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Michael Jordan says he would have never called Larry Bird or Magic Johnson to join forces because “honestly, I was trying to beat those guys.”  Jordan catches himself, notes its a different era now, and concludes about the LeBron-Wade-Bosh cooperation that he “can’t say that’s a bad thing.”   Dan Shaugnessy (ESPN) recounts how Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson refused to talk to non-Cardinals teammates during all-star games.  There is Reggie Miller and the Knicks.  The intense rivalry between Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier is legendary.   Ray Lewis and anyone.  Shaugnessy suggests that the decline in intense rivalry is a bad thing for sports.  I tend to agree.

Here’s Bill Simmons again on the LeBron decision:

I think it’s a cop-out. Any super-competitive person would rather beat Dwyane Wade than play with him. Don’t you want to find the Ali to your Frazier and have that rival pull the greatness out of you? That’s why I’m holding out hope that LeBron signs with New York or Chicago (or stays in Cleveland), because he’d be saying, “Fine. Kobe, Dwight and Melo all have their teams. Wade and Bosh have their team. The Celtics are still there. Durant’s team is coming. I’m gonna go out and build MY team, and I’m kicking all their asses.” That’s what Jordan would have done. Hell, that’s what Kobe would have done.In May, after the Cavs were ousted in the conference semifinals, I wrote that LeBron was facing one of the greatest sports decisions ever: “winning (Chicago), loyalty (Cleveland) or a chance at immortality (New York).”

The quotes I’ve seen from Jordan, Barkley and others suggest that this just isn’t something that they would have thought of doing.  Sports culture has changed.  But is that a good thing or a bad one?  The optimal level of rivalry isn’t zero.  As Shaugnessy points out, there are significant benefits to rivalry from the perspective of the consumer in terms of creating more heated team rivalries, more intense individual rivalries, both of which can lead to great sports moments.  But this sort of intense inter-player rivalry (hatred seems to strong) is apparently declining across many sports with obvious changes in the sports culture, including, but not limited to, compensation and age.  But the optimal level cannot be infinite either.  There are some costs to increasing this sort of rivalry at the margin.  Some are obvious.  It could lead, at least in this case, to a narrowing of the distribution of talent across the league.  I don’t see why this would be a good thing on average.  But fans obviously will enjoy watching the Miami Heat show, whatever happens.  That counts for something I guess.

I can’t help but think these developments are bad for sports fans.   Is there a more optimistic story about the decline of real, intense rivalry in sports that I’m missing?  Enough has been said about whether LeBron’s “decision” and how he did it.  I’m not talking about that.  As a sports fan, I think I’m worse off for a sports world where this sort of coordination is the norm.  Should I?  Do you?

Predicting LeBron

Josh Wright —  8 July 2010

Intrade says the Heat:

Bill Simmons column is a must read:

If LeBron picks anyone other than the Cavaliers, it will be the cruelest television moment since David Chase ended “The Sopranos” by making everyone think they lost power. Cleveland fans will never forgive LeBron, nor should they. He knows better than anyone what kind of sports anguish they have suffered over the years. Losing LeBron on a contrived one-hour show would be worse than Byner’s fumble, Jose Mesa, the Game 5 meltdown against Boston, The Drive, The Shot and everything else. At least those stomach-punch moments weren’t preordained, unless you believe God hates Cleveland (entirely possible, by the way). This stomach-punch moment? Calculated. By a local kid they loved, defended and revered.It would be unforgivable. Repeat: unforgivable. …

Picking anyone other than Cleveland on this show would be the meanest thing any athlete has ever done to a city.

Yep.

I read a really interesting column in Sports Illustrated, full of anecdotal accounts from players, managers and well-informed baseball observers, explaining the perceived dramatic uptick in no-hitters so far this season.   With four no-hitters in a short period of time in the 2010 season, the most popular explanation has been steroids.  That was SI’s answer (see also here, here).  I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the steroid explanation because casual empiricism suggested that pitchers were benefiting from steroids too.  And less casual empiricism from Justin Wolfers — who took on the case of Roger Clemens — suggested the same thing (see also here).  Of course, its perfectly plausible that steroids benefit hitters more than pitchers  (but see here).  And the MLB home-run rate is low.  Also, there could be other explanations for an increase in no-hitters and/or perfect games, e.g. better defense.

