Faster, Higher, Stronger

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
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Matthew Futterman on Players a... Adam D'Angelo on Knowledge, Ex...

Why do sports contests have such a unique propensity to engage- and even inspire- us? Is this a phenomenon unique to the past few decades, or has this always been the case? EconTalk host Russ Roberts sat down with Matthew Futterman, author of Players: The Story of Sports and Money and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution.

Arnold Palmer and Roger Staubach both had side jobs while they were professional athletes...Why don't Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady have to do the same today? What are you looking forward to seeing from the upcoming Olympics in Rio- the events themselves, or Bob Costas's commentary?

Share your thoughts with us today...We love to hear from you.

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1. What is the nature of the "real revolution" that Futterman argues has occurred in professional sports over the last thirty years or so? How has it changed the experience of sports for the fans? Is this change for the good? What do you think the next 30 years will bring?

2. Futterman suggests that we judge young "prodigies" in sports more harshly than those in the arts. As he says, more "parental judginess" is expended on the kid who enrolls in a tennis academy and practice all day than the kid in the conservatory playing piano all day. Do you feel the same about both of these examples?

3. Futterman and Roberts spend a good deal of time discussing the role story-telling plays in sports- be it Michael Jordan's Nike commercials or the human interest stories ubiquitous in Olympics broadcasts. How do you feel about the "humanization" of sports? Does it add to or detract from the experience of sports? Explain.

4. How is the world of professional sports today reflective of the increased prosperity we all enjoy?

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Mark Crankshaw writes:
1. What is the nature of the "real revolution" that Futterman argues has occurred in professional sports over the last thirty years or so? How has it changed the experience of sports for the fans? Is this change for the good? What do you think the next 30 years will bring?

TV, the internet and Global Marketing have expanded professional sports tremendously. I think, however, that Futterman overstates the changes in sport that have taken place "in the past 30 years". As I recall, sport commanded a massive amount of passion in my boyhood. Sport has commanded as much passion 30, 50 years ago and even 100 years ago (particularly among boys and men) that it does today. It's just much easier to access today. Could I watch games from 30 years ago? You betcha, I do it all the time on youtube. I'll watch games from before I was born if I have a familiarity with the teams and players. It doesn't have to be played as it is today to be competitive. I think that the next 30 years will bring much of the same...

2. Futterman suggests that we judge young "prodigies" in sports more harshly than those in the arts. As he says, more "parental judginess" is expended on the kid who enrolls in a tennis academy and practice all day than the kid in the conservatory playing piano all day. Do you feel the same about both of these examples?

I don't think "we" do (since there is no "we"), but I think he's correct that artsy, lefty types do, most definately. I tend to see forcing kids to practice either tennis or piano all day as a sign of seriously malignant parenting.

3. Futterman and Roberts spend a good deal of time discussing the role story-telling plays in sports- be it Michael Jordan's Nike commercials or the human interest stories ubiquitous in Olympics broadcasts. How do you feel about the "humanization" of sports? Does it add to or detract from the experience of sports? Explain.

Sometimes it adds, sometimes it detracts. If I feel it is detracting, I simply stop watching that which detracts. I have only ever watched Olympic basketball, since I find the strident nationalism of the Olympics extremely off-putting.

Greg G writes:

Mark,

I don't see any evidence that there is less strident nationalism in Olympic basketball than other Olympic sports.

Like everyone else, you like some sports better than others. I don't doubt that you sincerely find strident nationalism off putting. I just don't think the sports you like have less of it than the ones you don't. They might even have more of it.

Does strident nationalism cause you to stop watching international soccer?

Mark Crankshaw writes:

Greetings, GregG, from the Hellenic Republic of Greece. True, Olympic basketball is no less nationalistic than the other Olympic sports and granted, international soccer is as well.

However, I watch only Olympic basketball (and hockey in the Winter Olympics) because I enjoy those competition enough to stomach the extremely nationalistic and jingoistic coverage. The other Olympic sports I could care less about (even Olympic soccer isn't worth my time since the best players do not play in the Olympics). I really, really don't want to see the 15 minute interview with some obscure "American" that finished 147th in some Olympic "event" of little interest to me, and the 2 seconds for the non-American winner. I feel absolutely no connection with anyone just because they happen to be "American" and could care less which country "wins".

The primary reason I enjoy those competitions enough, and an important distinction (at least to me), is that in both Olympic basketball (or hockey) and international soccer are comprised of players from professional leagues that cross national lines (all of which I have a intimate familiarity with prior to the Olympics or any international soccer tournament).

I usually have an interest in all the teams competing (I follow FIBA and the Euro Basketball Championship quite closely and have quite a familiarity with all the European national and club basketball teams) rather than just the USA or even the players in the NBA. I enjoy FIBA competitions and the Olympics are a mere extension of that in basketball (and serve as the proxy for a basketball 'World Cup').

Generally, international soccer tournaments are not packaged quite as jingoisticly in the US because either the USA is not in the tournament or they aren't in it for long. The majority of broadcasts are presented by broadcasters from England, and while they do sometimes try to play up the US or US players to the "home" audience, their quite transparent assessment (quite accurate, IMO) of the US is that "they" (rather than "we") are more of plucky upstarts wholely without the world class talent to compete with the big boys.

