So, You Want to Study the Economics of Sports

Dave Berri has a nice post on the recent WEAI meetings in San Diego. Check out the long list of participants—unfortunately I couldn’t make it this year. Even I am amazed to see the number of people actively engaged in sports economics, especially when a grad school professor of mine once advised our class, “stay away from sports research, it looks bad.” I had no plans to study sports when I left graduate school.

Well, it seems that times have changed. It’s not that sports economics will soon be joining traditional fields—industrial organization, public economics, monetary economics, etc.—as equals, but economists are finding that sports need to be studied for two reasons: 1) The amazing amount of data available to study human behavior in a tightly controlled setting and 2) The lack of study of a human behavior where many interesting questions remain unanswered. The recent freakonomicizing of the discipline has made the latter reason a more acceptable reason to study sports.

So, let’s say you’re an undergraduate and you want to go to graduate school to be an economist who studies sports. There are probably very few of you, and, in any event, few students leave graduate school studying what they expected to study when they entered. Tyler Cowen lists some reasons to be an economist.

Two core groups of people are well-suited to be economists:

1. You math GRE score is over 800, you are totally focused, you love working long hours on your own, and you have good enough letters of recommendation to get into a Top Six or perhaps Top Ten graduate school. Note that white Americans from this category have been partially preempted by competition from foreigners.

2. You could be happy as an academic without much of a research career. Working at a teaching school is a rewarding life, albeit a poor one relative to your investment in human capital.

There is a third category, although you will fall into it (or not) ex post:

3. You do not fit either #1 or #2. Yet you have climbed out of the cracks rather than falling into them. You do something different, and still have managed to make your way doing research, albeit of a different kind. You will always feel like an outsider in the profession and perhaps you will be underrewarded. But you will have a great deal of fun and in the long run perhaps a great deal of influence.

If you’re a one, good for you! You won’t be studying sports full-time, but at least try and find something interesting to study. The world doesn’t need any more New Keynesian Open Economy with a tweak macro models. Take advantage of the fact that economists are studying human behavior more broadly than ever before.

The second reason seems attractive, but the real life at a teaching institution is a little less glamorous and enjoyable than you think. I always imagined it as something like Hal Hobrook’s school in Creepshow…without the monster under the stairs, of course. Yes, working with undergraduates who are eager to learn and love the subject is very rewarding. But, teaching the same courses over and over can get a little unchallenging. And then there’s academic politics. I know it’s bad everywhere, but imagine what academics do with their time when it’s not devoted to research. The rent seeking is disgusting and endless. Unless you have some sort of research agenda to motivate you, you probably won’t be happy as just a teacher. I planned to be a two, but it wasn’t enough.

Number three is what most economists strive to be. Tyler thinks success in three is difficult, though I’m not sure I agree. I know a lot of threes, and I consider myself to be one. If you want to study sports economics, you’re going to be a three.

The nice thing about being an economist is job security. I had a conversation with a colleague in a liberal arts department a few years back, and she was worried about getting not getting tenure and was shocked when I said I wasn’t. “What would you do?” I responded, “I’d walk outside a yell loudly, I’m an economist and I’d like a job.” The fall-back options for not being an academic are tremendous for economists. And I’m often jealous of my friends who aren’t academics when I hear about the interesting practical projects that they work on. It’s very rewarding.

So, there you have some unsolicited free advice. I guarantee it up to the price you paid for it.

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