Anyway, none of this is an attempt to provide a definitive answer.  Or even a not-so-definitive one.  The column just got me wondering about what the data look like.  I thought I’d show a picture that I put together based on the data from this CNN/SI column on the top 16 seasons for no-hitter frequency after 1901 to put things in context.

These data certainly are not conclusive.  But they seem to suggest that while 2010 is a good year for pitchers, and for no-hitters (the third highest no-hitter frequency at .18% thus far this season; the two best no-hitter seasons were 1908 and 1917 at .24%), the data also suggest that 2010 is not that unique.  Ten seasons since 1901 have had no-hit frequencies ranging from .15% to .18%.  Notice also that there are several high no-hit seasons from before the steroid era.  One explanation that is frequently tossed around is the increasing strike-out rate.  See below (the red line on top is strikeouts/9 innings):

No answers here.  Like most empirical questions, it is difficult to disentangle the determinants of the increasing strikeout rate.  But it strikes me that this trend at least as components that are entirely unrelated to the steroid era changes, e.g. changes in strategy or reduced stigma associated with striking out as it becomes an acceptable cost of hitting more home runs.  I’m no baseball expert.  But there seems to be some interesting stuff here.  Why has the strikeout rate increased so consistently over time?   How big of a deal was the steroid era anyway, in terms of relative performance of pitchers and hitters?

Discuss.

The NFL As A Single Firm?

Michael Sykuta —  13 January 2010

When I first read Josh’s post of antitrust links below, I thought “Drew Brees? Surely not THAT Drew Brees.”  Turns out, it IS that Drew Brees. I was very interested to read the QB’s take on American Needle and his plead for the Supreme Court to reject the NFL’s petition to be deemed “a single entity.”  However, of even more interest to me was Brees’ comment that the NFL is petitioning for a “single entity” designation that would, according to Brees, apply “for pretty much everything the league does.”

I wrote a paper (here) with Ken Lehn several years ago examining the issue of antitrust and franchise relocation in the NFL in the wake of L.A. Memorial Colisuem Commission v. National Football League, et al. (1984), more commonly referred to as the Oakland Raiders case.  This antitrust case resulted from the NFL’s refusal to permit the Oakland Raiders franchise to move from Oakland to LA. The key finding in the Court’s decision against the NFL was that the NFL was not a single entity.  The NFL had argued that it was a single entity and therefore incapable of “conspiracy;” the same logic used by the courts to reject an antitrust claim against the National Hockey League in one of its own franchise relocation disputes (San Francisco Seals, 1974).

Ken and I took issue with both the Raiders finding concerning the single entity argument and the court’s understanding (or misunderstanding) of the consumer welfare effects of the NFL’s territorial restrictions.  Drawing on the organizational economics literature concerning incentives and franchises, we made several arguments concerning the important incentives such territorial restrictions provide when revenues are shared but (local) costs are not. We then provided empirical evidence to demonstrate that both the Raiders and the LA Rams did in fact seem to underinvest in quality of their respective franchises after the Raiders moved to LA, ultimately resulting in no NFL team in one of the largest media markets in the US.

So I would have to suggest that, at least for franchise relocation decisions, the NFL should in fact be considered a single entity and some of its other restraining practices are actually pro-competitive (or certainly welfare enhancing). As for American Needle, I haven’t yet read all the facts, but I suspect there are compelling economic reasons for a single-entity decision there as well, particularly given the revenue sharing rules that govern the NFL.

Regardless, I would suggest Mr. Brees use a little more caution in his arguments. Something about pots calling kettles black, and all that. Having reviewed at least one (publicly available) licensing agreement in the CORI K-Base between the National Football League Players Association and one of the popular sports memorabilia companies, a good case could be made using Mr. Brees’ reasoning that the NFLPA is violating antitrust law both in its Group Licensing Rights program and its restrictions against licensees negotiating contracts with any NFL players, or even potential NFL players, who are not (yet) part of the NFLPA’s group license.  I don’t know how far the NFLPA’s antitrust immunity as a labor union may extend beyond the labor market for football players.

