Hayes: An economic look at injuries and professional sports business model


Bob Hayes, Assistant Opinion Editor

Just hours before the opening tip of Monday’s nationally televised matchup between the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Clippers, the Chicago Tribune’s K.C. Johnson reported that Bulls point guard Derrick Rose would be out for a second consecutive game with a minor hamstring strain. As if missing the former MVP were not bad enough, just before game time, Johnson reported that veteran big man Pau Gasol — arguably the Bulls’ top player through its first 10 games — would also miss the game with a calf strain.

The effect of injuries during the NBA regular season is a little peculiar. Due to the infinitesimal sample size of one game in a way-too-long regular season of 82, an isolated result can easily appear odd, like the injury-riddled Bulls’ impressive 105-89 win over a talented Clippers squad. Obviously, over the long term, the noise evens out and injuries plague a team’s quest for success as Rose’s and Gasol’s minutes are transferred to Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic.

Yet, as much as teams like the Bulls suffer through key injuries, fans feel the effect as much as anyone. It sounds trite and ultimately irreverent to place fans at the center of a discussion regarding physical injuries to people who rely on their bodies for their livelihoods, but beyond the obvious detriment injuries cause to players, the consumer-centric quality of sports as entertainment places fans as the determinant of a sport’s long-term success.

To put it in more tangible terms, Clippers fans have only one chance per year to see their favorite team host the Bulls, and Rose himself represents a significant portion of the Bulls’ appeal. In a sport in which individual players make or break an entire team’s success, the absence of a player of Rose’s caliber sorely diminishes the overall excitement surrounding a game.

According to market research portal Statista, the average ticket price for a Clippers game last year was $65.55, and a ticket for a major matchup like Monday’s almost certainly exceeds that price. When buying tickets, fans pay the sticker price with the general assumption that they are paying to see the Bulls — Rose and Gasol included. By the time the two are ruled out of the game, fans have already paid an exorbitant amount for a game that has dramatically depreciated in interest value.

The NBA cash cows do not mind accepting fans’ overpayments, but the propensity of day-to-day injuries in the league causes a deficit between the advertised and the actual NBA product quality. Addressing the root of this dilemma is a difficult task.

Within their contracts, players rarely have explicit contractual incentives to push their hobbled bodies every single day of the lengthy season. Obviously, players who have a tendency to miss games due to injury will have more trouble finding robust contract offers, but a guy like Rose will make a ton of money whether he plays a weekday road game or not. The result is the recent exasperating debate surrounding Rose’s toughness for not playing through perceived minor injuries, when he really is just saving his body for when he more reasonably needs it.

How can this apparent problem with the NBA’s product be fixed? Players can try to push themselves to play through injury to satisfy the fans, though that can often be both dangerous and irrational. Teams can increase the prevalence of bonuses triggered by total games played, though franchises are subject to the prisoners’ dilemma in which players would always be more likely to sign with whatever team boldly chooses not to attach a pay scale to games played. The league can decrease the number of regular season games, though fewer games equals fewer total dollars in bank accounts.

For now, the onus rests on us as fans to be wary that any prime matchup can quickly die with the tweak of a hamstring.

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].