Team Culture Economics

The home stretch of college football pre-season and all that is left to discuss for heavyweight programs is team culture and chemistry. At Alabama, chemistry is better than it was the end of last season. The reasons are vague, according to a Montgomery newspaper report: less complaining, more leadership, players making an effort to know other players. At Florida State, culture is also thriving, and less by accident. 247sports describes how coach Jimbo Fisher shuffles player lockers so position groups are compelled to intermingle, and so they do.

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein are behavioral economists and wrote the book Nudge in 2009, describing many cases where subtle design changes in decision-making environments impact choices people make. Cafeterias put fruit near cash registers and patrons each fewer chips is one example of a nudge. It has become consensus that a key to controlling impulsive, unhealthy behaviors is to alter the environment and limit the undesirable outcomes. Fisher, it appears, has learned to nudge his Seminoles.

That is college though, where coaches and the academic setting provide, in many cases, enormous control over players. Professional teams are a different matter. The head coach dictates when and where to make the points that become cultural touchpoints. In Philadelphia, the pre-Chip Kelly trampled the grass outside the front door to the practice facility, something that Kelly put a stop to, emphatically, according to Philadelphia Inquirer beat writer Jeff McLane. Kelly has also brought players he previously coached in college at Oregon to reinforce a core that bought in readily. He also did the work to bring aboard reluctant players, like cornerback Carin Williams, according to McLane.

NBA teams appear to have more player-determined cultures, if you believe what Aaron Afflalo is saying to the Denver Post and Chris Dempsey about what is possible in Denver. He thinks that he, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried can instill the professionalism that will help coach Brian Shaw to get results. Professional basketball players compete for playing time that determines, more or less, how much money a player makes. Buy-in is more difficult to obtain under the circumstance, but teams that get star player buy-in have a big competitive advantage.

Soccer is something like basketball and blogger Ouriel Daskal pointed to the poor fit that existed between Zlatan Ibrahimović and the culture that coach Pep Guardiola wanted for Barcelona, a marriage that lasted only for the 2009-10 season, as a cautionary tale. Like basketball, teams have a long season with a week-to-week schedule that can vary, and players can be overworked if teams are not careful. Culture is a factor in creating positive habits that help teams win, rather than lose close games. Lessons about the bad fit resonate and lead to questions about cultural sync between well world-class talents and their new teams, like Suarez at Barcelona and Balotelli at Liverpool.

Matt Whitehouse is another soccer blogger and he recently dug into why having and being “the man” is so critical to team success, or failure. Having the man is having a regular source for tactical advantage. Being the man is being the most important player to a team, and often the most highly paid player. Where behavioral economics points to nudges to subtly steer incentives the invisible hand of classical economics can sometimes bring the hammer to team culture. A recent Journal of Sports Economics paper found that salary inequality negatively affected team performance in MLS soccer.

Culture is economics in professional sports and the San Antonio Spurs seem to have found an asset category that helps. According to a recent SportsNet Canada interview with Matt Bonner, the Spurs seek out players with a sense of humor. Research in the area has found that the positive emotions that come with humor buffer people and groups from everyday mental stress and strain, something that smooths out harsh edges that can otherwise tip a team culture from winning to toxic.

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