It wasn’t too long ago that I blogged about the purported end of the Demarcus Cousins saga.  For TOTM readers that want to catch up to speed, here is how things stood about a month ago:

For those who haven’t, Cousins is a blue chip high school basketball recruit who has been bargaining hard with the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) over signing his National Letter of Intent — the letter that commits a player to attend the university and imposes the penalty of giving up a full year of eligibility if the student-athlete transfers. Cousins wants to commit to UAB to play for former Indiana University coach Mike Davis but wanted to seek contractual insurance for the possibility that after signing the letter of intent and making specific investments to UAB, Davis might leave the program. Cousins alleged that Davis promised that UAB would release Cousins without penalty if Davis was no longer his coach.

When we last left Cousins, he was holding out, talking to other programs, and attempting to bargain for this term in his National Letter of Intent.  He’s now signed with Memphis.

Back then, I noted that I thought it was odd that UAB could not find a way to include the contractual provision in Cousins’ NLI and wondered whether other athletes were successful in doing so.  It turns out recent developments give answer to that question, and also involve Cousins.

As the college basketball world now knows, former Memphis coach John Calipari (who successfully got the verbal commitment from Cousins) has accepted the head coaching position at the University of Kentucky.

With Calipari accepting the Memphis job, the question now turns to whether his excellent recruiting class will stay at Memphis.  But what about the NLI provisions that commit a player to attend or take the one year penalty for transferring?  Apparently, Cousins only committed to Memphis verbally and so is free to transfer.  ESPN reports that Cousins may stay at Memphis but that Calipari is likely to have a wonderful shot at him heading to Kentucky.

But here is the interesting new fact (at least to me and as it has been reported on ESPN): Another blue chip recruit that had signed an NLI with Memphis, Xavier Henry, but ESPN reporters continue to reference his NLI including a provision that allows him release without penalty in the case of Coach Calipari leaving.  My immediate reaction is that the fact that the competitive process for top recruits allows those players to extract these sorts of commitments from programs like Memphis convinces me that the problem at UAB must be related to a dispute between their coach (Mike Davis) and the UAB administration.  Of course the coach wants the provision.  But perhaps administrations at mid-majors want to increase the cost of early departures by prohibiting coaches from leaving and keeping recruits at the new school whereas this is less of a problem at major programs that have other substitute methods of keeping their coaches on staff for long periods of time.  For example, this list of terms reported to be included in Calipari’s Kentucky deal are too good not to post:

  • The $31.65 million deal making John Calipari the highest-paid coach in college basketball is packed with perks beyond his annual salary, including membership to the country club of his choice, two cars and incentives for reaching the NCAA Sweet Sixteen and Final Four and winning a national title.
  • The Wildcats paid Memphis $200,000 as part of Calipari’s buyout of his Tigers’ contract, which had paid him $2.35 million per year.
  • Including $3 million in retention bonuses he’ll get for staying with Kentucky through March 31, 2016, Calipari is in line to receive an average of $4 million a year over the eight years.
  • Two “late model, quality automobiles,” plus mileage.
  • Membership in a country club of his choice, including monthly dues and initiation fees.
  • 20 prime “lower-level” season tickets to UK home games.
  • Eight tickets for each UK home football game.
  • Hundreds of thousands of dollars in incentives for reaching certain milestones, such as a 75 percent graduation rate or better ($50,000), winning the Southeastern Conference ($50,000), winning the SEC tournament ($50,000), making the NCAA tournament round of 16 ($100,000), making the Final Four ($175,000), or winning the national title ($375,000).
  • The right to income from conducting basketball camps using UK facilities.
  • Should the university fire Calipari without cause, he would still receive $3 million for each year left on the contract, double the annual buyout former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie says he is entitled to under his memorandum of understanding.

But THIS is where I draw the line.

