Long tail: 17% of the seven foot tall men between ages 20 and 40 in the US play in the NBA

As part of dissecting whether Shaq can really fit in a Buick Lacrosse (I’ve asked this myself when watching the commercial), Car & Driver drops in this little statistic about men in the United States who are seven feet tall:

The population of seven-footers is infinitesimal. In 2011, Sports Illustrated estimated that there are fewer than 70 men between the ages of 20 and 40 in the United States who stand seven feet or taller. A shocking 17 percent of them play in the NBA.

In the distribution of heights in the United States, being at least seven feet tall is quite unusual and at the far right side of a fairly normal distribution. But, being that tall increases the odds of playing in the NBA by quite a lot. As a Forbes post suggests, “Being 7 Feet Tall [may be] the Fastest Way To Get Rich in America“:

Drawing on Centers for Disease Control data, Sports Illustrated‘s Pablo Torre estimated that no more than 70 American men are between the ages of 20 and 40 and at least 7 feet tall. “While the probability of, say, an American between 6’6? and 6’8? being an NBA player today stands at a mere 0.07%, it’s a staggering 17% for someone 7 feet or taller,” Torre writes.

(While that claim might seem like a tall tale, more than 42 U.S.-born players listed at 7 feet did debut in NBA games between 1993 and 2013. Even accounting for the typical 1-inch inflation in players’ listed heights would still mean that 15 “true” 7-footers made it to the NBA, out of Torre’s hypothetical pool of about 70 men.)…

And given the market need for players who can protect the rim, there are extra rewards for this extra height. The league’s median player last season was 6 feet 7 inches tall, and paid about $2.5 million for his service. But consider the rarified air of the 7-footer-and-up club. The average salary of those 35 NBA players: $6.1 million.

(How much does one more inch matter? The 39 players listed at 6 feet 11 inches were paid an average of $4.9 million, or about 20% less than the 7 footers.)

Standing as an outlier at the far end of the distribution seems to pay off in this case.

Discussing why a professional sports team would adopt the name the Pelicans

It appears the New Orleans Hornets will adopt a new name: the Pelicans. Here is some discussion on TrueHoop about the meaning of the name and other names that were in the running:

And yet, if you put a gun to my head and said: Come up with a funny name for a minor league baseball team I’d say “Pelicans” and I’d worry that it wasn’t realistic. Like, what owner would name his team for an unathletic bird noted for how much marine life it can carry in its big mouth?

In terms of specifically dissecting the Pelican and noting its awkwardness, I think that is fair, but I think the qualities of the bird do not necessarily translate into the perception of the team. Magic is not the “sportiest” of names. It’s either weak in some sense or cheating (is there a rule against sorcery?), right?

Not to pick on the Magic, of course. The Celtics aren’t meant to be pagans. The Knickerbockers don’t have people’s unsundry parts in them. Those names are “made” by their legacies. It is the duty of every franchise to build that legacy to overcome all of these, at first, imperfect names. And upon the fanbase. They have to “own it,” to use the parlance of our time.

People in New Orleans dislike change, but they love New Orleans. There’s nothing like some hate from north of I-10 to get some New Orleanians to love what those “Yankees” hate.

It’ll work.

And a quick look at three other possible names:

The colors were purple, red and black primarily, they had the voodoo dolls, the graveyard, bones and mojo for mascots, and more. It was fantastic, local, recognizable, edgy. Voodoo is currently owned by the new AFL, as Benson folded his team prior the older AFL folding. The Shreveport-Bossier City Battlewings (north Louisiana for those playing the home game) moved here, donning Voodoo garb. This was at least one obstruction to this…

Krewe was another good choice. “Krewe of X” is used to describe the people in parades in many cases (I was Krewe of Endymion after the Super Bowl, for instance). This has clear cultural relevance and built-in mascots, branding, etc. It would be a beacon for those three people who’ve never heard of Mardi Gras. Krewe of New Orleans … the party has arrived.

