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February 4, 2005

Markets and college sports

Before moving to Houston 33 years ago, I was born and raised in Iowa City, Iowa where my late father was a longtime University of Iowa Medical School faculty member.

As with most young folks who grow up in Iowa City, I became immersed in the rather remarkable culture of the University of Iowa Hawkeye sports programs, particularly the football and basketball programs. From 1960 through 1971, I attended virtually every Iowa home football and basketball game. Although I have not found much of a market for my services in this area, I remain one of the relatively few experts on those Iowa programs from that era.

What brings all this up is an interesting situation that has been playing out with regard to the Hawkeye basketball team over the past week. Pierre Pierce, who has started something like 82 or 84 games during his three season career at Iowa, was dismissed from the team because of a squabble with a girlfriend that has resulted in a police investigation. Pierce has not been charged with a crime, but the probable reason that Pierce was dismissed from the team rather than suspended pending the outcome of the investigation is that he had been effectively suspended for a season (i.e., red-shirted for a season) a couple of years ago after copping a plea bargain in connection with aggravated sexual assault charges that had been leveled against him.

In this post, Professor Ribstein -- from Hawkeye arch-rival, the University of Illinois -- makes the point that markets were already making the UI athletic administration's job somewhat easier in dismissing Pierce:

It must be tough to drop such a player. A team's success has huge financial implications for a big-time sports school. But it is, still, a school, and discipline of misconduct is an important part of the educational mission. So there's a conflict of interest at all management levels (not just the coach), because of conflicting criteria for judging their performance. This sounds to me a lot like the corporate social responsibility debate -- profits vs. society.

But I've argued that markets sort out these conflicts in the corporate area, and markets seem to be working here, as many at Iowa were expressing displeasure with the school's failure to act against Pierce.

Professor Ribstein is correct in his analysis, although it is just part of the story. Attendance at Hawkeye basketball games -- which has been a tough ticket in Iowa for over 50 years -- has diminished to the lowest levels in decades this season, despite the fact that the Hawkeye team is a Top 25 team and, as Professor Ribstein mentions in his post, took number one ranked and undefeated Illinois into overtime last week before losing a close game. As with most markets, a variety of factors is contributing to the declining attendance at Hawkeye basketball games, but no one who knows anything about the Hawkeye culture doubts for a second that the primary reason for the decline is many Hawkeye fans' disdain for Pierce and his primary supporter, Hawkeye basketball coach Steve Alford. The fascinating element to this is that the Hawkeye fans' disdain may be as much based on Coach Alford's limitations in evaluating Pierce's playing ability as it is on Pierce's apparent character flaws.

Coach Alford was hired at Iowa six years ago with the promise that he was going to take the traditionally very good Iowa basketball program to the "elite" level of college basketball programs. Unfortunately for Coach Alford, the program has actually gone in the other direction during his tenure, and the latest chapter in the Pierce saga is probably going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back in pushing the UI administration to buyout his contract and bring in a new coach.

Regardless of whether Coach Alford's decision to support Pierce was based on alturistic "everyone is entitled to a second chance" principles or more grizzled "the team really needs him" principles, the market for Iowa basketball has firmly rejected Coach Alford's decision. And interestingly, the market is at least partly rejecting Coach Alford's competence as an evaluator of basketball talent because, as this excellent analysis points out, the reality is that Coach Alford overrated Pierce as a basketball player and Iowa's team is likely not going to miss him much:

Pierre Pierce was clearly the focal point of Iowa's offense through its first seven conference games. Since he scored in such an inefficient fashion, his absence in the offense probably won't be the crisis some are making it out to be. The team going forward will be more balanced and made up of more efficient scorers, so they should be able to pick up the slack from the fallen star.

Stated simply, Pierce is like the .300 hitter in baseball whose on-base average is only .310 and whose slugging percentage is only .320. Because the non-experts in player evaluation believe that a .300 batting average equates with good hitting, the general public is deceived into thinking that the player is a good hitter despite the fact that the less well known but more important on base average and slugging percentage statistics reflect that the player is far below average. Pierce has a relatively high scoring average because he shoots frequently, but his poor shooting percentage and high turnover rate hurt the team more than his high scoring average contributes to it.

So, not only does the Pierce story intersect, as Professor Ribstein points out, the business of college sports and university corporate governance, it also points to the rather remarkable power of markets in effecting change in the entertainment business. The market for Hawkeye basketball recognizes that Coach Alford's decision to make the overrated Pierce the focal point of the Hawkeye team reflects his limitations as a coach who will be able to fulfill the market's expectation that the Iowa program remain at least the traditionally very good program that it has been over the past 50 years. That market is demanding a new (and hopefully better) coach, and it will likely get it.

Meanwhile, the market for Hawkeye football is quite strong as Hawkeye Coach Kirk Ferentz has just hauled in a top recruiting class on the heels of three straight major bowl appearances and Top Ten finishes. Interestingly, Coach Ferentz's turnaround of the Hawkeye football program has been performed essentially by following the football model of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, which emphasizes teamwork and making no player the focal point of the team. Call it the "low risk with high upside" model of building a football program.

Yes, markets truly are in everything.

Posted by Tom at February 4, 2005 7:36 AM |


and how 'bout IU's quarterback, Drew Tate, from Baytown Lee.

Posted by: banjo jones at February 4, 2005 5:59 PM

Tate is the real deal, and had as good a sophomore season as I can recall for a Big Ten QB. It will be hard to top the job he did this past season for the Hawks.

BTW, "IU" in the Big Ten refers to Indiana. Tate would not be pleased being associated (even inadvertently) with the Indiana football program. ;^)

Posted by: Tom Kirkendall at February 5, 2005 4:01 PM

Tom, the UI (Chambana) law professor makes some good points. However, the "marketplace" won't have Pierce to kick around anymore. He turned himself into police today to face a number of charges.

Maybe the "markets" can work their magic on the head coach.

Also, please thank the A&M administration for firing R.C. Slocum, which allowed us to obtain Tate..:)

Posted by: Al Kern at February 9, 2005 12:15 PM

Al, it appears to me that UI and Coach Alford have used an incredible amount of energy and time trying to keep a slightly above average player on the team. At least they could be expending that kind of effort on behalf of a really good player! ;^)

As my University of Texas friends keep telling me, A&M has been very good lately at making other universities' football programs excel.

Posted by: Tom Kirkendall at February 9, 2005 12:26 PM

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