Ashes Combatants Understand Gains from International Trade in Coaches (AFR Piece)


Another opinion piece of mine appeared in today’s edition of the Australian Financial Review (Thursday 11 June), titled: “Free Trade in Coaches Gives All Teams an Edge” (link gated), on p.51. Alternatively, if you don’t have the hard copy, feel free to e-mail me a request.

It draws analogies between generalities of the virtues of free-trade (internationally), and the specific labour market for foreign coaches of national sports teams.

This is kinda topical in Australian media circles at the moment because of Australian Trevor Bayliss recently being appointed coach of England ahead of the Ashes (starting in 4 weeks time). Happy reading!

Rugby’s ‘Bonus Points’ Work – Policymakers Should Take Note (AFR Piece)


I had yet another opinion piece that appeared in this morning’s edition of the Australian Financial Review (Friday 22 August), titled: “Use Bonus Points to Encourage Crowd-Pleasing Play” (link gated), on p.35. Alternatively, if you don’t have the hard copy, e-mail me a request.

It discusses research I have undertaken with Niven Winchester (MIT) on estimating the effect of the try bonus in Rugby to alter behaviour of players and coaches to produce more attacking rugby to score more tries, which after all is what the punters want.

It develops ideas discussed in this blog a few years ago. The paper title itself is the somewhat more esoteric: “Secondary Behavioural Incentives: ‘Field’ Evidence on Professionals”…hopefully coming soon to a good peer-refereed economics journal near you!

In Seattle for the WEAI Conference


I’m in Seattle for the WEAI Conference (known informally as the ‘Westerns’). It’s only my second time to this shindig, following last year’s Conference in San Francisco. The Westerns is one of the 5 biggest annual economics conferences in North America, but more importantly for me, it is the biggest annual gathering of sports economists in the World, as this is the regional conference where many of them agree come and arrange their own sessions, since they don’t run their own stand-alone conference (whether lack of critical mass or something else).

I am presenting a paper, co-authored with Niven Winchester (MIT) on estimating the effectiveness of the try-bonus point rule in rugby as a means of incentivising attacking play. I am also discussing a paper on the AFL’s unique Father-Son Rule, which has been interesting for me to read and write a critique of.

Having had a look at the programme, I am truly salivating at the prospect of some of the sessions (not merely the sports economics ones). Conferences in North America tend to be quite intensive compared with other parts of the World, and the Westerns is no exception – they often run over weekends, session often run from 8AM to 6PM with no designated gap for lunch (it’s just assumed you’ll miss a session at sometime during the day to eat something); and the sports economists tend to go for an evening meal and a beer each night afterwards – doesn’t leave a lot of time in the day for normal activities.

Yet I find it quite enjoyable. The only problem? As usual, I got right-royally screwed by the scheduling – first presenter in the first (8:15am) session on the last morning of the conference. Thanks a lot!

Recent Appearance on ABC Brisbane News


I recently appeared on the ABC nightly Brisbane News (6 September), talking about bidding for NRL State of Origin hosting rights.


ABC1 (Brisbane) Nightly News Bulletin: Liam Lenten offers opinion on reports of ARL decision to sell hosting rights of one State of Origin game every two years to highest bidder (even if not Sydney or Brisbane).

IRB Rugby World Cup Statistics


[Archived from: The Sports Economist, 30 November 2011]

The International Rugby Board (IRB) report on the analysis of match statistics from the 2011 World Cup was released recently (see the report here). It paints a flattering picture of various game specifics in comparison to the 2007 and 2003 World Cups, including competitive balance (see my earlier post on this issue):

…Tier 2 teams were competitive for all 80 minutes of the game. The Tier 1 teams did not pull away over the last 20 minutes which was frequently the case in previous World Cups.

…as well as tactical dynamics and aesthetic appeal of the games:

…fewer set pieces, a substantial reduction in kicks from hand and many more passes, Rugby World Cup 2011 saw a renewed emphasis on running rugby.

On the latter, Bret Harris from The Australian newspaper (1 December) is not convinced, citing (perhaps unknowingly) what economists would refer to as selection biases (insofar that the sample of World Cup matches are, on average, less competitively balanced than the population of professional matches):

What was that? Running rugby? If the World Cup was a festival of running rugby, then I’m missing something. Certainly, there were some big scores when the super powers of the Tri-Nations and the Six Nations played the minnows, but in the crucial pool matches and the knockout stages, teams played not to lose rather than to win. There was not a lot of expansive, attacking rugby when the top-tier teams played each other.

For rugby fans, be advised to read the report and make your own decision. My feeling was that the 2011 World Cup (overall) was a marginal improvement on 2007 in terms of attacking/attractive Rugby.

Bonus Points and Incentives in Rugby


[Archived from: The Sports Economist, 23 October 2011]

The 2011 Rugby World Cup has climaxed with hosts New Zealand being crowned champions for the second time last night (joining Australia and South Africa, while England has won it once). They did so by defeating France 8-7 in a tense affair in the Final at Auckland’s Eden Park, in front of (a capacity) 60,000 supporters – certainly not the easy way as most expected, but having endured 24 years of angst since their last title in 1987, all Kiwis will still take it nonetheless! As a tribute to the ‘Shaky Isles’, another post on Rugby seems in order.

One of the most distinctive nuances about the game lies in how in some tournaments (including the World Cup and Super Rugby), there exists a system of ‘bonus’ competition points (in round-robin stages). Specifically, in addition to the standard four competition points for a win (two each for a draw), either team is rewarded with one bonus point if they score four or more tries in a match (irrespective of how many tries the opposition scores). Furthermore, the loser receives an additional (narrow-loss) bonus point if they lose by seven or fewer (match) points. The purpose of these bonus points is to reward attacking Rugby by encouraging teams to score more tries (for example, by running the ball more and kicking it less), and to maintain interest in the game longer in situations where the result has already become highly certain.

