Economic Growth

This is why economists are increasingly studying sports

Men play basketball on the outskirts of Caracas, Venezuela, September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes - RC13FC8C77B0

Economists are looking at sport and game theory to help solve fundamental economic questions. Image: REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Tim Harcourt
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Economic Growth?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Economic Progress is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Economic Progress

If you look closely at your favourite sport nowadays, it’s hard to miss the influence of economics. It’s evident from the way players are drafted or how much they are paid, through to individual coaching decisions, and even strategic shifts across entire leagues.

This has been particularly driven by the rise of game theory in economics. Game theory uses mathematical models to figure out optimal strategies, such as what pitches a baseball pitcher should throw, or whether American Football teams should pass more.

Sport lends itself to economics and game theory because players, coaches and agents act similar to the hypothetical rational decision-makers in economic models.

The economics of professional sport

If you’ve seen or read Moneyball you’ll understand how economics can be used to put together a team. This is the true story of Billy Beane, the former general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Beane became famous for using economic ideas to identify undervalued players.

Baseball scouts and agents often focused too much on unimportant factors like how hard someone could hit a ball. Using advanced statistics Billy Beane could identify players who were undervalued by his competitors, and play them in ways that made best use of their strengths.

Image: Reuters

In basketball, Robert D. Tollison is largely behind the explosion of three point shooting in the National Basketball Association. Tollison’s research identified that even though three pointers are less accurate than other shots, over the course of a game and season it makes sense to take more three pointers.

In some cases economists have been hired to solve specific problems. For instance the AFL was worried about clubs “tanking” (purposefully losing) to get favourable draft picks (not mentioning any names, Melbourne).

So the AFL asked Melbourne University Economics Professor Jeff Borland to come up with an objective measure of club performance (based on team performance, win-loss ratios, previous finals appearances and injuries).

Why are academics getting into sports?

For teams and leagues, the incentive to implement economic ideas is financial. American Football’s Superbowl attracts 111 million viewers each year in the USA alone.

In Australia the broadcast rights for the AFL and NRL are each around A$2 billion. And this doesn’t even count the merchandise that can be sold to fans.

But the academic economists are often driven by something else - analysing sports can shed light on fundamental economic questions, particularly about the impact of incentives, labour market discrimination on race and gender lines, and competition.

For instance, discrimination against non-white athletes like Hank Aaron in Major League Baseball led to a lot of interesting research about the economics of discrimination in the workplace.

Similarly, the rapidly increasing player salaries in the English Premier League has led to a lot of analysis of winner-take-all markets. It has also led other sports leagues to implement salary caps and restrictions on the draft.

Have you read?

But the economics of sports aren’t just for academics, teams and leagues. The last few years have seen a few popular books that explain how fans can also get in on this movement.

For example, there’s Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski. This book applies statistics, economics, psychology and game theory to popular questions about game. What country likes soccer the most? Norway. What country has performed better at the World Cup than they should have? England (despite their reputation).

There’s also Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World, which uses soccer to explain topics as diverse as globalisation, oligarchy and antisemitism.

Lawrence Ritter, an eminent economist, is arguably more famous for his book The Glory of Their Times about the early days of American’s Major League baseball. There has probably been no better book on the sociology of business and the labour market of the United States in the 1920s.

The growth in sports economics is likely to continue, as the data gets better and teams compete for a strategic edge. In economic terms, the global sports industry really is more than a game.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Economic GrowthIndustries in DepthArts and Culture
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

What is needed for inclusive and sustainable global economic growth? Four leaders share their thoughts 

Liam Coleman

May 24, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum