Archive for April, 2008

Links

— Are you having trouble following your favorite Braves blogs from day to day? Check out The Tomahawk. It contains snippets and links to blog posts and Braves news.

— If you are looking for an easy way to link to all of my commentary on the lacking effectiveness of human growth hormone, I have now created a separate category for these posts.

— Charles at Cosellout uses the Sports Illustrated archives to track the magazine’s coverage of performance-enhancing drugs going back to 1969.

In the months to come we will be cataloguing their articles according to special categories as part of an SI Vault Series. Given the current climate on the subject, performance enhancing drugs (PEDS) seemed like a wonderful place to start. As accountability is being requested from players to managers to owners, there is one contingent that has answered to no one: The MEDIA. It is important for the public to know the same question asked of everyone else: “what did they know”? Given SI’s historical reputation America’s #1 magazine, it goes without saying that if Sports Illustrated printed it, then the rest of the sports media knew about it.

Michael Shermer has an article in Scientific American that discusses the prisoner’s dilemma game that motivates steroid use in all sports (thanks to Freakonomics and The Sports Economist). Readers of The Baseball Economist (or bargain hardback) will recall the direct application of this game to baseball in Chapter 9 (The Steroids Game). To end doping in sports Shermer states that any solution must correct the incentives that lead players to use.

To end doping in sports, the doping game must be restructured so that competing clean is in a Nash equilibrium. That is, the governing bodies of each sport must change the payoff values of the expected outcomes identified in the game matrix. First, when other players are playing by the rules, the payoff for doing likewise must be greater than the payoff for cheating. Second, and perhaps more important, even when other players are cheating, the payoff for playing fair must be greater than the payoff for cheating. Players must not feel like suckers for following the rules.

I agree; and here is my solution for changing the payoffs in the New York Times.

In an effort to clean up the game, it is tempting to suggest the standard solutions that strengthen old rules and increase monitoring and punishments. The problem is that the scofflaws are always one step ahead of the police. We need a deterrence system that uses incentives to limit drug use.

Baseball should stop punishing steroid users with suspensions and small fines. Instead, the sport needs a system of significant fines and bonuses. The revenues generated by cheaters under the new fine-and-bonus system would be distributed to the players who passed their tests. In addition to punishing players who cheat, this system would have the advantages of rewarding players who stayed clean and of encouraging players to police each other. Players would continue to play while being punished, so that fans did not suffer for player sins.

More here. Steven Levitt favors a proposal that stores blood samples over a long period of time. I don’t think it is possible in baseball given the fear of tampering and alternate uses. The players will never allow this, and I don’t blame them for their opposition. In a world where I don’t blindly trust my mechanic, why would I trust a lab holding a blood sample that could ruin my livelihood?

Media Bias and Public Stadium Funding

A few weeks back, Skip Sauer at The Sports Economist pointed to an Op-Ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Villanova sociologist Rick Eckstein. It is relevant to what is going on in Gwinnett County, especially in reference to the coverage by the Gwinnett Daily Post.

If you build it, they will come. This is usually the mantra of those in favor of publicly financed sports stadiums, including the current proposal for a new soccer stadium in Chester. In this case they are visitors whose spending would turn devastated cities and neighborhoods into exciting destination points. Local schools, merchants, and residents all would benefit as municipal coffers swelled.

There’s only one problem with this scenario. It’s not true. Never has been. They do come, but cities are not saved. Over the past two decades, academic research has generated literally hundreds of articles and books empirically challenging the alleged economic wonders of new stadiums, even when they’re part of larger development schemes. I have been studying and writing about publicly financed stadiums for more than 10 years and cannot name a single stadium project that has delivered on its original grandiose economic promises, although they do bring benefits to team owners, sports leagues and sometimes players.

That much we already knew. But the question remains: if these are such obviously bad deals, then why does the public tolerate the public funding of sports venues? Eckstein has an answer.

