Spotlight Iowa City: For the love of the game

BY J.T. BUGOS | JANUARY 26, 2010 7:30 AM

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As a 10-year-old boy, Stacey Brook snuck a 12-inch black-and-white antenna TV into his room so he could catch glimpses of his beloved Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers and his favorite athlete, the Sixers’ Julius “Dr. J” Erving.

“I got terrible reception, but you could see it was a basketball game,” reflected Brook, a UI economics lecturer. “Every once in a while it would come in clearer, and I’d get to see Erving.”

Brook’s infatuation with sports — he particularly likes hockey and football — eventually merged with economics, a subject Brook enjoyed in high school and during his college years at Eastern New Mexico University.

These two seemingly disparate fields fused to become a large chunk of his adult life. He now teaches Sports Economics once a year at the UI, prepared with a wealth of knowledge on the subject.

In 2007, Brook’s interest in sports economics resulted in a book, The Wages of Wins: Taking Measure of the Many Myths in Modern Sport, giving readers insight on such diverse topics as the statistical value of athletes and the effect of strikes on attendance.

The ideas to the 224-page book spawned more than a decade earlier.

Brook and Dave Berri, a co-author, would frequently stir up friendly arguments about sports during their time in the economics graduate program at Colorado State University.

Brook said the two eventually grew tired of the verbal sparring and instead started collecting data. They used their economic and statistical tools to look at questions they had previously debated.

“We didn’t take any class on it, and we pretty much taught ourselves how to do this,” Berri said.
In fact, courses fusing sports and economics didn’t really exist when Brook and Berri began their research in the mid-90s, but now the pair say it’s a popular course taught all over the nation.

He guesses this has much to do with the strong opinions that circulate among sports fanatics — and data can give them logical solutions to arguments.

Sports Economics has become, by far, Brook’s favorite class, and he absolutely loves teaching the material.

Brook’s wife, Marjorie Brook, said she can tell.

“He’s not always a huge sports fan, but he’s just fascinated with why people in sports do well in certain areas, who is the best player, and why,” Marjorie Brook said.

“He uses it in everyday conversations, and just enjoys telling other people and having them learn from him.”

What consistently intrigued Brook were the counterintuitive results. In the book, there is an evaluation of attendance after the strikes in both the MLB and NHL. Brook found in interesting that the year after the strike, attendance stayed the same in the MLB and actually rose in the NHL, contrary to his expectations.

Player productivity is also an integral part of the work. According to a review in The New Yorker, Brook and his co-authors “created an algorithm that, they argue, comes closer than any previous statistical measure to capturing the true value of a basketball player.”

A good example is Allen Iverson, Brook said. Iverson is an athlete regarded by fans as a phenomenal player, but statistics show he’s far from that.

“Michael Wilbon mentioned Iverson on [Pardon the Interruption] and that some guys had looked at him, and Wilbon said all three of us should be fired,” Brook said, laughing.

“It’s very difficult to overcome what you know to be true, when it’s not true. And that’s one of the things that we’ve noticed a lot.”

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