I read this interesting post which talks about spectator sports and the gap between the excitement of watching in person versus on TV. The author ranks hockey as the sport with the largest gap: seeing hockey in person is way more fun than watching on TV. I think I agree with that and generally with the ranking given. (I would add one thing about American Football. With the advent of widescreen TVs the experience has improved a lot. But its still very dumb how they frame the shot to put the line of scrimmage down the center of the screen. The quarterback should be near the left edge of the screen at all times so that we can see who he is looking at downfield.)

But there was one off-hand comment that I think the author got completely wrong.

I think NBA basketball players might be the best at what they do in all of sports.

The thought experiment is to compare players across sports. I.e., are basketball players better at basketball than, say, snooker players are at playing snooker?

Unless you count being tall as one of the things NBA basketball players “do” I would say on the contrary that NBA basketball players must be among the worst at what they do in all of professional sports. The reason is simple: because height is so important in basketball, the NBA is drawing the top talent among a highly selected sub-population: those that are exceptionally tall. The skill distribution of the overall population, focusing on those skills that make a great basketball player like coordination, quickness, agility, accuracy; certainly dominate the distribution of the subpopulation from which the NBA draws its players.

Imagine that the basket was lowered by 1 foot and a height cap enforced so that in order to be eligible to play you must be 1 foot shorter than the current tallest NBA player (or you could scale proportionally if you prefer.) The best players in that league would be better at what they do than current NBA players. (Of course you need to allow equilibrium to be reached where young players currently too short to be NBA stars now make/receive the investments and training that the current elite do.)

Now you might ask why we should discard height as one of the bundle of attributes that we should say a player is “best” at. Aren’t speed, accuracy, etc. all talents that some people are born with and others are not, just like height? Definitely so, but ask yourself this question. If a guy stops playing basketball for a few years and then takes it up again, which of these attributes is he going to fall the farthest behind the cohort who continued to train uninterrupted? He’ll probably be a step slower and have lost a few points in shooting percentage. He won’t be any shorter than he would have been.

When you look at a competition where one of the inputs of the production function is an exogenously distributed characteristic, players with a high endowment on that dimension have a head start. This has two effects on the distribution of the (partially) acquired characteristics that enter the production function. First, there is the pure statistical effect I alluded to above. If success requires some minimum height then the pool of competitors excludes a large component of the population.

There is a second effect on endogenous acquisition of skills. Competition is less intense and they have less incentive to acquire skills in order to be competitive. So even current NBA players are less talented than they would be if competition was less exclusive.

So what are the sports whose athletes are the best at what they do? My ranking

  1. Table Tennis
  2. Soccer
  3. Tennis
  4. Golf
  5. Chess