The reports of the NFL’s death are greatly exaggerated

I keep seeing the meme all over sports media that NFL television ratings are down, as if this is a big deal, tied to scandals and hypermasculinity. I have little use for that line of thought, and there’s a better one.

In a recent interview with Peter King, Brian Rolapp, Executive VP of Media for the NFL, offered a few reasons for the ratings drop. First, presidential election years always have a dip in ratings. This is fascinating! Maybe the explanation is people getting serious once every four years, but I doubt it. The explanation that fits with my priors (and thus the clear frontrunner, right?) is that politics and sports are substitutes. Politics deals with serious issues, but many people consume it as entertainment. They pick teams and get invested in them in the way they do with football. This election was pretty unusual, too, which almost guarantees getting more eyeballs, even for neutrals, which means less attention left over for football.

Another point I thought was interesting was that the number of viewers hasn’t declined, they’re just sticking around less. This makes sense too. If the games are not fun to watch—neither is your team, the outcome is not in doubt—there are a practically unlimited number of alternative things to watch without moving out of your spot. The random variation in game quality week-to-week and year-to-year isn’t under the NFL’s control anyway. This is a big challenge for the NFL, and indeed for any media enterprise. By the way, college football ratings are not down. I think the identification people have with college teams is a lot stronger than with NFL teams, and the markets are not the same. There is a lot less parity in college football anyway, and there always has been, so bad games don’t turn people off as much.

The London games don’t help with domestic viewership either. Obviously they help with European exposure, but there’s only so much football a viewer can watch in a day. If your team plays in London (at 9:30am Eastern time/6:30 am Pacific time) you’re not likely to watch the rest of the games, and if your team doesn’t play in London you’re not likely to watch that game.

One year does not make a trend. I know media people have to talk about something, but we don’t have to take everything at the same level of seriousness.


Incentives matter, college football edition has a great article about the difficult art of quarterbacking in the modern game that includes a gem from Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman:

Of course, handling NFL offensive concepts tends to be especially hard for quarterbacks who’ve spent their college years in systems that don’t require a ton of processing. ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, an NFL quarterback from 1994 to 2007, puts it bluntly: “The majority of quarterbacks coming out of college these days are as football remedial as you could possibly be.”

Schneider sees the same issue from a scouting perspective: “When you look at college football now, it’s harder to evaluate these guys, because the position is so much easier to play. In so many systems, guys are just looking at the sidelines, waiting for the coach to give them a play with minimal options.”

Adds Roman: “Nobody can really figure out [if they can thrive in an NFL offense] until you get your hands on them, ’cause they’re not being trained to do that. They’re being trained to win the next game in college so the college coach can keep his job.”

The Efficient Fantasy Football Draft Hypothesis

Like millions of other people, I play fantasy football. My league has some of the same people each year, but a handful rotate through. We always end up with some people who aren’t very confident in their fantasy skills so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to explain drafting.

What I end up saying is: don’t overthink it. Draft rankings are done by teams of people who understand more about football than you and I ever will, and it’s unlikely we’ll outguess them. Stick with the consensus rankings that already incorporate the relevant information about players instead of trying to find it all out for yourself.

I suppose it’s possible to consistently beat the experts, but I doubt it. Every year the leader boards have some teams with absurd amounts of points, but that’s only one side of the distribution. There are plenty of teams that fare poorly, and most of us are somewhere in the middle. Moreover, consistently beating the experts year after year is a feat rare enough that I’m not familiar with it. (Even if it were possible, most of us don’t have the time or energy to become the Warren Buffett of fantasy football.)

Bookmakers in European and US sports

As an American I always get a kick out of bookmakers being involved with professional sports in Europe. Here in the US the major sports leagues want nothing to do with gambling ventures, but in Europe bookmakers can advertise and even sponsor teams. Why the difference?

Off the top of my head I can think of two alternate explanations. The first is that US sports consumers have a lower tolerance for (perceived) corruption. Italy has often been in the news for corruption in its association football system and I’m sure there are other instances. However, Europe has too many different people and cultures for this explanation to cover them all. It might sound appealing (to Americans) at first but I don’t think it’s very strong.