Would I watch a basketball/soccer/hockey tournament with non-professional players that I've never heard of, just because they wear national team shirts as a sorry and mindless excuse to jingoistically wave the US flag (which is how the Olympic coverage comes across to me)? Never have, never will...

Jerm writes:

1. What is the nature of the "real revolution" that Futterman argues has occurred in professional sports over the last thirty years or so? How has it changed the experience of sports for the fans? Is this change for the good? What do you think the next 30 years will bring?

I have some friends who play volleyball professionally, so I could see what he was talking about. Beach volleyball, as a profession, isn't yet fully mature. There are some people who sign up for the tournaments just to say that they play professional volleyball. Outside of the elite teams/players, it's a lot of people who have regular jobs and lives.

So the revolution is that the labor pool is becoming more and more competitive (in an economic sense). Innovations spread, inefficiencies are eliminated, and wages approach the value of the marginal revenue product.

I think this is good, although athletes in today's world have further complications regarding their value. Their non-sports-related celebrity value is rolled into their athletics wage (Andre Agassi was actually a great example of this), and in major US sports, it's impossible for the employer to pay for only one of these attributes.

Does this mean that we'll reach a point where the guy at the end of an NBA bench is there only for the purpose of eye candy (this already happens in college volleyball)? Would an NFL team be better off (monetarily) cutting their worst player and signing Kim Kardashian? Seems like we've moved away from those types of gimmicks, but who knows if it'll be viable in the future?

Jerm writes:

3. Futterman and Roberts spend a good deal of time discussing the role story-telling plays in sports- be it Michael Jordan's Nike commercials or the human interest stories ubiquitous in Olympics broadcasts. How do you feel about the "humanization" of sports? Does it add to or detract from the experience of sports? Explain.

Humanization is necessary in order to maximize profits. Some people think that sports that lack this type of humanization just don't gain the popularity necessary to grow the industry into something nationwide. Rugby, car racing, and MMA might never blossom into major popularity just because they lean so heavily on narratives that don't relate to an average suburban household.

One interesting technology-related avenue for humanized sports (like football or the Olympics) is branching out to non-humanized versions of broadcasts. Want to watch the Olympics without the schmaltz? Just watch the raw feeds (or the BBC). Want to consume the NFL without the throwaway garbage on Sportscenter (because the legendary power of Brett Favre is not helpful for fantasy football)? Hopefully soon we'll have the endzone cam option that would be so helpful to learning the actual game.

I'm actually kind of surprised that 50 years of televised football hasn't resulted in better football literacy. We watch SO MUCH of the game, and many fans still have a caveman-level understanding of how modern football works. I'd feel bad about it, but I've found that European soccer fans are kinda the same way.

If there's too much humanization in sports, the networks will figure it out. They have all the data...hopefully we'll get more handball in the Olympic coverage. Because it is THE BEST OLYMPIC SPORT.

MarkOS writes:

Starting backwards

4. That we can have professional badminton players, video games players and ten pin bowlers shows that we now have both the time and the money at both ends of the equation, i.e. time to dedicate a life to these activities and time for enough spectators to create a market for professionals to exist. Back in the day 'professional' English footballers, and fans, would play a game then do a shift down the coal mines or work in the Ship yards. Speaks to a common theme on the show; 'what will we do once the robots take over?'

3. Sport is stories played out live. David and Goliath, The Terminator, Cinderella, Superman. All of these are both stories and constant sporting metaphors. Jessie Owens was a hell of a runner, but it is the story that people remember, not his times or opponents. Joe Louis v Max Schmelling was a story of race, politics, tyranny and friendship as much as it was two boxing matches. Leicester City wining the EPL is far more interesting than the continuos triumph of money over effort.

2. Not sure about it as I don't know any parents or kids who spend as much time on piano as they do on sport. I believe that humans spend more of their disposable time and money on following and doing sport than they do on the arts, medicine or even education.

1. The real revolution is probably a complex combination of both points. I think Russ is correct to note that Futtermans book raises a previously overlooked aspect; that increased economic and 'political' power of players allowed them to provide a better product. In England the late Jimmy Hill was instrumental in breaking the clubs power over football players and creating the modern professional, he is credited by many as the indirect father of the modern game. The Bosman ruling is what allowed free movement of players in Europe and is the direct reason for huge wages and scads of imports in the big 5 leagues.

But even in the 50's many people were already paying to watch the previously 'poor' product. There was no way T.V companies were going to ignore a market that already had millions of dedicated paying customers to be proxy sold to advertisers.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the technology available to the T.V companies dictated which sports were going to be picked up first. Until recently, 10-15 years, quality cameras were too big to be moved over large distances. As such arena events were always going to be first choice.

The current popularity of the Tour De France is a product of small high quality cameras, which allow us to live through every second of the battles played out between teams and riders over the three weeks.

GoPro cameras and Drones will change sports coverage in predictable ways but when combined with increased band width and Oculus Rift type platforms the whole viewing experience is going to shift. Already we can admit that the viewing experience is often better at home, especially for geographically large events. The atmosphere and cache of having been there are still valuable but how long until it feels better at home as well?

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