Why do athletes make so much money?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do athletes make so much money?


— — —

Dear Venita,

Your question is a topical one given the last week of sports in the news. Just in the last week, four NFL football players made news for signing record new contracts for their positions. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. signed a $95 million dollar five year contract extension, quarterback Aaron Rodgers signed a $134 million dollar, four year contract extension. Then, defensive players Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack signed new deals for six years and $134 million dollars and six years and $141 million dollars respectively. And, as Mike Oz on Yahoo Sports points out, dozens of baseball players make more money than these top football players. How is this possible?

The conventional answer is that it’s possible because market forces allow it. Taking that down one level, the owners of sports teams are willing to pay players as much as they do because owning a sports team is so lucrative. That’s driven by two related forces. The first, and primary one is fans; people love watching and rooting for sports teams and they are willing to pay a lot of money to do it. Tickets for a game, are just the start of the money spent on a day at the ballpark or field. There’s often the cost of parking, you’ve got to buy popcorn or a hot dog (or at more modern stadiums, some fancy BBQ or a fusion short-rib taco). Outside of game-day, people buy all sorts of items that show their fandom, like jerseys, team hats, team licence plate or cell-phone covers. The list goes on and on.

The other thing fans do, and this is the catalyst for the second big force driving player salaries, is they watch their favorite team on television. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this. Sports broadcasts on television are reliably the highest rated programs. In 2017, the top five and 18 of the top 20 rated television shows of the year were sports. In a world of splintered viewing, sports are seemingly the one force that can still bring a mass audience to the screen. Cable companies are therefore willing to pay leagues massive amounts to carry their sport. The NFL sells its television rights for over four and a half billion dollars per year! The NBA is second at over two and a half billion dollars per year. A single team in MLB baseball sold their local TV rights for more than eight billion dollars over 25 years.

The money flows from consumers through their cable companies to sports leagues to team owners to players. That’s only one way of looking at this though. The market approach only really works as an analysis of why athletes get paid so much if you assume each actor is willing to share their profit down the line. We know, particularly with sports team owners who are often hard-nosed million- or billionaires that no one gives up profit without a struggle. The other way of looking at this topic is through the history of players advocating for themselves in locker-rooms, boardrooms, and court rooms often at great risk or cost to themselves. Here are three major stories from this struggle.

Does a fielder get an error in baseball if nothing bad happens?

Dear Sports Fan,

We were watching baseball yesterday and the second baseman clearly messed up when trying to field a ground ball. After dropping it, he was able to recover in time to get the runner out at first base. Would he get an error? Does a fielder get an error in baseball if nothing bad happens?


— — —

Dear Sonja,

In the scenario you are describing, the fielder would not be given an error for that play. This is because, like you wrote,  “nothing bad happened.” According to the rules of MLB baseball (Rule 10.12(d)(4)) “The official scorer shall not charge an error against: any fielder when, after fumbling a ground ball or dropping a batted ball that is in flight or a thrown ball, the fielder recovers the ball in time to force out a runner at any base.”

This seems bizarre to me. I’ve always had a hard time understanding and accepting the importance of errors in baseball. They seem like a truly bizarre mixture of process, intent, and outcome. In your scenario, the fielder’s intent was good — he wanted to catch the ball and throw it to first base. His process was not good — he dropped the ball. The outcome, however, was fine — he got the runner out. So, no error. He essentially lucked out. 

If, however, the the fielder had done the exact same thing but he was up against a faster runner who beat the throw to first base, he would have been assigned an error. No difference in process, just in outcome. Of course, outcome matters — it’s what leads to a win or a loss, which is the whole point. On the other hand, baseball already has outcome stats – if a runner makes it to first base, it’s called a single! The error seems like it’s supposed to be a different kind of stat; one that shows who messed up but in this case, it blends outcome and process.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why does the NFL have preseason games?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why does the NFL have preseson games? What’s the point? As far as I can tell, no one watches them and they don’t count for anything!


— — —

Dear Guillermo,

Before I go off on a long, embroidered explanation about who is interested in the NFL preseason and why, I do want to say that I am a big fan of NFL football and I don’t think I’ve ever watched a full preseason game. So far this year, I’ve glanced at one in a bar while having dinner and that’s it. Lots of people — NFL football fans or not — fall somewhere on the scale from ignoring to despising the preseason. There are three categories of people I can think of who find the preseason to be very important: coaches and some players, gamblers/fantasy football experts, and super-fans.