The other explanation is that gambling is legal in much of Europe. It was run by reputable organizations long before organized crime had a chance to get involved. There is no suggestion that these outfits compromise the integrity of the game (read: product). Because 1) gambling has traditionally been illegal in most places in the US and 2) people still want to do it, the void has often been filled by organized crime. With no reputation at stake and little else to lose at the organization level, the mob is free to (attempt to) influence the outcomes of games. Thus the major US leagues shy away from it.

Assuming gambling laws liberalize in the future this aversion to gambling sponsorship will probably pass too. Interestingly, there have recently developed ways to stake and win money based on the outcomes of sporting events that comply with gambling laws. As these are run by reputable companies the probability of fast-forwarding the process is high. From the position that gambling should always have been legal in the first place this is good news.

Liverpool 77

In the 77th minute of today’s Liverpool-Sunderland match, thousands of fans got up to leave the stadium to protest the recent increase of ticket prices to £77. It just so happened to coincide with a defensive meltdown, and Liverpool’s 2-0 lead was erased to a 2-2 draw. Liverpool slipped from eighth place to ninth, while Sunderland remained steady at nineteenth—out of twenty. It was very illustrative of the gulf between American and British sports culture. No US fan likes a ticket price increase, but during the week Liverpool FC media were livid about them, using terms like “betrayal”. US fans often leave games en masse but usually because the score is too lopsided and there’s no realistic hope of victory for their team.

I’d like to be able to think it through but there are so many differences (beyond the game) that I could only fail at making sense of it.

Wednesday nexus

1. R.I.P. Douglass North, 1993 Economics Nobel laureate, 1920–2015. Bio here; New York Times obituary here.

2. Alex Tabarrok tackles a persistent meme about refugees.

3. Don Boudreaux on trusting political leaders:

In short, when the subject of discussion or the object of action is the economy, politicians and their deputies typically sound and act as if they are imbeciles (or as if the audiences they aim to please are made up largely of imbeciles). So why should I trust that these same politicians and their deputies, when they discuss and act on matters about which I know far less than economics, are not imbeciles? Why should I suppose them to be any more informed, reasonable, and wise – and less politically motivated – than they are when they discuss economics?

4. Two can play this game: How Democrats Suppress the Vote. I’m kicking myself for never having thought or read about this before, though in fairness I suppose very few people have.

Scheduling local elections at odd times appears to be a deliberate strategy aimed at keeping turnout low, which gives more influence to groups like teachers unions that have a direct stake in the election’s outcome.

The article draws largely from a book by political scientist Sarah Anzia that I guess I’ll have to read now.

5. And some levity: The 12 coaches rumored for every college football job opening ever. Teaser:

1. The Back The Truck Up dream coach you deserve: This is [your university], dammit. Before you even think of calling any of these other candidates, you get out that dang checkbook, you sit down in front of the most accomplished and least interested NFL or college head coach, and you make him say no.

Notes from the Pow Wow

This past weekend I attended both the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow and the Nizhoni Days Pow Wow. Some observations:

1. Like any large gathering of people who self-identify in a common way, a lot of the fun seems to be seeing people like you and feeling the sense of community that can be hard to feel when you know abstractly that they’re out there but can’t see them. In normal life you have to adapt to society, but here, for a little while, you are society. Outsiders (like me) were only a small percentage of attendees.

2. The participants came from all over the place. Most were from the American and Canadian Plains and West, where one would expect, but not all. Not all are living in or near tribal communities. This one wasn’t too surprising but it was nice to see.

3. The Gathering of Nations is structured around several competitions: a few categories of dancing, hand drum (with singing, mostly in English), the Miss Indian World competition. This seems like a very efficient way to organize large gatherings that don’t have a very specific mission.

4. Though the participants come from many different backgrounds, the dance competitions featured a few standardized Pan-Indian styles of dance. The interesting part is that these are not “traditional” but relatively recent. For example the “fancy dance” was developed in the 1920s and ’30s in Oklahoma and quickly became a major style throughout the US and Canada. On a related note synthetic materials made up the majority of the costumes. Many people had quality moccasins or leather goods but these are living, adapting cultures even if they keep selling authentic stuff to tourists (and using it themselves, naturally). Almost all of the hand drum competitors wore street clothes, as did the drummers who play during the dances.

