Found wanting

Kjetil Haugen
Molde University College, Molde, Norway 

David George Surdam
The Ball Game Biz: An Introduction to the Economics of Professional Team Sports
198 pages, pb.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland 2010
ISBN 978-0-7864-6057-1

The other day, a small book named “The Ball Game Biz” landed in my mailbox, ready to be read and reviewed. The book, written by David G. Surdam, is, as mentioned, relatively sparse in size, but perhaps not necessarily in content. The author is reported (on the cover) as being an associate professor of economics at the University of Northern Iowa (US), who has published books on the economics of the American Civil War and Major League Baseball.

Curious me immediately checked to find that Dr. Surdam has published at least three papers in Journal of Sports Economics, along with a remarkable set of publications in History. So, this information indicates an (economic) historian moving into sports economic theory – surely a fresh and different angle for entering this field.

So, what about the book? According to the introduction, it aims for the student market as well as for sportswriters and fans. I am somewhat reluctant as to its suitability for students. The book certainly has some fresh and different ways of introducing relatively complex topics, such as, for instance, game theory with and without incomplete information. However, the style is, in my opinion, too musing. The text drifts along anecdotally, without much structure. Talking about game theory without even mentioning Nash equilibrium indicates to me laxity bordering on negligence. Still, there is something about the book that attracts me, again perhaps the style itself, being somewhat unstructured.

The other main objection from my point of view is the extreme Americanism reflected in the examples, jokes and anecdotes. I believe this book might be really funny, but my lack of expertise in US sports in general and baseball in particular simply makes these jokes hard for me to grasp. An example might clarify:

Suppose you are a .250 hitter. What is the likelihood of hitting exactly .400 after thirty at-bats off an average pitcher? (p. 45)

This is perhaps a combined assumption and question, but it might as well be a really funny joke, given my limited knowledge of baseball jargon.

It is hard to learn much game theory without any formal definitions of central concepts like Nash equilibrium or Best Reply functions.

In addition to the musing and unstructured style, the other striking feature of the book is its lack of both math and diagrams.  The classical formula for price elasticity on page 21 may stand as the exception confirming this rule. As such, this book resembles a book I reviewed for recently,Playbooks and Checkbooks by Stefan Szymanski, though I must say that Szymanski’s approach was significantly more successful than Surdam’s.  Szymanski, as opposed to Surdam, is able without the language of mathematics to express clearly and structured the main points of sports economic theory and maybe especially why sports economic theory is necessary as an “add-on” to economic theory. This fact is not as far as I can see even mentioned in The Ball Game Biz.So, as I see it this book is almost unusable for the European student market. I must say I also doubt its suitability for US students.  It is hard to learn much game theory without any formal definitions of central concepts like Nash equilibrium or Best Reply functions.

And what about the other market segment discussed above, fans and sportswriters? Again, the “americanisms” successfully rule out much interest for the European consumer. I have a feeling (as indicated above) that the book may very well serve a US audience in these segments. It remains to be seen. However, as a European with limited knowledge and interest in US ports in general, and baseball in particular, I cannot recommend this book for the readership of this Forum.



© Kjetil Haugen 2011.

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