Go Bruins.

We’ve been following the Demarcus Cousins saga. For those who haven’t, Cousins is a blue chip high school basketball recruit who has been bargaining hard with the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) over signing his National Letter of Intent — the letter that commits a player to attend the university and imposes the penalty of giving up a full year of eligibility if the student-athlete transfers. Cousins wants to commit to UAB to play for former Indiana University coach Mike Davis but wanted to seek contractual insurance for the possibility that after signing the letter of intent and making specific investments to UAB, Davis might leave the program. Cousins alleged that Davis promised that UAB would release Cousins without penalty if Davis was no longer his coach.

When we last left Cousins, he was holding out, talking to other programs, and attempting to bargain for this term in his National Letter of Intent.

He’s now signed with Memphis.

At the time I thought the most likely outcome would be that UAB, a mid-major program for whom a recruit of Cousins’ caliber is a rare catch, would come around and concede the term.  Such a concession is surely in Coach Davis’ interest in a market where winning, and winning soon, counts for quite a bit.  What was UAB thinking?  The costs of granting the term don’t seem incredibly high to me from UAB’s perspective.  Sure, more recruits will ask for such a concession.  And perhaps the benefits of keeping Cousins around are mitigated by the fact that he might leave for the NBA early (though the fact that he so adamantly wanted to negotiate a term to stay in the event of a coaching change cuts the other way).  And yes, prohibiting the term provides some insurance for the UAB program in case Davis leaves too.  Recruiting a new coach is a bit easier if you can keep your best players.  And on the margin, a penalty for departure makes it more likely that UAB would keep them.  Was Davis willing to concede this term but UAB wasn’t?  I’ll look forward to learning more about this.  Anyway, I would have thoughts the benefits of keeping a player like Cousins (and the impact this can have on recruiting in subsequent classes) would exceed these costs.  On top of that, one might hypothesize that a rule allowing the cream of the crop to opt-out of the NLI transfer penalty would help mid-majors on average — allowing them a second shot at players that they might not otherwise have access to.

I’m sure Memphis is happy to have him.

The lesson I draw from the Demarcus Cousins saga, for now, is that Coach Davis is not likely to be around long.

Stories like this one suggest that winning Olympic gold in Beijing have catapulted team members into better seasons.   Here’s a quote from Lebron James:

“To win the gold just uplifted all of us into this season.  A lot of people were wondering if we’d hit a wall because we played in the Olympics. But look at everybody from the Olympic team. Everybody is playing the best they’ve ever played.”

But are they really?  I’ve heard claims like this about the Gold medal winning Beijing squad in the popular sports media as well.   And this is a debate that comes up every four years when coaches and owners express concern over their players, in whom they have sunk subtantial investments, play international ball and expose themselves to the risk of injury instead of recovering during the offseason.  Mark Cuban of the Mavericks and the L.A. Lakers’ head coach Phil Jackson have led the charge on this front (see, e.g. this column by Michael Wilbon) arguing that NBA player participation in the Olympics results in wear and tear on players, more injuries, and poor performance in subsequent seasons.

So which is it?  Here is a little blog-level casual empiricism.  I had an RA do some digging comparing the performance of Olympic team members in the seasons before and after the Gold medal winning 2008 Olympics and the disappointing 2004 team which took home the Bronze medal  (losing to Puerto Rico, Lithuania, and Argentina).  Obviously, we only have partial results for the current season which is not quite to its halfway point yet.  We also excluded Emeka Okafor from the 2004 group since he was a collegiate athlete at the time of the Olympics and had no “before” NBA stats.  Like I said, this is casual empiricism.  Further, the 2004 Olympic team might not be the best control group available, e.g. a group that participating in the Olympics but did not win the Gold.  Maybe a better control group would be the pre- and post- performances of players that were on the margin but were not ultimately selected to the Olympic team and therefore did not receive the “Gold medal” treatment.  On top of that, maybe there are other measures one might want to look at other than points, assists, rebounds and steals, e.g. measures of team success, measures of success down the stretch when Olympians might be wearing down, controlling for difference in ages of the various teams, movements from team to team, etc.

