Rival Teams and Non-Rival Knowledge

11 August 2008 at 3:31 pm 3 comments

| Dick Langlois |

A recent issue of the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, an all-electronic Bepress journal, carried a piece provocatively titled “Quantifying NFL Coaching: A Proof of New Growth Theory” by Kevin P. Braig. The paper is a rambling mix of sports anecdotes and goofy math. My favorite of the latter is:

lim f(x) = 1 first down


But the piece is amusing reading and does make some interesting points.

The title is more than a bit fatuous, of course. What the author has in mind is that one can increase output not only by increasing the inputs but by learning to reorganize the way those inputs are combined. This was the growth theory of Smith and Marshall, of Rosenberg and Mokyr. The only contribution of the New Growth Theory has been to cram a diminished and mechanized version of these ideas into the formalism of the production function — and, of course, to receive credit in the popular mind for the very notion that growth is about the search for new “recipes.” Braig is on firmer ground when he associates himself with Carliss Baldwin‘s notion of designs.

What has this got to do with sports? Consider baseball, which is probably the most modular of major (American) sports. In baseball, the only real way to be more successful is to improve the quality of the players, what Braig likes to call their human capital. This is because the way players interact is relatively hard-wired and invariant among teams. Small adjustments are possible — shifts, bunting strategy — but no one ever redefines how to turn a double play. The so-called moneyball approach has been to find better statistical measures of the effectiveness of player human capital — not to reorganize how the players interact. (In testimony to the almost mystical numerology of this article, Braig finds wonder in the fact that average on-base percentage has remained nearly constant over the live-ball era at about 0.331, exactly the ratio one gets by recognizing that “the hitters’ needs (4 bases) exceed their resources (2 outs) by a 2-to-1 margin.” But this presumes that human capital in batting should somehow exactly keep pace with human capital in pitching — even though there is arguably more room for innovation in pitching. I think a closer examination would find that baseball rulemakers have tweaked subtle rules like the size of the strike zone or the height of the mound to keep the ratio constant.)

By contrast, in sports like basketball and football, improvement is possible by recombining resources in novel ways. I found this point resonant because Braig’s favorite example is also mine — the invention of the west-coast offence by the late Bill Walsh. (I was an avid San Francisco 49ers fan in their heyday, the early 1980s, largely because I had been a student at Stanford when Walsh coached there.) In Walsh’s first season, the 49ers went 2-14; two years later, they defeated Dallas for the NFC championship in a memorable game then embarrassed Cincinnati in the Superbowl. Walsh accomplished this not by somehow suddenly increasing the quality of the players (though he did draft well, mostly for defense) but by negating the human capital of opposing defenses with a clever offensive system.

This point also leaps to mind as I contemplate the quest of the American “Redeem Team” in the Olympics. Despite vastly superior human capital, the Americans failed to capture the gold in Athens or in the 2006 world championships. International teams became successful by reducing the importance of human capital with better team play, zone defenses, and other organizational techniques. USA Basketball says it has now learned its lesson. We shall see.

Entry filed under: - Langlois -, Ephemera, Evolutionary Economics, Innovation.

Organizational Structure and the Diversification Discount Megawatt Ghemawat

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joe  |  18 August 2008 at 10:24 pm

    The 49ers won Super Bowl XVI 26-21. The 49ers won after stoping the Bengals on a 4th and goal in which san Fransisco only had 10 players on the field, which was not called. Hardly a blowout – if it hadn’t happened 4 years before I was born, I would be hurt by this shot at my hometown’s team. …Also to be a complete homer, Walsh developed the “West Coast Offense” while an assistant for Paul Brown for the Bengals, and always called it the Cincinnati Offense.

  • 2. Dick Langlois  |  19 August 2008 at 2:54 am


    You’re right. I should have said something like “surprised” rather than embarassed. The point is that the Bengals were a good team. You also note that defense was important in winning hte game, and, as I hinted, on defense Walsh’s approach was to acquire better human capiital (like drafting Ronnie Lott). And you are right of course about Walsh’s roots with the Bengals.

    One of the silly aspects of the Braig paper’s attempt ot connect with NGT is the idea that coaches do “R&D.” Walsh was very much a student of the game and did in fact study the history of offensive schemes. But this doesn’t seem to me to be “R&D” in the NGT sense

  • 3. Dick Langlois  |  28 August 2008 at 5:40 pm

    I recently discovered another important article on economics and innovation in football coaching.

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