In a just-released article in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, my colleagues and I studied media coverage of 23 publicly financed stadium initiatives in 16 different cities, including Philadelphia. We found that the mainstream media in most of these cities is noticeably biased toward supporting publicly financed stadiums, which has a significant impact on the initiatives’ success.

This bias usually takes the form of uncritically parroting stadium proponents’ economic and social promises, quoting stadium supporters far more frequently than stadium opponents, overlooking the numerous objective academic studies on the topic, and failing to independently examine the multitude of failed stadium-centered promises throughout the country, especially those in oft-cited “success cities” such as Denver and Cleveland.

Today, two local papers reported on the subject of Gwinnett County issuing the final permits to begin construction. Here is the article by Michael Pearson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Gwinnett County’s planning and development department issued a permit Friday for grading work at the site of the county’s new baseball stadium.

Although some trees had earlier been cleared from the site on Buford Drive near the Mall of Georgia, the permit’s issuance marks the true beginning of construction work on the $45 million stadium.

Project manager Preston Williams did not return a telephone call left at his office late Friday afternoon seeking comment on when work would begin at the site. Williams has previously said that he expected grading to begin within days of issuance of the permit.

The county is under a tight deadline to complete construction of the stadium by next spring’s home opener for the top minor-league affiliate of the Atlanta Braves. That team is relocating from Richmond, Va.

Among the first tasks, Williams has said, will be grading the land that will eventually become the playing surface of the 10,000-seat stadium.

The GCVB, Gwinnett County and the Atlanta Braves signed a contract last week for the ball club’s Triple-A team to relocate from Richmond to Gwinnett County.

Short, sweet, and to the point: nothing but the relevant facts. Pearson, Tim Tucker, and a few others at the AJC have covered the issue in depth, sometimes having to seek open record requests when county officials refused to comment on details. They have also contacted outside sources, including me and others who disagree with me, to comment on the project. I feel that they have done an excellent job.

Camie Young’s version in the Gwinnett Daily Post is similar until the last paragraph.

According to a press release, county economist Alfie Meek estimates the ballpark will generate approximately $15 million per year in new economic activity, including an estimated 200 additional jobs countywide and generate about $6.5 million in new personal income.

The last paragraph is not needed in a story about the issuing of the initial construction permits. If Young wants to report on the potential positive economic impact calculated by a paid employee of the county, it is her duty to contact disinterested experts to comment. I can only guess that the author was trying to inject her own opinion—or, possibly the opinion of the paper’s editor—into the story.

Do they give anti-Pulitzers? If so, the Post’s coverage of this whole affair ought to be nominated.

The Tale of the Pilot

Stewardess: Captain, we have a passenger on board who’d like to visit the cabin. Would that be OK?

Pilot: Sure, I’d be happy to talk to him.

Passenger: Hi Captain, I’m on my way home from a Flight Simulator convention.

Pilot: Flight Simulator, it’s a great game. I encourage people who want to become pilots to play it.

Passenger: Several of my fellow pilots and I have been concerned about the way you’re flying the plane.

Pilot: Really, in what way?

Passenger: For one, we don’t like your altitude. If you went lower, you’d catch more of a tailwind and we could arrive a half-hour sooner.

Pilot: Well, I guess that could be true, but the air is choppier down there, and I don’t want passengers to be bumped around. Plus, lower altitudes are preferred for smaller planes with limited communication, and I don’t want to risk a collision. And there are a few other problems that would take a while to go into. I promise you, this is the way to go.

Passenger: Oh, you are so mistaken, Captain! You see, I’ve been simulating this flight on my laptop, and I haven’t experienced any of those problems.

Pilot: Did you say “simulate”?

Passenger: Oh yes, Flight Simulator offers a perfect recreation of our exact flying conditions.