Why NFL coaches (and some players) care about the NFL preseason

For NFL coaches, the preseason is a chance to see players in an environment as close to real NFL games as possible. Of course, preseason games don’t look, from a fan’s perspective, very much like regular season NFL games. The play is scattered, the drama is missing, and the players are not the ones we’re used to; at least not for very long. Starters tend to play for less than a quarter in most preseason games.

During most of each preseason game, the players on the field whose names you may not recognize are playing for jobs. This is because the number of players an NFL team is allowed to “carry” or have on their team shrinks dramatically at the end of the preseason. During the preseason, teams are allowed to carry 90 players. At the start of the regular season, this number drops to 53. Although there are still some ways for teams to hold on to players and for players to hold on to jobs beyond the 53 during the season, making the 53-player roster is a big deal.

Preseason games are the highest stakes moment in a very high stakes tryout for players who are right on the edge of making it or not in the NFL. Make it, and you and your family stands to gain a lot financially (as long as you stay healthy and productive). Miss it and your path to a career as a professional football player takes a major hit. If you’re interested in what that is like, Charles Siebert wrote an amazing article in the New York Times about a linebacker trying to make the Atlanta Falcons.

While their players are concerned with making the team, coaches are equally focused on choosing the right 53 players to start the season with. While a decision about whether to hire one backup right guard or another may not seem like a big deal to outside observers, NFL coaches famously focused on details. They have to be because there are a very limited number of jobs available for head coaches (32) and it’s a lot easier for teams to fire a coach when things aren’t going well than it is to trade star players.

Preseason games also seem like a good time for coaches to try out new tactics to see if they are going to work in the regular season. While I’m sure that coaches do this a bit on the margins, on the whole they tend not to. They are aware of how closely examined everything they do will be by their competitors and they don’t want to reveal any truly new innovations.

Questions from the first two days of the 2018 Winter Olympics

Over the first two days of the 2018 Winter Olympics, I got a bunch of questions:

  • How good should we feel about North and South Korea marching and competing together?
  • Why is the Korean Women’s Hockey team wearing more visible shin guards than the Swiss team?
  • What’s up with athletes wearing tape on their faces?
  • Is mixed doubles curling really a thing? Why does gender matter in curling at all?

I love getting questions! Keep sending them, please!

How good should we feel about North and South Korea marching and competing together?

Eh… one never really knows when it comes to war and peace and geopolitical affairs… but probably not all that good. Yes, it’s amazing to see athletes wearing a uniform that shows the entirety of the Korean peninsula on it and to imagine what this might mean to Korean communities or families that have endured a 50+ year militarized split.  On the other hand, as I learned in Uri Friedman’s excellent article on this topic for the Atlantic, this is not the first time North and South Korea have come together for the Olympics. Actually, it’s the ninth time it’s happened since 2000. This dims my hope for the symbolic gesture to turn into something more meaningful when the games are over. My thoughts are drawn back four years to Sochi – a time of relative peace in Russia – followed almost immediately by a semi-covert invasion of Ukraine when the games were done. If there’s even a slim chance that some good will come of it, it’s still probably worth it, but it does feel particularly unfair to the South Korean hockey teams whose team chemistry has been interrupted by the political injection of North Korean players just a few weeks before the biggest tournament of their lives.

Why is the Korean Women’s Hockey team wearing more visible shin guards than the Swiss team?

Aha! I was not the only one watching the Korean women’s team get their tournament started with an 8-0 loss to Switzerland. In ice hockey some defenders who specialize in blocking shots do wear bulkier shin guards than other players. Cheaper shin guards also tend to be bigger than more expensive ones. In this case though, I think you were fooled by an optical illusion caused by a design choice made by whoever designed the Korean uniforms. I think you were seeing a vertical white line on the Korean socks, not their shin guards. The Swiss team wore a more traditional horizontal stripe.

What’s up with athletes wearing tape on their faces?

I know, right?

Czech Republic’s Marketa Davidova competes in the women’s 7,5 km sprint biathlon event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 10, 2018, in Pyeongchang. / AFP PHOTO / Odd ANDERSENODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

Apparently, according to Tara Parker-Pope in her article for the New York Times, this is something athletes are doing to try to stay warm. This is the first Winter Olympics in a while that’s actually, you know, cold. So, we’re seeing Olympic teams doing all kinds of things to try to get an edge. This includes breathing through a “respiratory heat exchanger,” wearing electric coats, and taping, or more traditionally greasing, up any exposed skin, including faces. It may not be the most telegenic tactic but if it helps, you know it’s going to be popular!