Brass was another good name. It’s evocative of Jazz, and was the name of an ECHL team (minor league hockey) here in New Orleans (yes, really) that folded shortly after the Hornets relocation. You can write the branding for it quite easily.

I suspect this analysis is right: local fans could get used to all sorts of names over time. I would assume that winning more would make a sports team name more permanent. While there may have been other reasons for these switches, think of the Charlotte Bobcats and the Washington Wizards. Perhaps some cities are even better suited than others to adopt stranger or more local names. And yes, a number of professional pro sports team names don’t make a lot of sense given their current context and era. For people who like local color, it is almost too bad sports teams aren’t required to have names that match their current community. Finding the best local names could be a fascinating exercise…

But I wonder if this is part of a larger shift in the names of sports teams away from fierce animals or creatures. Just as first names in the United States can change (here is a sociologist talking about the decline of the name Mary but the resurgence of the name Emma), the names of sports teams can change. Think of the new team names in the four major sports in the last two decades and it is an odd collection of old-style and new names. This may have to do with branding: new kinds of names offer new opportunities. Take the Oklahoma City Thunder. Their name is not shared by another team in the four major sports and is not found too frequently elsewhere. It could lead to all sorts of new marketing opportunities though it might be difficult to come up with appropriate mascots and train copy editors to use the name correctly.

Of course, one innovation of the future could be that more American sports team adopt corporate names. This could be a lucrative revenue stream.

A good definition of a McMansion: Scott Skiles’ suburban Milwaukee home

Since I occasionally criticize the improper use of the term McMansion (see this recent post arguing that the 90,000 square foot home at the center of the film Versailles is way beyond McMansion territory), I might as well also point out when the term is used well. Take, for example, this description of Milwaukee Buck’s coach Scott Skiles’ home:

Scott Skiles was always a smallish NBA player but he has a very large house. His Mequon domicile boasts 4,728 square feet (nearly four times bigger than the average single family home in the city of Milwaukee) and five bathrooms. Plenty of places to shower off that sweat after a grueling practice…

Meanwhile he is still living in Mequon-styled splendor in a home that could hardly be less urban. To measure this, we do a walkability score (from walkscore.com) that calculates distance to the closest school, coffee house, grocery store, etc. as the crow flies and from the site’s “street smart” score, which does this calculation based on the walking distance on local streets. We also look at the distance to Milwaukee’s City Hall; suffice to say, for Skiles it’s no slam dunk.

The Rundown

  • Style: Single-family – Tudor/Provincial architecture
  • Location: Stonefields neighborhood – Mequon, WI
  • Walk Score: 12 out of 100
  • Street Smart Walk Score: 3 out of 100
  • Transit Score: Not Available
  • Size: 4,732 sq ft
  • Year Built: 1997
  • Assessed Value: $1,236,700 (2011)
  • List Price: $1,475,000
  • Currently listed: Yes, with Realty Executives – Integrity [Listing]
  • 4 bedrooms
  • 3-car garage
  • 5 total full baths
  • 13 total rooms

According to the typical usage of the term McMansion, here is how Skiles’ home meets the criteria:

1. It is a large house of over 4,700 square feet. Interestingly, it has more bathrooms than bedrooms. I would guess there is some really large family/great room space in this house. I’m not sure what Scott Skiles’ height, small by NBA standards but fairly tall for the population at large, has to do with it…

2. The walkability score is quite low, suggesting that it is in a relatively isolated suburban neighborhood. In other words, it is not really possible to walk in or out of the house to locations outside the neighborhood. The implication could be that this is another fairly anonymous suburb where neighbors don’t know each other and people hunker down in front of their TVs.

3. There are some pictures of the home in this story. The house does have a number of gables and the driveway is quite large and dominates this particular exterior photo.