Pilot: Yes, I’m familiar with the game. While Flight Simulator is useful for some things, there are other important things it ignores. Flying a real plane involves greater complexity. What I’m doing is straight out of the flight manual. I’ve been flying this way for many years. I have several pilot friends who fly this route, and they all do so in the same way. If I was flying wrong, I wouldn’t still be employed as a pilot. In fact, my colleagues and airline have been pretty happy with my performance. They’ve even asked me to help train new pilots. So, if you don’t mind, I’m quite comfortable with the way I’m doing things.

Passenger: Haven’t you ever read Moneyball? Just because things have been done the same in the past doesn’t mean it’s the best way! Here’s my laptop. Look at how much better time we’re making! You’re wasting time! Are you going to lower this plane or not!?

Pilot: What? Well, ah…Good grief! You’re flying at 1,000 feet, man! You’re not going to be making better time when you crash into a building! Are you over Iowa? You’re not even flying in the right direction! Yeah, I’ve read Moneyball—and liked it—but Billy Beane doesn’t send his players out on the field with their pants on their heads and shirts on their legs in hopes of gaining some extra wins. I don’t have time for this. You haven’t even bothered to become acquainted with the basics of flying, how am I supposed to begin to explain what’s wrong with what you’re suggesting? I don’t have time to teach you how to fly. If I did what you’re asking, I’d be fired; not for doing something different, but for doing something reckless. I think it’s time you returned to your seat.

Passenger: How dare you! I’m offering you perfectly good suggestions and you won’t even discuss this with me! You are blinded by your arrogance!

Pilot: Good suggestions?…Arrogance?..I’m not discussing this with you. Holy crap! Are you kidding me? OK, that’s enough. Here’s how we’re going to end this “conversation.” Sir, being a pilot is a great job. You get to set a flexible schedule, meet a lot of great people, travel the world, and the money isn’t bad. If you think I’m not good at what I’m doing then I suggest you become a pilot, because if you’re right, there’s a huge opportunity for someone like you. That’s all I have to say to you. Stewardess, please escort this man to his seat. I’ve got a plane to fly.

Passenger (to passengers): Excuse me! May I have your attention! The pilot of this plane is flying unreasonably slow. I even proved this to him using my laptop game. And what thanks do I get? I was removed from the cockpit. When you’re all late, you’ll know whom to blame.

Pilot (to passengers): I’ve turned off the fasten-seat-belt sign, please feel free to move about the cabin. Our beverage service will start in a moment, and those of you wishing to watch the in-flight movie should request headphones from the stewardess. This flight is smooth today, and we should be arriving to the gate at our scheduled arrival time. Thank you for flying with me today.

Talk at Rhodes College, Memphis

I will be giving a talk at Rhodes College next Wednesday evening, April 9. The event will take place in the Orgill Room of Clough Hall at 7pm.

If you would like to attend, the event is free and open to the public. Here is the flyer.

Done Deal

How fitting that Gwinnett officials and the Atlanta Braves reached their deal to bring a Triple-A team to Gwinnett County on April 1, because the Braves made the county commissioners look like fools.

The contract between the Braves and the GCVB — the agency empowered by the county to oversee the stadium project — cleared the way for Gwinnett to close Tuesday on $33 million in construction bonds. In the contract, Gwinnett County guarantees the obligations made by the GCVB.

The contract, completed near midnight Monday and obtained Tuesday under the state’s Open Records Act, runs 71 pages, including exhibits. Key provisions include:

• Rent: The Braves will pay annual rent of $250,000, plus a fee of $1 per ticket sold. The Braves guarantee Gwinnett at least $400,000 annually in ticket fees. The rent, but not the ticket fee, will be adjusted after each five-year period based on the Consumer Price Index.

• Revenue: Aside from the naming rights deal [The contract calls for the Braves to receive $350,000 from a GCVB-negotiated naming-rights deal and for Gwinnett to receive the rest.] and a 50-50 split of parking proceeds with the county, the Braves retain all revenue from games and other team events in the stadium. That includes ticket and suite sales, advertising signage and concessions.

