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Paying for Playing


By Wendy Soderburg '82

Published Jul 1, 2011 8:00 AM

Offering a course called "The Economics of Sports" to entice students to learn about concepts such as "supply and demand" and "present discounted value" seems a bit sneaky — like getting kids to eat their vegetables by hiding them in the meatloaf.

But it's a lot more fun, which is why Economics Professor Lee Ohanian is such a hit with undergraduates.

The one-unit, Fiat Lux course he created is a dream come true for sports fans. In what other class could you discuss why superstar Kobe Bryant earns up to 100 times more than athletes of yesteryear? Or how much the New York Yankees are worth? Or why a left offensive tackle in the NFL earns up to three times the salary of a right offensive tackle?

"The world of sports provides some of the most vivid illustrations of economic concepts," Ohanian explains. "[And] some of the most interesting aspects of sports require some economics."

First offered in Winter Quarter 2011, the class quickly reached its capacity of 20, with a long waiting list. The class was close to two-thirds men and one-third women, all sports nuts. Each class began with a discussion about the prominent sports story of the week. Students were required to participate in the conversations, suggest articles for discussion and submit a paper on a sports topic of their choice using at least one of the economic concepts presented in class.


Average salary increase for a pro baseball player (left) and a construction worker from 1964 to 2010.
Source: U.S. Department of Labor

For example, in her paper about supply and demand, freshman Melissa Forstell defended ticket scalping, writing that, "In many cases, all sides are winners: Organizations sell out, resellers make a profit, and fans who are willing to pay to attend the event can do that."

With the success of the inaugural class, Ohanian is mulling a four-unit course that would be part of the economics major.

That, unfortunately, would be too late for senior Scott Nadler, whose favorite part was "hot topics."

"Steroid use; penalizing colleges; [college] players and whether they should get paid — topics where we could debate a lot," he says. "It's good to talk about who's the better team, but it's also nice to talk about really hot topics because they spread to other fields."

And, since we're keeping score: Kobe gets comparatively bigger bucks because of the enormous growth and demand for sports and the impact of free agency; the Yankees are worth an estimated $1.7 billion; and left offensive tackles make more money than right tackles because they protect most quarterbacks' "blind side" — and conversely, right tackles on teams with left-handed quarterbacks make more than left tackles on their squads.