Teaching Economics of Sports: The Big Leagues

From time to time I invite colleagues to write a guest post for The Sports Ethicist. In this post, I asked my ASU colleauge, Brian Goegan, to write about a model he uses for teaching “Economics of Sports”. Brian is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the 
Department of Economics here at ASU and uses this fantasy-like game to teach the his students about the economics of sports. If you are an ASU student and interested in sports, you should look into taking this course (as well as my Sports Ethics course).

The Big Leagues

Sports provide an endless number of great examples that can be used in the economics classroom, and countless teachers have drawn on them for a wide range of courses and topics. But for a class on the Economics of Sports, I thought I’d try making the example the lesson. In fact, I have built a syllabus which revolves almost entirely around an elaborate simulation of the sporting world which I call The Big Leagues.

In my section of 68 students, we have organized into 30 teams, each owned by a group of two of three students. In their groups, students must manage their franchise, making decisions about where to locate, how big and how nice their stadium should to be, what strategy to take to win games, what prices to set, and what coach to hire. As a league, students must also grapple with a Players Association and vote on the rules which will govern their league. All the while, they need to manage their books, and make sure they end the game with enough profit to buy their grade for this portion of the class.

By acting as the owners, students end up experiencing the lessons they’d learn from a Sports Economics class first hand. Leagues collude to keep player salaries down, and are combated by the players’ union that threatens to strike. When the league is dominated by one or two teams, and matches are no longer competitive, fan interest (and TV revenue) declines. My game also allows owners to dope their players in secret, boosting their performance at the risk of being found out, and each semester I get to see an institution deal with the fan and media wrath after a huge swath of players get caught, voting to impose fines and punishments on each other. They also have to work through complicated formulas and gut instinct to figure out what the profit maximizing prices for their tickets and luxury boxes are, the bread and butter of any good economics class.

The list of complexities goes on and on. Stadiums degrade, players develop across seasons, owners choose actions which influence both of those things, players have ‘suits’ which have combination effects when put on a team with other players, teams can field substitute players, different general managers and different coaches enhance different strategies both for profits and for wins, and contracts with players can include different clauses that give the teams different options down the road. The rulebook for The Big Leagues is 21 pages long, but as one of my students put it recently, “the more you play the smaller the game gets.” In other words, it is a lot easier to understand that it sounds. To make sure they get all the lessons the game has to teach, I devote about 50% of my class time to it. The other 50% is devoted to linking up their choices and outcomes in the game to the real world.

Given its complexity and startup costs, I wouldn’t expect a lot of instructors to adopt the game. And that isn’t even mentioning all of the spreadsheet maintenance and troubleshooting needed to keep the game running from season to season. What I can report though is its effectiveness. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, little economic lessons are incrementally imparted with every decision the students make in the game, and they barely realize how much they’ve learned until I point it out to them. And given my discipline’s disinterest in finding alternatives to the lecture-based format, they also find it to be a refreshing change of pace.

If you would like to learn more about The Big Leagues, please feel free to contact me at brian.goegan@asu.edu.

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1 Comment

Filed under Arizona State, economics, Fantasy, games, Sports Studies

One response to “Teaching Economics of Sports: The Big Leagues

  1. Your class sounds like a blast – I almost wish I could enroll, move out to the AZ . . .
    kudos for getting creative with teaching methods

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