The Wages of Wins


David Berri, Martin Schmidt, and Stacey Brook




Date Reviewed:

December 26, 2006

he authors of this book are economists. After witnessing the amazing bestseller success of Freakonomics, they are inspired to take economic principals and use them to examine sports. (The authors readily admit that they are attempting to emulate the Freakonomics, so kudos to them for their honesty.) Specifically, the authors want examine conventional sports wisdom using the tools of an economist. Will the dispassionate analysis of the dismal science reveal that some cherished sports beliefs are incorrect? For example, is Allen Iverson truly a great player? Is Brett Favre a great quarterback? Do superstars elevate their games in the playoffs? Should the Lakers have kept Shaq or Kobe?

I first heard about this book when I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s blog. He mentioned this book in glowing terms. In his blog, Gladwell comments that most of the people who write back about The Wages of Wins apparently hadn’t read it. I did read it, and so I can tell Mr Gladwell what he missed: the book is incredibly dull. I bet a lot of the people who responded to Gladwell's blog TRIED to read it, but couldn't get through more than a couple chapters. Talking about sports is usually entertaining, because it so full of stories of success and failure and near-misses and what-might-have-beens. The major flaw in The Wages of Wins is that it completely skips the story telling aspect of sports. The book presents statistics (there must be at least 20 cases citings of “regression analysis’) to back up all its claims, proving statistically, for example, that Allen Iverson is actually a lousy player. But in the absence of any human story, this is slow going. I would try to read a chapter a night, but often could only make it partway through a chapter before putting the book down. It was a great aid in falling asleep!

Go back to Freakonomics and you will see it is full of stories. My friend who told me about Freakonomics got me interested when he related the details of the chapter of “Why do so many drug dealers live with their moms?” It’s entertaining and enlightening. But if I try and explain to a friend why Shaq is more valuable than Kobe, and I start calculating the sum of the points, rebounds, block shots and steals, subtracting for field goal percentage and then adding a factor for assists, performing a regression analysis and blah blah blah. My friend would ask - but what about the fact that Shaq made $30 million a year with the Lakers, but Kobe could be signed for much less? I would have to say: salary was not part of the analysis. My friend would ask - what about the fact that Shaq is 7 years older than Kobe, and has missed at least 15 games in recent seasons? I would have to report that age or injury (or the fact that Shaq’s weight seemed to be creeping north of 350 pounds) is not considered in the book. My friend would say - well, it’s would be a bizarre general manager who didn’t consider those factors when deciding whether to keep Shaq or Kobe. I would agree. The trouble with Wages of Wins is that it is about statistics and nothing but statistics. There is no context.

Read Moneyball by Michael Lewis - it is about baseball statistics, yet it is riveting narration. Lewis is able to convey something of the characters and personalities in baseball, which is something the Wages of Wins is completely missing. Malcolm Gladwell may have found this book interesting, but a reader like me found it a real yawner. Read Freakonomics or Gladwell’s The Tipping Point instead, they are much more interesting than this failed effort.