Soccer’s World Cup starts this Thursday in Brazil with the host nation taking on Croatia. The NBA Finals are currently underway with the San Antonio Spurs holding a two games to one lead over LeBron James and his Miami Heat. With all due respect to track stars like Usain Bolt, NFL wide receivers such as Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, and five tool baseball players like Mike Trout, I think we are witnessing the greatest collection of great athletes competing in the World Cup and NBA Finals. The reason why has an interesting tie to economics. Don’t stop reading just because I mentioned economics! Trust me, this will be interesting.
What do you need to play soccer? You need a ball, period. Nothing else. Such things as nice looking grass and a net would help, but all you really need is a ball. And you don’t need a very good one either. What about basketball – what do you need to play that? Just a bit more: you need a ball and a hoop. Soccer and basketball are not like alpine skiing or golf where to excel you need expensive and specialized equipment. The economic barrier to playing soccer and basketball is extremely low. Only running, which is not a team sport, is lower. For that you don’t need anything.
With the ability to play open to nearly any able bodied person on earth, the talent pool for soccer and basketball rises. Little to no economic barrier to playing means rich and poor alike can play. In addition, there are no weather barriers. You need cold weather and snow to ski. You need lots of tall trees to be a lumberjack athlete. Soccer requires dirt. Basketball merely something to hang a rim on.
With the barriers to play so low and the talent pool so high, the level of play rises because so many great athletes end up playing the sport. Many great athletes never strap on a pair of skis. Some never grip a nine iron. But if there is a great athlete out there, chances are, no matter how poor he is or where he lives, he can find a soccer game to play and thus discover how gifted he is.
The same would hold true in a free market economy. When barriers to enter a field are reduced, the talent pool rises. But many fields are restricted by the need for state licensure, state mandated education, fees, dues, compulsory union membership, etc. When you restrict entry you restrict talent from entering.
But we want to restrict entry, you may say, so that only the most talented enter. We only want the most talented people performing brain surgery or building bridges. I agree. But who or what should be filtering out the less talented? In sports it’s the score. We keep score. The best players help the best teams win. Inferior players and inferior teams lose. We eventually stop watching and stop paying the inferior players. With the keeping of score the cream rises to the top.
Who keeps score in the economy? It’s not the government and it’s not the producers. It’s the consumer. Just about anyone, with enough money and determination, can get a government license in a restricted field. That doesn’t mean they’ll be any good at it. The consumer votes with his money every single day. We just had a primary election in the state I live in. Turnout was atrocious. Nearly 8 of 10 people didn’t bother or care to vote. Yet 10 out of 10 people vote with their money every single day. So in the economy the cream rises to the top thanks to the consumers keeping score.
The term “a level playing field” is often used when discussing economics. This is obviously a sports reference. The soccer field or basketball court should be level – literally and figuratively. The literal meaning is clear, but figuratively the referees should be unbiased, call the game the same for both teams and, for the most part, stay out of it. Let the players determine the outcome. This should be the example that government follows. Unfortunately it’s not. Instead government often tries to pick winners and losers in the economy. This enables bad businesses to compete with better run businesses. This removes the consumer as the score keeper. Only the consumer can keep score well. The government can not.
Two final thoughts on great athletes.
In the summer of 1988 I traveled to Brazil to play basketball for Athletes in Action. For two weeks we ran a basketball camp for youngsters. We shared our passion for Christ with them as well as our knowledge of basketball. The next two weeks we traveled to small towns playing a game each night against the local team. Brazil has good basketball players but some of the best soccer, or football, players in the world. At the camp we only had one outdoor court to play on. The kids had to share it, which meant there was a lot of down time. To keep the kids busy, we played soccer on an adjacent field. They were amazing. These little kids who couldn’t begin to play with me on the basketball court ran circles around me on the soccer field. Many of the kids were clueless when it came to basketball, but every single one of them know how to play soccer.
One of the biggest spectacles in sports that has very high barriers to entering is the Winter Olympics. For just about every sport you need cold weather and expensive equipment. That removes about a couple billion potential competitors. Twice, in 1998 and again in 2002, I got to cover the U.S. Winter Olympic Trials for the Outdoor Life Network. It was a thrill to be a part of both.
I’ll never forget my first exposure to the Trials. It was in December of 1998 at the curling trials in Duluth, Minnesota. After the winning teams for the men and women had been decided, they held a press conference. The captain, or skip, for the men’s team was standing a few feet away from me. He’d just punched his ticket to one of the greatest sporting events the world knows. Was he wiping a sweaty brow or stretching out exhausted muscles that carried him to victory? No, he was smoking a cigarette and holding onto a can of beer.
Enjoy the World Cup and the NBA Finals. Those guys are amazing.