A co-author of mine, Niven Winchester (these days at MIT), is a native New Zealander who will no doubt be ecstatic after having been at the game in person. He is primarily a Trade Economist, but also has a penchant for modeling predictions and ranking systems in sport. His 2008 paper in JQAS (abstract here) concludes that the current bonus points system is sub-optimal at his defined objective of revealing the best quality teams over the duration of the season. Instead, he favors altering the narrow-loss bonus threshold from seven to five match points, and changing the try bonus to either a minimum of eight tries, or alternatively, for scoring at least three more tries than the opponent does. The last of these recommendations is particularly compelling when recalling some of the pivotal results from the previous World Cup in 2007. To quote the paper:

Anecdotal evidence also supports our assertion that defensive capability should be included in a try bonus decision rule. In the quarterfinals of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, New Zealand and Australia, two teams heavily favored to advance to the next round, lost to France and England respectively. Several rugby experts, including Australian coach John Connolly, suggested that the attacking style adopted by the two favorites was partly responsible for the unexpected results. In turn, incentive structures in place in the competitions that these teams regularly participate in may influence playing styles. Specifically, New Zealand and Australia compete in the Tri-Nations competition where a (four-or-more) try bonus point is offered, and France and England participate in the Six Nations tournament, where try bonuses are not awarded.

Niven has since adapted this methodology with further modeling improvements to consider a similar question using data for the Australian Football League (AFL) and the National Football League (NFL), with some interesting findings for both.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating questions yet to be explored with Rugby match data is the degree to which such a system effects within-match team and player behavior, compared to what would be observed in the absence of bonus points. In terms of the try bonus, a very simple way to do this would be to look at the distribution of the number of tries scored by teams in matches, and determine whether the frequency of ‘4’s is greater than that suggested by a fitted or stylized distribution. If we look at a histogram of tries scored in all Super Rugby regular-season matches from 1996-2011 (see here), we see that it is not easy to tell from a simple ‘eyeball’ whether this is indeed the case. Even if so, one still needs to control for match-specific factors that may be driving the observed distribution.

As for the narrow-loss bonus, a similar exercise is possible, though arguably more difficult to validate, since there are other factors skewing the incentives simultaneously, and also given the discrete nature of the scoring system. Nevertheless, this is a nice little example of how sports data provides much potential to the Economics profession with respect to the ability to test for incentives and strategies in games.

Optimal Size of the Rugby World Cup


[Archived from: The Sports Economist, 6 October 2011]

The 2011 Rugby World Cup has now progressed past the Pool Stage, with the Quarter-Finals to be played this coming weekend. Hosts New Zealand look to be in ominous form ahead of their clash with Argentina, with a tournament-ending injury to star fly-half Dan Carter and the ghosts of World Cups past seemingly their only remaining obstacles. Meanwhile, the other superpowers, South Africa and Australia, have looked somewhat lackluster. The latter’s unexpected loss to Ireland was hugely disappointing for Tournament organizers (who had hoped for a dream Trans-Tasman Final), with both forced into the same Quarter-final and the winner to play (presumably) New Zealand in one Semi-final, while the weaker Northern Hemisphere teams battle it out for the other place in the Final.

All of this means that the knockout stages will be (by Rugby World Cup standards) wide open. Disappointingly, however, the same cannot be said of the Pool Stage. Since rugby’s international-level pecking-order is more hierarchical than football (soccer) and even basketball, the International Rugby Board (IRB) was arguably premature in expanding the World Cup from 16 to 20 teams from the 1999 installment.

Expansion can be a good thing for a sport like rugby that is looking to break into new markets like Japan, Russia and USA (obviously for economic reasons), however, many commentators suggest this should not come at the expense of having too many hopelessly imbalanced (perhaps even physically dangerous) matches. The decline in balance has been evident by the number of woefully one-sided contests since then. The mean winning margin in all 110 Pool-stage games in the 1999, 2003 and 2007 World Cups was 33.1 points, compared with 24.8 for the earlier three World Cups. As a benchmark, the average winning margin in all 51 Knockout-stage matches (when it becomes interesting) back to the inaugural tournament in 1987  is 11.9 points.

The good news is that the average winning Pool-stage match margin in the current World Cup was noticeably lower (28.1 points) and no team managed to rack up a ‘century’, though Tonga’s victory over France (the result of which was academic) was the only genuine upset. This figure suggests that perhaps the IRB can now feel finally vindicated to have expanded the sport’s most important global tournament. Nevertheless, one hopes that further expansion does not occur in the near future – the depth is simply not there yet!

One other (amazing) economic development has occurred during the tournament with New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) Chief Executive Steve Tew hinting at a threat to boycott New Zealand from the next World Cup (2015 in England). This stems from massive quadrennial losses in revenues incurred from the lucrative Tri-Nations (Four Nations from 2012) tournament having to be shortened to accommodate the World Cup schedule. IRB Chief Executive Mike Miller ‘called his bluff’ by suggesting that even New Zealand were ‘replaceable’. One imagines, however, that eventually wiser heads will prevail and that a new schedule and/or financial model can be agreed upon. After all, while New Zealand may not have infinite economic power over this issue, in pure sporting terms, a Rugby World Cup without New Zealand would be like a FIFA World Cup without…well, Brazil.