5. At some point we have to talk about words. Specifically endonyms. “Native” or “Native American” is common, but also “Indian” and (infrequently) “indigenous” in addition to the various tribal names. However one refers to this community the name debate seems much less heated than the politicized debate outside of it indicates.

6. I am always interested in seeing what sports teams people like, to make a mental map of sports fandom I suppose, and I couldn’t help noticing here as well. The Dallas Cowboys seem to have a plurality of football fans but that’s mainly due to so many of the people living in areas where the team is popular anyway. Next up was the Arizona Cardinals for the same reason. Likewise, teams with national followings, e.g. Green Bay or Pittsburgh, were also well represented. The noteworthy thing was that there were a lot of fans of other teams you wouldn’t necessarily expect: Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs. Cleveland in particular had a lot of fans. Based on the participant lists almost nobody was from these areas, so these are people who went out of their way to be fans of these franchises. This, too, is a big debate outside of the community that doesn’t seem to be nearly so important inside of it. (It happens but not all the time and opinions are far from uniform, as we’ve seen.) It’s possible that some of them were wearing these items more for style than for actual interest in sports—think of how common the New York Yankees logo is—but that makes the point even stronger.

To people with exposure to modern Indian culture none of this should be surprising. To people without such exposure a kind of “Indigenism” is common akin to what Edward Said called “Orientalism” in another context. Indigenism is motivated by the desire to be respectful but still treats Indian cultures as overly exotic, monolithic, stylized, and essentially fragile. They aren’t.

Wednesday nexus

Innovations in governance: Off-world colonies of the Canadian Arctic. Conditions in the Canadian Arctic and on Mars are very different from conditions elsewhere; efficient long-term governance might look very different there. On a related note, Alex Tabarrok defends the company town and private proprietary cities.

The Future of Economic Development: A Conversation Between Tyler Cowen and Jeffrey Sachs. I wasn’t able to be there in person but there’s video.

Nice unintentional prophecy at about 4:30 in this clip of Vin Scully’s radio call of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, the anniversary of which was last week. Also baseball-related: The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule.

FiveThirtyEight credulously shares a poorly-conceived, allegedly economics-based piece about the wage gap. If your results show firms becoming more sexist as the costs of sexism increase you need an explanation beyond “because sexism” to make it work.

[Side note: In general I had high hopes for FiveThirtyEight. I now realize that was premature.]

The History of Byzantium podcast continues to impress.

The Hole-in-the-Wall Pass had a long history of overlapping use by many different outlaw gangs:

Geographically, the hideout had all the advantages needed for a gang attempting to evade the authorities. It was easily defended and impossible for lawmen to access without detection by the outlaws concealed there. It contained an infrastructure, with each gang supplying its own food and livestock, as well as its own horses. A corral, livery stable, and numerous cabins were constructed, one or two for each gang. Anyone operating out of there adhered to certain rules of the camp, to include a certain way in handling disputes with other gang members, and never stealing from another gang’s supplies. There was no leader with each gang adhering to its own chain of command. The hideout was also used for shelter and a place for the outlaws to lay up during the harsh Wyoming winters.

Play and rules

It’s been noted in a million outlets that association football is truly the world sport. The rules are easy to learn, the play is straightforward (not that there isn’t a lot of strategy in how high-level games are played), and it can be played just about everywhere. On the other hand, the most popular US sports, gridiron football and baseball, have much more limited audiences and—coincidentally or not—many, many more rules. I like both of these sports and still couldn’t give an exhaustive summary of the rules.

What’s interesting is that the only US sport to really catch on globally is basketball, which is a lot more like association football than gridiron football and baseball. There are more (and more complicated) rules in basketball than in association football, but less than in the other big US sports, especially in the early years of the sport.

This may not be remarkable except that I’ve heard from more than one non-US person that we Americans seem to them to be fixated on rules. Do we like our professional sports to be more structured because we just think about rules more in general?