• Maintenance: The Braves are responsible for routine maintenance, such as cleaning, mowing and replacing light bulbs. The GCVB is responsible for capital maintenance and repairs — big-ticket items that range from structural components to repainting, from seats to scoreboard.

To pay for capital maintenance and repairs, the GCVB is to keep a capital maintenance fund, which by Dec. 31, 2013, must contain a minimum of $500,000. The contract says that amount is not a limit on Gwinnett’s responsibility and that if capital needs arise before Dec. 31, 2013, GCVB also must pay for those.

• Escape clause: The agreement runs for 30 years, through the 2038 season, but the Braves have an out after 15 years if the stadium deteriorates significantly. The Braves can walk away in 2023 or later if, after engaging in nonbinding commercial mediation, the team and the GCVB are unable to agree on capital repairs that are “material to the operation of the stadium.”

To try to head off such potential trouble, the contract calls for the GCVB and the Braves to annually prepare an ongoing three-year capital maintenance plan.

The Gwinnett Daily Pompon has more.

Lee Tucker, an attorney negotiating the contract and convention and visitors bureau Chairman Richard Tucker’s son, said he was pleased with the end result.

“I think it’s a fair deal,” he said. “We negotiated very hard.”

That is fair!? The county bears most of the cost and the Braves get most of the revenue. And if this is the result of hard negotiation I’d hate to see what happens when they take it easy.

Here are some predictions.
1. This stadium will cost more than $45 million to build.
2. The total annual value of the naming rights deal will be less than $500,000.
3. Gwinnett County residents will see their taxes go up.
4. In 15 years, the Braves are going to use the out clause—non-binding commercial mediation…are you kidding me?—to seek significant improvements to the stadium.
5. Despite the obvious financial losses, the government officials will claim the project was a success, as will the Gwinnett Daily Pompon.

Freakonomics Posts Bill James’s Answers

Freakonomics has posted Bill James’s answers to reader questions. He even answered my question.

Q: Is sabermetrics the Freakonomic analysis of baseball?

A: There are parallels. What I do was heavily influenced by the University of Chicago economists of the 1960’s. I think Freakonomics comes from the same tradition.

Cool, so we can trace the origins of sabermetrics to the Chicago school of economics.

Gwinnett Forges Ahead

I know it’s April Fool’s Day, but this is all too real.

In choosing a builder and architect for the proposed minor-league Braves stadium, Gwinnett County made its picks in an unusual way: The man who runs the Gwinnett Center, who wasn’t a county employee, called four handpicked companies and asked for proposals.

Then a handful of appointed officials and others got together in private and figured out which companies they liked better for the $45 million stadium, being built with taxpayer money.

No request for proposals. No public bid review. No specific criteria for judging the proposals. And no public meeting or public vote.

This might be legal, but it isn’t good policy.

My First Home Opener

Last night, I attended the Braves home opener, versus the Pirates. It was the first home opener that I have attended. It was an exciting atmosphere, but I did not find it much different than other Braves games. The bigger-than-usual crowd and lengthy player introductions were the main distinguishing characteristics. But still, it was just a Braves game, which is good enough for me. Oh, and I walked right by Pete Van Wieran as he strolled through the stadium. That was kind of cool. I wish I had thought of something to say, but I probably would have sounded like Matthew Brock talking to James Caan.

Anyway, the game on the field was nuts. Because my group was hosting a visitor from another country, who had an early appointment the next day, we had previously agreed to leave the game early. After the Braves fell behind by four runs we decided it was time to go. Once we had the game on in the car, we couldn’t believe it. I was happy to have the game on the radio to distract us from the fact that we were putting our lives in danger as we stood in the slow-moving traffic around Turner Field. (If you believe that sports stadiums lead to urban renewal, visit Turner Field for a night game and you will quickly change your mind). The game lasted long enough for me to drop off my companions and make it home to catch the last inning on television.

What a way to open the season! It’s nice to know that baseball is back.

Best news for Braves fans: Frenchy walked and hit a homer, matching his spring totals.