Is mixed doubles curling really a thing? Why does gender matter in curling at all?

Okay, fine, I’ll admit it. I asked this question on Facebook and got a bunch of responses from friends. It was an excellent turn of the tables compared to my normal mode when it comes to questions about sports. A Facebook friend linked me to Liz Clarke’s Washington Post article, “In Olympic Curling, men and women are not created equal.” Clarke, who I am 100% confident approached this subject from a position of great skepticism, included this infuriating quote from “Kyle Paquette, director of sports science for Curling Canada”:

It’s not simply that Canada’s top male skips (the chief strategist of a curling team) are more aggressive play callers than the top female skips. The difference is more nuanced, according to [Paquette,] suggesting to some that top male curling skips may see angles better and anticipate three or four shots ahead better than their female counterparts.

Oh, really? Men are just naturally better tacticians, huh? We must be genetically selected for it after all those millennia of throwing rocks at each other, right? Aghghghhhghhh! You don’t think that maybe it has something to do with boys being given more encouragement, more practice time, better coaches, better equipment, and greater rewards for success from a very early age? Director of sports science? How do I get that job?


Hope you have a wonderful Olympics-filled Sunday. Keep the questions coming!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Cross Country Skiing

Cross country skiing is a beautiful sport to watch. Although the courses are designed to have an equal amount of uphill, downhill, and level sections, they are often perched in pristine mountains and wind through old forests. It’s a picturesque and predictable sport that Olympics television producers take advantage of by staging simply gorgeous camera shots of. The only problem is, at least for me, it’s often hard to tell whether the skiers are going up a hill, down a hill, or neither. As anyone who has ever skied will tell you, the problem is that the white snow doesn’t lend itself to depth perception particularly well. So, the detail to latch onto in watching Cross Country Skiing is which way the skiers are going: up, down, or level.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

This distinction is complicated by the bifurcation of cross country events between classic and skate skiing style. In classic, skiers are only allowed to move their skies back and forth. In skate skiing, skiers are allowed to move their skies sideways. Skate skiing is newer and faster. If you know which technique a skier is using and you observe how she uses her poles and skies, you will be able to tell if she is going up, down, or sideways.

Skate Skiing

  • Uphill: A skate skiing cross country skier who is going up a hill will have their legs turned way out. Their poles will be hitting the ground in a funny 1, 2… 1, 2…. 1,2 … rhythm.
  • Flat: The same skier on a flat portion of the course will have their skies pointed more or less forwards but will be sweeping each ski outward in each stride. He will be using his poles in parallel, striking the ground with each at the same time.
  • Downhill: Going downhill is the only time you will ever see a skate skiing cross country skier look like a classic skier. There’s just not that much of an advantage to moving your skies at all when you are going down hill. So, skis are completely parallel and poles are either used in parallel but less frequently than on a flat or not at all as skiers bend over into a tuck.

Classic Skiing

Distinguishing up, down, and flat for classic cross country skiing is harder. The limitations on how a skier may move her skies also limit the variety in technique that adapts to the pitch of the course. Still, with a little focus, it is possible.

  • Uphill: A classic skier going uphill is a painful sight to see after watching how the skate skiers do it. A classic skier going uphill looks like she is running. As one leg pushes forward, the pole held in the opposite arm strikes the ground. Then the other and the other. It looks simply exhausting.
  • Flat: On flat ground, a classic skier barely moves their skis at all. They look like they are being powered completely by their two poles which strike the ground at the same time.
  • Downhill: The only way that I can see to distinguish between flat and downhill is that during a downhill, classic skiers mostly don’t use their poles at all. Instead, they get into an aerodynamic tuck.

Learning these clues to when a cross country sky race is going up, down, or sideways will help you enjoy the Winter Games and put you in the top five percent of educated viewers.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Ice Hockey

The biggest story of 2018 Olympic Ice Hockey is the decision of the National Hockey League (the NHL is the American men’s professional ice hockey league, widely considered the best in the world) not to allow its professionals to take part in the games. While knowing that story may get you in the door, it won’t help you very much once the games begin. Here’s a detail to watch which will keep you interested and sounding like an insider: in addition to watching the puck, watch the line changes.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

Hockey is the most exhausting team sport in the world. Even the best ice hockey players in the world simply cannot play for more than about a minute at a time. Unlike football, play in ice hockey doesn’t stop and start frequently to conveniently allow for substitutions. Tired ice hockey players need to find a moment when sprinting to their team’s bench to be replaced by a teammate won’t hurt their team. The best time for a line change (when two or three teammates all go to the bench and are replaced by teammates) is when your team has the puck or has dumped it way behind the other team into their defensive zone where it’s going to take them a little while to fetch it.

