauer and nine other professors put their decades in academe to usedissecting the sports news of the day. Think of as ahighbrow version of Around the Horn.

So if the topicis, for example, the officials' calls that went against the Seattle Seahawks inthe Super Bowl, the discourse doesn't degenerate into name-calling orconspiracy theories. Instead one contributor, under the heading why good refsmake bad callS, wonders if rule changes haven't left officials with too much tokeep track of. The posting draws a parallel to a September 1992 study in theJournal of Economic Literature showing that skilled accountants sometimesperform bad audits when overwhelmed by details.

The SportsEconomist is a blog for its time, because the idea of applying economictheories to everyday situations is so much in vogue. Freakonomics has been onThe New York Times best-seller list for 66 weeks, and a more recent book thathas drawn good reviews, The Wages of Wins, is seeking to replicateFreakonomics's success in the sporting world. One of the three co-authors ofWages, David J. Berri, an associate professor at Cal State--Bakersfield, is aregular poster on The Sports Economist. And the idea that economists havesomething to teach people in the sports world is not new. Economists weredelighted in 2002 when New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who was aneconomics major in college, acknowledged having read a paper by University ofCalifornia professor David Romer suggesting that coaches should be moreaggressive in going for it on fourth down.

All the posterson The Sports Economist have written sports-related articles or books. Sauer'swork includes pieces with titles such as Player Injuries and Price Responses inthe Point Spread Wagering Market and Does the Basketball Market Believe in theHot Hand? Sports and economics are natural bedfellows in Sauer's view."Economics is data driven," he says, "and there's a lot of data insports."

Sometimes thediscourse on The Sports Economist resembles conventional sports talk--"Thecards are getting ridiculous," one poster mundanely complained during theWorld Cup. At other times the dialogue can be more esoteric: A discussioninitiated by Washington State professor Rodney Fort on whether big-spendingcollege athletic programs engage in "arms races" included referencesnot just to the Michigan-- Ohio State rivalry but also to academic conceptssuch as the Pareto efficiency, the Edgeworth conjecture and the Nashequilibrium--which has disappointingly little to do with NBA MVP SteveNash.

Which is not tosay that studying this site is the equivalent of doing college homework. Keepin mind that sports blogging is these professors' version of kicking back."Most of the work I do as an economist has a gestation lag of about threeyears," Sauer says. On the blog, publication is just a click away.

And while theprofs may talk a different game, it's clear that they are true sports fans.Fort, 50, says he considers basketball "the most beautiful game" butcan't stand to watch the NBA version, with its welter of dunks, three-pointersand uncalled traveling violations. "The rules and enforcement and the styleof play are geared to make as much money as they can for teams," he says,"though knowing why it happens doesn't stop me from wishing it weren'ttrue."

Similarly, Sauerprefers college football to the pro game. He says the NFL "is a businessfirst and a competition second." So there's one thing these economists havein common with the bleacher bums: Even they don't like it when the games becometoo much about money.

Sites for Sore Eyes

Here's a handful of other sports websites that aretaking their game to a higher level of analysis.

1. Obsessed fan and New York Citylawyer Dan McLaughlin's blog can be fun ("25 Least-Favorite Mets, PartI") and thorough (a recent post examined team ERAs, finding that the 2006Tigers stack up well historically).

2. Economic thinking applied tobaseball. You'll get statistical analysis on such subjects as why, sincepitching coach Leo Mazzone left the Braves for the Orioles, both teams' staffshave stunk.

3. When one of their writerscomes up with a list such as "Ten Things I Didn't Know Last Week"(Frank Robinson has the most walk-off hits of anyone since 1957), odds are youdidn't know them either.

4. Match up two teams from any era inbaseball, football, hockey or college or pro basketball, and get a simulatedresult. The 1955 Dodgers versus the 2004 Red Sox? Press a button, and thecomputer provides a winner and full box score.




Sauer is part of a movement in sports analysis that changed the way Belichick(below) thinks about fourth down.