4. The house is pretty expensive and built during some of the McMansion boom years (1997).

According to the four criteria I identified that are typically used for defining McMansions, this particular usage meets at least two out of the four: it is a big (and expensive) house associated with suburban sprawl. It may even qualify as a poorly designed home though it is difficult to know for sure with these six pictures. It does not appear to qualify as a relatively larger home

I suspect that many athletes and head coaches live in homes that would qualify as McMansions…

Why promote education and reading with stars who make lots of money?

As a kid, I remember seeing posters of Michael Jordan (see here) and other star athletes promoting reading. While watching NBA playoff games currently, you can see plenty of NBA Cares advertisements with NBA stars talking about the importance of school. But, amidst seeing several stories that 13-year NBA player Shareef Abdur-Rahim went back to UC-Berkeley to finish his undergraduate degree in sociology, why do these campaigns feature athletic stars and not feature athletes who thought they had a chance to be a star but then realized they needed their academic degree for the rest of their lives? For example, such campaigns could feature a college star who tried to make it in the pros but had a short career, didn’t make much money or got injured early on, and then realized that he needed his academic degree to work the rest of his adult life. Or going further, perhaps non-athletes with decent adult lives could promote the value of a degree. Or athletes could talk about or promote the valuable contributions to society made by people with high school and college degrees. Either way, the star who makes a lot of money, a dream a lot of kids hold but few can attain, doesn’t end up as the primary spokesperson for education.

(I assume that these reading and education campaigns have some data or studies that show using celebrities is the best way to reach children. However, perhaps this strategy of using celebrities doesn’t work, just as using celebrities to promote organ donations isn’t the only factor that increases donation rates. See the book Last Book Gifts.)

 

“85% of economists agree that local and state governments should not subsidize professional sports”

The Freakonomics blog has a discussion about whether cities and states should help pay for professional sports arenas and the weight of academic evidence says no:

So we have two perspectives and one question: Do sports generate jobs and economic growth?

This is a question that has been addressed numerous times by economists.  And these studies – summarized by economists Rob Baade and Victor Matheson — tend to reveal two answers.  When the study is completed by paid consultants prior to the public money being spent, the benefits from sports are numerous are large. However, when independent researchers – who are not paid by professional sports teams or leagues – look for these benefits after the fact, evidence of more jobs and economic growth are hard to find…

Given these three effects, the empirical evidence suggests quite strongly that sports do not create many jobs or generate much economic growth.  And such evidence has proven to be quite persuasive.  In fact, a survey of economists by Gregory Mankiw noted that 85% of economists agree that local and state governments should not subsidize professional sports. Mankiw also notes that only five issues have more agreement among economists.

But with all of this evidence, why would the city of Sacramento recently vote to spend money to build a new arena so that the Sacramento Kings would stay in the city?

Such a story clearly suggests that the Kings used the threat of re-location to elicit a substantial subsidy from the people of Sacramento.  Although the Kings do not have much economic impact on Sacramento, the Kings do make basketball fans happy.  And if they departed, those same people would be very unhappy with Kevin Johnson.  Consequently, the Mayor has an incentive to do what he can to keep the Kings in Sacramento (although it not entirely clear if making the non-basketball fans unhappy is good politics).

I think this is correct: no one want to be the politician that allows the popular local sports franchise to leave town. The stakes are even higher in places like Sacramento where the Kings are the only professional franchise so if they left, the city isn’t even on the professional sports map. A politician who let this happen might be punished by opponents and by voters (though they too would then have to go against all of the evidence from studies). I think this is similar logic to what happens in tax breaks debates like the one recently in Illinois: while it is hard to justify giving wealthy corporations a tax break to stay in Illinois, who wants to be the politician who let several thousand good jobs go to another state?