Being aware of line changes may seem like a small thing or perhaps even a little boring but they can be quite dramatic. A bad line change often results in a scoring chance against the team that made the bad change. In a low-scoring game, one or two bad line changes can be enough to decide who wins and who loses. A good line change is sometimes the result of one player, already exhausted, pushing herself through her exhaustion to allow her teammates to get off the ice.

A veteran ice-hockey fan has an imaginary clock in his or her head that counts from each line change up to around 35 seconds. At 35 seconds you start getting curious about how your team will manage to change lines. At 40 seconds, the tension begins to mount. At 45, you are actively rooting for your team to get the puck into a good line change position. At 50, you are starting to panic and at 55 you’ve started to scream at the television. Make it to 60 seconds and you’re usually depressed over the goal your team just let in.

As a bonus, there is also a potential penalty associated with line changes called Too Many Men on the Ice (note that some women’s leagues use this language and some call it Too Many Players on the Ice). This penalty is called when a line change has gone so disastrously wrong that a team ends up with, you guessed it, too many players on the ice! It’s a near unforgivable offense in hockey because it costs a team two minutes playing with one fewer player on the ice than the other team. During normal play, this almost never happens, but in pressure situations, when players are tired and stressed, it does happen. If you have gotten used to watching the line changes, you will catch this and be the first person at your viewing party yelling about it.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Figure Skating

For many people, figure skating is the center of their Winter Olympics experience. There is a lot to recommend it. The athletic achievement of figure skaters is truly incredible. These seemingly slight skaters are able to launch themselves into a 1440 degree twist in mid-air and land and then transition into another one without pause. That’s ridiculous. The sport also has the potential attraction of being judged partially on aesthetics — something which adds to its intrigue and drama significantly. Lastly, for viewers in the United States, Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski are the best commentators since sliced bread.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

As a central sport, it has been covered perhaps even more widely than most Olympic sports. The most obvious technical detail of the sport to teach even long-time viewers is how to distinguish all the different jumps from one another. What is an Axel? What is a Salchow? How do you know if someone has done a flip or a toe-loop? On this topic, Alexander Abad-Santos provided “A GIF Guide to Figure Skaters’ Jumps at the Olympics” for The Atlantic four years ago that far exceeds anything I could ever produce. I recommend it.

With that topic taken off the shelf, I spent a long time watching clips of figure skating to see what I could see. The answer: very little. I have real trouble distinguishing the very best figure skaters from the just incredibly good enough to get into the Olympics but not good enough to win category. The only slight detail I think I found which gives me a hint for the quality of the skater is how smoothly they toggle from skating backwards to forwards.

During a figure skater’s routine, he may switch from skating backwards to forwards dozens of times in thirty seconds. If you’re not really watching for this, you might miss it because his legs continue to propel him in what looks like a single path and her upper body registers no discomfort at being swiveled one way and the other. The facilitator of all this movement is the hips, which, somewhat unbelievably from the perspective of someone with chronic hip-pain, SEEM TO MOVE WITHOUT FRICTION! I simply don’t understand how this is possible.

All great sports possess elements that make most pedestrian viewers think just that – we don’t understand how elite athletes do what they do. For figure skating, one detail which sets the very best apart from the rest is how smoothly they can alternate between skating backwards and forwards. Watch for it the next time you’re watching figure skating.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Freestyle Skiing

“Did she stick the landing?” is a question you normally associate with the Summer Olympics’ glory sport of gymnastics but it’s also the detail to watch in the Winter Olympics sport of freestyle skiing. Freestyle skiing is actually more like a loose conglomeration of related sports than it is a single sport. Two of its events, mogul skiing and ski cross are timed races. The other three, aerial skiing, half-pipe, and slopestyle are judged events. The thing that connects all five of these events, (and which should be obvious from the name of the umbrella sport,) is that they all involve skiers hurtling through the air. And, since we believe in cliches on this website, what goes up, must come down.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

In the downhill ski racing, skiers try to minimize the amount of time they spend in the air. While in the air, a skier inevitably slows down compared to a skier on the ice. The lack of friction is far overshadowed by an increase in wind resistance. In freestyle skiing, jumping is part of the sport, and athletes in all five events need to stay in the air as long as possible to do the flips, twists, and somersaults that characterize their sports. Instead of optimizing their path to minimize their time in the air, freestyle skiers optimize their performance to minimize the time they spend in the transition between skiing and jumping.

