03 July 2024

An Economist Goes to the Game

Paul Oyer
2024, Yale University Press, 216 pages,
ISBN 9780300274127

Reviewer: Leath Al Obaidi

Have you ever wondered if you could start all over again whether you would choose to become a sports person? What would be the opportunity costs? Economist Paul Oyer explores these questions and more in this book. One of the insightful examples he discusses is Kevin Durant, born in 1988, and the opportunity costs associated with his career choice.

For African American males born in 1988, the career prospects and returns on investment in sports were significant. Durant, coming from a humble background, found better opportunities in basketball compared to typical job prospects for Black men at the time. Although the chances of becoming a professional athlete are slim, they are higher for those who show athletic talent in high school, often leading them to focus solely on the possibility of becoming an athlete. Among Durant’s birth cohort of around 320,000 Black males, nearly 300 played in the NBA or NFL at some point. The financial returns for those who succeed are substantial. In 2015, 184 players from this group earned a total of $410 million in salaries, representing 6-7% of all income earned by Black American men born in 1988. For those with limited opportunities in life, investing time in sports can present reasonable risks and returns if they have athletic abilities.

Oyer also examines South Korea’s unexpected dominance in women’s golf. Cultural factors such as intense academic pressure, high national savings rates, and gender inequality make golf a relatively attractive sport for girls. These conditions have led to South Korean women dominating the LPGA over the last few decades.

The book also discusses various countries’ disproportionate success in particular sports due to natural advantages or strategic investments. For example, Liechtenstein, despite its small population, produces a significant number of elite alpine skiers, making it a sporting powerhouse by some metrics. Oyer also covers Norway’s dominance in cross-country skiing and East African countries’ success in long-distance running. In sports economics, the Population-Adjusted Power Index (PAPI) is used to quantitatively compare national athletic dominance across different sports.

Sports provide a good illustration of microeconomics, from the game theory behind tennis serves and soccer penalty kicks to the collective bargaining agreements that shape professional leagues’ financial landscapes. Oyer highlights the prisoner’s dilemma athletes face regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Doping was rampant in cycling in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with twenty of twenty one Tour de France podium finishers from 1999-2005 linked to doping. Although doping has declined since stricter testing began in 2008, it may well remain widespread at elite levels.

As we look forward to the 2024 Euro Cup in Germany and the Summer Olympics in Paris, the book talks about the costs and benefits of hosting big sports events. Oyer argues that these events are often about political prestige rather than economic benefits, and host cities rarely get good returns on their huge investments. He also discusses the problems that occur when politicians put their own interests ahead of those of the taxpayers.

The book’s final chapters delve into the world of sports gambling, exploring the economic incentives that shape this controversial industry. Oyer explains how bookmakers and professional gamblers use information advantages to stack the odds against casual bettors.

If you’re interested in the business side of professional sports and the chances of anyone making it to the top, then this book is for you.