I also think that while this can be studied in economic terms, i.e., does helping to build a stadium lead to economic benefits for the city, or in political terms, this misses some of the point: having a sports team is also about status. It makes a city feel like a major league city. While perhaps we could argue that Sacramento has enough going on being the state capital of the country’s largest state, the average citizen might connect more to the sports team. When national TV crews come to televise a game, fans feel like they are being recognized (see this post as an example of this). With a sports teams, politicians and business people can take big wigs to games, signalling that their city is really part of the big time, even if the economic data doesn’t necessarily bear this out. While I am skeptical of arguments that people in Cleveland are worse off because their sports teams haven’t won, having a big sports team can mask other issues or at least help people ignore them. This is more difficult to measure than economic benefits but this cultural dimension still matters when these decisions are made.

(This post was prompted by part of a TrueHoop post from yesterday.)

With March Madness approaching, should we really be talking about “the civil rights movement for our times”?

Many Americans are about to enjoy the beginning of the NCAA Division I basketball tournament, but according to one sociologist, perhaps fans and viewers should pay more attention to the exploitation of the athletes:

In our perennial rite of spring, we are being bombarded with bracketology, Final Four predictions and the general hoops hysteria otherwise known as “March Madness.” There are invariably articles on the business page about the billions of dollars at play from television contracts to online betting to lost productivity as workers spend hours obsessing over their brackets. Yet there is precious little discussion about the teenagers, branded with corporate logos, generating this tidal wave of revenue. This is why Dr. Edwards believes the set-up is in desperate need of a shake-up. In a recent lecture at Cal-Berkeley, he directly tied the relationship between the NCAA and its “student athletes” to the injustices that spurred the Occupy Wall Street movement.

It’s not just a comparison, it’s a connection.… The college athletes are clearly the 99 percent who create the wealth in college sports. The question is, where is the individual from the ranks who is going to frame and focus and project that political reality? Who is going to provide the spark that mobilizes the athletes? A lot depends on the extent to which the 99-Percenter movement now confronting Wall Street can encompass the movement on campus around tuition increases and these outrageous compensation packages for administrators. Someone is going to have to focus and frame that…

But the efforts of the NCPA and the struggle for basic fairness for college athletes would be raised dramatically by seeing just a couple of players, under March’s blazing spotlight, willing to risk the wrath of those in thrall to the “Madness.” The next Smith/Carlos moment is there for any “jock for justice” willing to grasp it. This would require them walking to mid-court before the Final Four, ripping off the assorted brands and logos attached to their bodies, and stating in no uncertain terms that unless they get a piece of the pie, they are walking off the court. The fans would rage. The announcers would sneer. The coaches would fume. But history would be kind, and nothing else, as I can see, would finally put a stake in the heart of sham-amateurism once and for all. It’s a risk worth taking, but don’t take my word for it. As John Carlos said to me, “I have no regrets about what I did in 1968. The people with regrets are the ones who were there with us, and did nothing.”

This article also cites an article from Taylor Branch in The Atlantic that I commented on last September.

It is interesting to consider how people would react if college basketball players did protest during the games. I don’t know how much the “amateur” status of college athletes matters to the average fan. Some people talk about the “purity” of college sports compared to the professional ranks as there are some college players who still appear to take advantage of the educational opportunities as well as revere their schools. Ultimately, I would guess that most fans want to be entertained by their college sports and would be willing to at least small protections for athletes (a little pay, longer-term scholarships, etc.).

This discussion reminds me of the story that NBA players initially refused to play right before the 1964 All-Star Game. Perhaps this story would give some college players hope:

The game was notable for the threat of a strike by the players, who refused to play just before the game unless the owners agreed to recognize the players’ union. The owners agreed primarily because it was the first All-Star Game to be televised and if it were not played due to strike it would have been embarrassing at a time when the NBA was still attempting to gain national exposure. This led directly to many rights and freedoms not previously extended to professional basketball players.