With those caveats behind us … what did we find?

Check out the chart below the fold.

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Last month I highlighted the story of DeMarcus Cousins, a blue chip high school basketball recruit who was playing a game of chicken with the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) over signing his National Letter of Intent — the letter that commits a player to attend the university and imposes the penalty of giving up a full year of eligibility if the student-athlete transfers.  Cousins claims that he stayed near home and UAB to play for former Indiana University coach Mike Davis who had allegedly represented to Cousins that UAB would release Cousins without penalty if Davis was no longer his coach.  Cousins has been holding out to try to bargain for this term in his NLI.  Nothing new there — though if anybody has information on the follow-up story there I’d love to hear it.

I came across this story at ESPN on the release of Miami University QB Robert Marve which includes the following detail:

The release comes with conditions that don’t sit well with Marve. He can’t play for teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference or the state of Florida. It’s not unusual for programs to place restrictions on the deal when a marquee player transfers.

If this sort of ex-post imposition of non-compete conditions on player releases is standard fare, which the article suggests that it is, Cousins’ strategy seems even more reasonable to protect against this sort of hold up with contractual protections ex ante.

UPDATE:  Apparently, the University of Miami has relaxed its restrictions on Marve’s release.  Originally, Miami was prohibiting Marve from transferring to any school in the ACC, SEC and the state of Florida.  Now, Marve is only restricted from attending three schools that the University of Miami believes Marve contacted prior to receiving his release: the University of Florida, Tennessee, and and Louisiana State University.

Seth Davis (Sports Illustrated) has an interesting column on the intersection of two issues I hold near and dear: contracts and college basketball. For those unfamiliar, college recruits in football, basketball and some other sports sign National Letters of Intent (NLI) committing themselves to spend at least one full year at the college. The NLI gives the school the option of allowing a player who wishes to leave to do so without penalty. The default, however, is that the school does not release the player. The student-athlete can still transfer of course, but must incur the penalty of sitting out a full year at his next school plus losing a year of eligibility. In these days of the coaching carousel, one reason that players commonly switch schools is because a coach is fired or leaves for greener pastures. However, Davis reports that the NLI explicitly states that a coaching change is not grounds for nullifying the agreement.

Which brings us to DeMarcus Cousins, a heavily recruited basketball prep star who wants to stay near home and play for University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB). Here’s the contract twist. Cousins has choices further up the college basketball food chain and is going to UAB largely because of the coach, Mike Davis (formerly of Indiana University). As such, Cousins figured out that he wants some insurance that UAB will release him without penalty if Davis leaves and wants language representing as much in the NLI. Here’s another twist. Davis may have made a promise to Cousins to do exactly that:

Part of the reason Cousins’ situation is so sticky is that it appears Mike Davis made a promise on which he wasn’t prepared to deliver. Hughley told me that when Cousins committed to UAB last March, Davis assured them that the school would promise in writing that it would grant Cousins his release if Davis left. Either Davis foolishly made the deal without clearing it with his bosses, or his bosses have changed their minds, because though athletic director Brian Mackin is prepared to give Cousins a verbal promise, there does not appear to be any kind of written agreement forthcoming.

Assuming Davis has apparent or actual authority to make such a promise on behalf of UAB, this puts the school in a tough spot from a practical if not legal perspective. I’m guessing that UAB caves here. Cousins is a once-per-decade recruit for a mid-major program and has plenty of other options. I’m also not sure what precedential harm there is in including the language for him and playing hardball with subsequent recruits. Further, one might think that mid-majors would be net importers of players seeking releases from top programs under a rule that allowed top players to negotiate releases without having to sit out.  In the meantime, it looks like the early signing period has come and gone without an NLI from Cousins.

Professor Bainbridge offers a very detailed analysis of the complaint in the SEC’s case against Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

So I was playing centerfield in softball the other night, lost the ball in the sun, and ended up with seventeen stitches (4 internal, 13 external) over my right eyebrow. Unpleasant picture after the jump.
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