Student researches competitive balance in the world of sports

Leagues across the U.S. have worked to make the world of sports fair, but one Cornell College student set out to find out if there really is competitive balance in MLB, the NFL, and the NBA.

Leagues often use practices such as salary caps and draft choices to keep everything balanced.

Jordan Wolfe ’17 worked with Professor of Mathematics Tyler Skorczewski to  research the topic, starting in 2014, using win-loss records and playoff appearances.

“We found that the NFL has the most competitive balance, followed by the MLB, and then the NBA,” said Wolfe. “We believe this stemmed mainly from the number of players needed to play each sport. One player in the NFL will not change season-long outcomes as much as one player in the NBA could. We also thought it may have a little to do with the salary cap structures of each league. From this we discussed what different competitive balance measures might do to fan psychology and eventually to revenue gained by teams in different leagues.”

Wolfe also received help from Jake Lehman ’16 and Brian Cristion ’17 as they used sports analytics to discover their answers. Wolfe said he has always been interested in sports analytics and this furthered his interest in the topic.

Cornell College’s One Course At A Time schedule fosters close relationships with faculty and students because faculty teach, and students take, only one course each 18-day term. Wolfe said working with Professor Skorczewski helped as the process went along.

“Professor Skorczewski presented the project to us and and gave us guidance along the way when we ran into problems with coding in the matlab software or making objective decisions along the way,” Wolfe said. “He also gave insight into making our poster and presenting.”

Wolfe said this was his first taste of real academic research and project planning. He appreciated the introduction to high-level research and learned more about what to do with the data once the project was completed.

Wolfe recently presented a poster for the group titled “A New Way to Measure Competitive Balance Across Sports Leagues” at the 2016 Midwest Sports Analytics Meeting at Central College in Pella, Iowa. Presenting at conferences off campus can lead to connections for the future.

“You get the experience of presenting your work to an audience of potential colleagues and employers and not just classmates and professors,” Skorczewski said. “You grow your network of professional contacts and showcase the cool stuff we do here at Cornell.”   

Students involved in the conference also exchanged contact information with a representative from ESPN The Magazine.

Another student, Drew Klocke ’18 , also presented a project at the meeting called “The Effect of Conference Size on Conference Rankings in NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball.”