Friday, February 2, 2007

To Spend is Not to Win

Two books from Michael Lewis I’ve read in the past year have changed my perception of how professional sports teams should go about their business. The first was Moneyball about the inner workings of the Oakland Athletics front office told through their general manager Billy Beane. The other was The Blind Side, which explained (among other things) how the evolution of the passing game in the NFL has made the left tackle, the offensive lineman who protects a right handed quarterback’s blind side, one of the highest paid players on professional football teams.

After reading these books, I no longer think it’s necessary to spend a lot of money on players and coaches, because most of the time you are wasting money anyway. The premise of Moneyball was that the Oakland A’s front office built a winning team while maintaining a low payroll by finding players that had high on-base percentages. This was not a valued skill for most of the other front offices in baseball at the time, so the A’s could get players with high on-base percentages cheap. The advantage of having a player like that spilled over to the rest of the team, because the players with the high OBP often times wear out the pitchers in the process of getting their free passes to first base.

In football, and I got into this in my last post, if you are a losing team who needs to turn it around, it doesn’t make sense to hire an experienced winning coach, because you have to pay them so much more money. In the NFL, it is the rare coach who doesn't ultimately fail. I think if your team has been winning ands need to take it to that next step, it makes sense. Like the Colts hiring Tony Dungy (although he never did win the Super Bowl in Tampa, he built the team that eventually won the Super Bowl.) In the majority of cases, finding a good assistant is as good a route to winning as finding one who previously coached with success. (Latest case in point, the Raiders Al Davis hiring a 31 year old coach, who had been the offensive coordinator at USC.)

In other sports, the coach is less important. For the Oakland A’s, the manager doesn’t factor at all and he is paid an almost insultingly low salary by Billy Beane. In the interview I link to above, Michael Lewis mentions that anybody could manage a baseball team and nothing too bad would happen. You put a guy with no knowledge of football in charge of a NFL team and you would have a disaster.

Remember Larry Brown and his 30 million dollar contract with the Knicks, this after the Pistons bought out his $5 million per year salary. He didn’t last long in New York and they would have been better off making Herb Brown the coach, at a fifth of the price.

The conventional wisdom is that it’s good when an owner spends to win. But in almost all circumstances where this happens, they spend badly. So it’s best to be smart with your money and the winning will follow.

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