A very astute viewer may be able to see this optimization process in a skier’s approach to a jump. I can’t. But I can see it in how a skier lands a jump. The very best freestyle skiers are able to go from twirling in the air to a perfect skiers posture (legs parallel, knees bent almost to a 90° angle, torso and arms angled forward) in a single smooth and very quick motion. In the racing events, this is important because it limits the loss of speed. In the judged events, it’s important most directly because it is something that judges look for. That’s the only thing to watch for in aerial skiing which only has one jump at a time. In half-pipe and slopestyle, since athletes perform several jumps in a row, it’s also important for the same reason as in the racing events — to maximize the amount of speed skiers are able to maintain or even gain between jumps.

So, as you watch glorious freestyle skiers fly through the air, watch for how quickly they are able to get back to skiing once they land!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Biathlon

Biathlon is that appealing combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting which seems to pop into existence once every four years and disappear for the rest of the cycle. Skiing and shooting sounds simple enough, but there are five separate events within this sport: Individual, Sprint, Pursuit, Mass Start, and Relay. The diversity of these events is what gives us our single impressive detail to watch out for – the penalty for missing a shot during the shooting portion of the biathlon.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

In every form of biathlon, the athletes carry more bullets than there are targets. Although the very best may not miss a single shot during the race, most biathletes will miss one here or there. Athletes who miss a shot face a penalty for doing so.

In the individual biathlon event, the penalty is that a minute gets added to their total time. These individual races are quite long – 20 kilometers for men and 15 for women – so a minute is not an insurmountable penalty, but it’s not great.

In all the other biathlon events, the penalty for missing a shot is different. In the Sprint, Pursuit, Mass Start, and Relay events, any athlete who misses a shot must complete a full lap of a small, 150 meter track, before getting back onto the main course for another skiing loop. This is a fiendish penalty, because not only does the racer lose time, they also have to exert more energy, making it harder for them to shed their exhaustion and still their body the next time they get to the shooting gallery. Misses inevitably lead to more misses.

It’s a small detail, but knowing that this difference exists and tracking which penalty applies to the particular biathlon event you are watching will put you in the top 1% of Olympics viewers… at least outside of Scandinavia.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Curling

Curling is the thinking person’s Olympics sport. Whenever I see one of the many uncomfortably leering stories about how the Olympic Village is a colossal orgy of the most athletic young people on the planet, I always chuckle to myself and think about the curlers. Olympic curlers tend to be unassuming people entering the middle of their careers… as lawyers. Lack of voyeurism aside, there is a lot to love about curling! So much, that I found it hard to pick a single detail to focus on. Instead, here are two fun things to watch for.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

The Fourth Curler

There are four curlers on a team. Three of them are actively doing something on any given shot. One curler “delivers” or slides the stone along the ice. This person is the center of focus on television, being the one who starts out touching the stone and then usually slides for a while looking pleased or tormented. Two other people on the team sweep brooms furiously in front of the stone as it slides down the rink toward the bullseye shaped target called a house. The fourth curler… well, if you’re not watching carefully, you might miss them entirely. They don’t actually do anything during the shot except for yell, and it’s hard to tell who is doing what yelling. If you watch right before the shot starts though, you will see this fourth curler, who is hanging out near the house, place their broom on the ice. They are setting the target for the curler delivering the stone. It’s not where the stone will end up, it’s the direction the stone will be thrown in. Any deviation from this path is based on all that frantic sweeping.

Given that this is the Olympics, the person delivering the stone is going to hit the target 95% of the time and you can bet the sweepers will sweep precisely the way they are supposed to sweep. So, if we assume all that proper execution, it’s actually the person who decides where their team should aim that’s making all the interesting decisions. This fourth curler is worth watching!

Happy Feet

The most astounding aspect of curling is how the two sweepers are able to navigate through the target area without ever touching an already thrown stone. The next time you watch curling, focus on the sweeper’s feet. Notice how she nimbly steps over or around any stone in her path. She doesn’t break stride and her sweeping is seemingly not affected by her evasive maneuvering at all. And what’s more, she never seems to look down at all! It’s incredible!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer