Nerds + Jocks = Win

 

An Evolution of Sport

Recreational sports may not be as recreational as once perceived, but professional sports appear anything but recreational now.  The rise of professional sports has a history, and some sports are “valued” (i.e. sell more tickets, with greater following) differently in different countries.  The history of sports is an interesting one.

There are numerous documented scenarios that tell us about the origins of sports – certainly in track and field, the Greek account involving the marathon has a storied legend of its significance.  Accounts such as www.wikipedia.org note give detailed accounts of other countries as well.  At least 2,500 year-old sports have been suggested as precursors to field hockey, rugby, and polo in Ireland, Rome, and China.  In Egypt, swimming and fishing; in China, gymnastics; and in Egypt, javelin, high jump, and wrestling appeared to have taken place.

The first Olympics are recorded in 776 B.C. in Olympia, Greece, continuing till 393 A.D.  Starting as a single sprinting event, the games grew to include more variations.  Interestingly, Greek athletes were possibly some of the first sports celebrities (though multi-year contracts and endorsements likely did not exist).  Analogous to this, sports in England and Ireland assimilated football for at least 700 years.  Other sports, such as cricket and horse racing, became financed by gambling.

In 1660, the first professional sports team (of modern day) is though to have been created, with cricket.  The spread of the British empire also popularized such teams elsewhere, particularly in football and cricket.  The Olympics were revived by Baron Pierre de Coubertin.  Baseball (with rules officially created in the 1840’s) and American football had “flipped” spread – baseball originating in the North and football in the South, with each spreading to the other site after the American Civil War.

Women’s sports was discouraged for some time, prohibiting women from entering the 1896 games as competing athletes.  With furthering of women’s rights, though, sports participation was improved, and by the end of the 20th century, even some exclusively male organizations had opened their doors to female athletes.

Each sport not covered here (e.g. boxing, tennis, bowling, badminton, etc.) has a fascinating history.  However, from these few words we learn that sports served as both entertainment and an analogy for our lives.  Certainly, this is evidenced by the number of movies depicting sports lessons being applied to life and vice-versa.  Relationships of fields such as finance, statistics, media, and even national or international unity to sports have become more commonplace.  Particularly under the “present” section, we consider the influence of one such field, statistics, to baseball – in the movie Moneyball.

Sport continues to evolve into a business with all the attributes of a business – free agents, contracts, branding, entertainment, etc.

A Recent Novel Present to Age-Old Baseball

Rarely has a game had as significant an alteration in the methodology than baseball had, based upon statistical analysis depicted in the recent film Moneyball.  Based upon the book The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, Moneyball explores two main facets: (1) realizing that conventional methods used by recruiters to place players on teams are flawed; and (2) by focusing upon variables such as on-base percentage and slugging percentage (rather than RBIs or stolen bases), a less expensive and more effective team can be built.  Though this was shown to be effective for the Oakland Athletics’ $41 million team (vs. the New York Yankees’ $125 million team), the concept has since spread to  only recently been popularized to the mass public via Moneyball.

The statistical process in Moneyball has been partially analyzed by Wassermann and colleagues in www.thesportjournal.org.  In it, they note an important formula which Bill James uses to describe the concept that a player at bat is not useful unless he scores runs, and he does so by getting on base (whether by walking or by hitting).  The formula works 90% of the time, as they have predicted:

** (A x B)/ C **

The A variable adjusts the “on-base” aspect of baseball.

A = hits + walks + hit batsmen – caught stealing – ground into double play (H + W + HBP – CS – GIDP)

B variable takes into account the advancement of the player.
B = total bases plus .26 times hit batsmen and non-intentional walks, plus .52 times stolen bases, sacrifice hits, and flies (TB + .26(TBB – IBB + HBP) + .52(SB + SH + SF).

C variable accounts for opportunity.
C = at-bats + total walks + sacrifice hits and flies + hit batsmen (AB + TBB + SF + HBP) (James, 1984 p. 14)

What is done away with are parameters traditionally more used in scouting: for example, strength, “head stays on ball,” aggressiveness, etc. had no place anymore when compared to the effectiveness of statistical analysis.

By doing away with the subjective emphasis that often accompanied scouting prospects, Bill James and Billy Beene created a better-than-expected team relative to resources.

This methodology has since spread to other sports (and even other fields of work).

Interestingly, probability calculations are not dissimilar in this regard than finance, where sigma events of probability of risk (even factoring in potentially to “Value at Risk” or VAR probability calculations) occur.

Future Sports

Remembering that sports presently relates to so many different fields is a story that is fascinating.  If we simply consider professional sports (or even aspects of competitive college teams, particularly the NCAA, for example), we realize that sports has departed from simply a “fun thing to do” to becoming a multi-billion dollar industry of advertising, media, finance, statistics, endorsements, contracts, scouting, capital assets (stadiums), local pride, city pride, state pride, national pride, and international pride.

Lessons from sports are prevalent from our movies: “If you build it, they will come” from Field of Dreams, to choose one example.  Players who drink certain beverages become huge brand-sellers for the product.  Alternatively, negative publicity for the athlete can result in certain sponsors withdrawing (e.g. Accenture).  The “profiting by association” paradigm is heavily used in sports, everywhere.  The Bruce Lee name has lent itself to martial arts and toughness, as has Chuck Norris – both leveraged their athletic success (as did Jackie Chan) into multi-million dollar movie blockbusters.

Athletes have even pervaded literature, Hollywood actresses, nutrition, and non-profit foundations.  Some even have political comments which are respected more than those of career politicians!

The future of sports, as has been illustrated by an intertwined past, will continue to have societal and business issues (such as race, socioeconomic status, and other elements of both fields) illustrated.  As sports mimics life, life mimics sports – with a new added twist of advances in technology, finance, and aspects of business (as well as humanity) continuing to be represented in the sports of the future.

 

 

 

Ravish Patwardhan, MD