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Which sport has the most talented athletes?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 3, 2013 08:52 PM

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pingpong.jpegSports writer Joe Posnanski and economist Jeff Ely have had a fun exchange about which sport has the most talented players at the elite level.

Posnanski made the offhanded comment that NBA players are better at basketball than NHL players are at hockey, or MLB players are at baseball, or any other players are at their respective sports. Ely countered: nonsense. He argued that because you have to be tall to succeed in basketball, the pool of people eligible to play professional basketball is smaller than the pool of people eligible to play sports like hockey or baseball, and because the pool is smaller, competition is weaker, meaning there's less pressure to develop actual skills. And when you think about NBA players like Dwight Howard- the 7-foot tall, freakishly athletic, relatively unskilled, used-to-be-a-superstar center for the Los Angeles Lakers- it's hard to argue with Ely's case.

Ely then proposes his own ranking of the five sports with the top absolute talent at the elite level: table tennis; soccer; tennis; golf; chess. I disagree with all of them except soccer.

For one, chess, while great, is a board game, not a sport.

Two, Ely elides the fact that all sports have physical-type barriers to entry, even if they’re less overt than the NBA’s de facto height requirement: I’d bet that the percentage of the population with the innate hand-eye coordination to be an elite table tennis player is not far off from the percentage of the population tall enough to play pro basketball.

Three, the inclusion of golf and tennis ignores other kinds of barriers to entry in sports. Top golf and tennis players almost certainly come from a disproportionately small slice of the socioeconomic pie. Following Ely’s logic, this means that the skill level of the top players should be constrained by the relatively small number of kids who ever have the chance to find out if they’re good at those sports. (And, in fact, the successes of Tiger Woods and Venus and Serena Williams—athletes who are, by race and socioeconomic background, outsiders in the sports they've dominated—suggests a corollary to Ely’s rule: The higher the barrier to entry in a sport, the more opportunity there is for a high-skill outsider who can circumvent that barrier.)

However, the bigger problem with Ely’s argument is that it doesn’t consider the fact that top-level skill is a product of much more than the raw number of athletes who play a sport. All else being equal, the sports that pay the most at the pro level should produce the most talented athletes (and that's certainly where an economist's analysis should begin); the fortune (and fame) that come with being an NBA player should motivate up-and-coming ballers to work on their games. As for table tennis? Well, there’s no denying these guys are good. But you can be sure that if dominance in ping-pong came with an entourage and a $100 million contract, they’d be even better.

H/T Marginal Revolution

Image courtesy of Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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