After gaining room to negotiate, now NBA players and other pro athletes would face major issues if they refused to play:

By signing the National Basketball Association’s Uniform Player Contract, a player agrees to “give his best services, as well as his loyalty, to the Team,” to “conduct himself on and off the court according to the highest standards of honesty, citizenship, and sportsmanship,” and “not to do anything that is materially detrimental” to the team or the league. Refusing to play in a game against a coach’s orders could therefore be considered a breach of contract. The team could justifiably withhold payment, terminate his contract, or sue him for monetary damages. (Nearly every professional sport requires players to sign a similar contract.)

The only circumstance under which a player can refuse to compete—in just about any professional league—is if he’s injured. Normally, it’s up to the team doctor to decide whether an athlete is fit to play. If the player disagrees—or gets a second opinion from an outside doctor—he can file a grievance through the players union, which then negotiates a solution with the team.

It’s rare for players simply to decline to go on the court or field, partly because it’s a PR disaster. Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen famously refused to get off the bench with 1.8 seconds left in a playoff game against the New York Knicks in 1994. He wasn’t punished, but the incident tainted his reputation. It’s somewhat more common for a recently-traded player to not report for games with his new team. After Kenny Anderson was traded to the Toronto Raptors in 1998, for example, he refused to compete with the Canadian team. Occasionally, a pro will ask to play less. Starting Carolina Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins, battling alcoholism and accusations of racism, asked to be taken out of the starting lineup. The team obliged him. Sometimes NFL players will receive criticism for failing to show up to off-season workouts, but such workouts are voluntary according to the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

But, of course, professional athletes in the major sports are represented by unions, some of which, like the baseball player’s union, are known as being quite powerful and effective. College athletes don’t have the same protections.

How long can this situation last? While the money is still good for the biggest schools (and most of the money is football money anyway), would college college basketball players really band together to protest?

A new statistic to measure chemistry in basketball

Team chemistry is an elusive concept to measure but three “quantitative traders in the financial world” have developed a new statistic they say tackles the subject:

We introduce a novel Skills Plus Minus (“SPM”) framework to measure on-court chemistry in basketball. First, we evaluate each player’s offense and defense in the SPM framework based on three basic categories of skills: scoring, rebounding, and ball-handling. We then simulate games using the skill ratings of the ten players on the court. The results of the simulations measure the effectiveness of individual players as well as the 5-player lineup, so we can then calculate the synergies of each NBA team by comparing their 5-player lineup’s effectiveness to the “sum-of-the-parts.” We find that these synergies can be large and meaningful. Because skills have different synergies with other skills, our framework predicts that a player’s value is dependent on the other nine players on the court. Therefore, the desirability of a free agent depends on the players currently on the roster. Indeed, our framework is able to generate mutually beneficial trades between teams…

The research team pored over a ton of data, ran countless simulations and looked at how many points certain combinations of skills created…

One pattern that emerged was that “rare events” (like steals/defensive ball-handling) tended to produce positive synergies, while “common events” (like defensive rebounds) produce negative synergies. How come? Because increasing a team’s rebounding rate from 70 percent of defensive rebounds (which would be lousy) to, say, 75 percent (very good) represents only a 7 percent increase. But upping offensive rebounds, which aren’t nearly as common as defensive rebounds, from a rate of 30 percent to 35 percent represents a robust 17 percent gain…

Figuring out the component parts of what we know as chemistry or synergy is one of the next great frontiers of this movement. It’s not enough to put an exceptional distributor on the floor. To maximize that point guard’s gifts, a team must surround him with the right combination of players — and that combination might not always be the sexiest free agents on the market.

Sports has so much data to pore over that researchers could be occupied with for a long time.

This particular question is fascinating because one could get a lot of answers to why certain five player units are successful from different actors such as coaches, players, commentators, and fans. Players might be easier to assess (ha – look at all the issues with drafting) but looking at units requires sharp analytical skills and an overall view of a team.

Which team(s) will be the first to utilize this statistic and really build team units rather than cobble together a number of good players and then try to squeeze the best out of them? Certain players who might be considered “busts” may simply be in the wrong systems and be the “missing piece” for another team.