Historical Perspectives on Sports Economics

28 November 2019

On the blog today we have Dr John Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of South Australia, discussing the contribution of sports history to understanding contemporary issues in economics. His recent co-edited book (with Professor Richard Pomfret), Historical Perspectives on Sports Economics, has recently been released with Edward Elgar. Congratulations to the editors and chapter authors on a fascinating contribution!

It is sometimes argued that people are losing interest in history. I always disagree with this view (as I would being an economic historian) – despite some decline in university and high school courses, there is much evidence to the contrary. Sport is one such example. Sports fans show a tremendous passion for history. Tradition and history are an integral part of the joy that comes from following a sport or a team. People remember not only obvious facts such as who won a championship, but also other features – the old players and characters, the grounds, the rules (which may have changed, and are often hotly debated). Even an individual play from 30 years ago might be recounted.

At the same time, sports can tell us much about issues and concepts in economics. For instance, in labour markets player drafts and salary caps give us natural experiments that we cannot observe in other sectors. There are large amounts of available data relating to players, attendances, betting behaviours, and governance. Sports have been used to test theories not only in labour markets, but consumer behavior, game theory, and corruption, just to name a few.

Richard Pomfret and I have recently compiled the second volume on the history of sports economics, following on from Sports through the Lens of Economic History (2016). This volume, Historical Perspectives on Sports Economics (published September, 2019) brings together a series of eminent writers in the field of sports economics who examine a diverse set of topics in economics and sport.

Can we see examples of racism from examining betting markets? What role does a stadium play in determining on field success? What other factors might be involved? What is it that prevents teams geographically close to each other from sharing their stadium thus reducing their fixed costs? How should we analyse mega-events, and what does examination of past Olympic Games tell us about the economy wide outcomes? Does playing professional sport impact life-expectancy?  What are the points in history where we can identify an amateur club becoming more of a business enterprise? What are the differences in governance between sports, and between countries? What happens to the physical attributes of players over time? The chapters dealing with these questions deepen our understanding of economic incentives, and more directly in the history of sports and sporting leagues as businesses. They offer insights into not only these sports, but public policy and social issues that surround them.

-John Wilson
University of South Australia


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