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Goal for students in NKU ‘Moneyball' class: Learn economics, analytics of sports

Choosing draft pick is highlight of semester
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-14 07:00:33-05

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- When it comes to her economics class project this semester, Hanna Allen has a plan: safety first.

The Northern Kentucky University junior is a member of the Moneyball: The Economics of Sports class, which concentrates on labor market economics and how to use those lessons to best select a player in the National Football League draft.

The lessons have led Allen to believe her assigned team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, needs a safety.

The Moneyball class at NKU’s Haile/U.S. Bank College of Business is part of the sports business program, which offers students the opportunity to earn a business degree with a focus on the business of sport. It takes its name from the book and subsequent film of the same name by Michael Lewis about the Oakland Athletics’ analytical, evidence-based approach to drafting players.

During the semester, students review traditional sports economics, including supply and demand, collective bargaining and revenue, and then read the “Moneyball” book. The final project is a single-round draft in which students select a draft player for the NFL team they were randomly assigned at the start of the semester. Students must then write a report on why they selected the player they chose.

“Day to day, we talk about what the A’s did and how they looked at the draft not as anyone had before,” said Joe Cobbs, who leads the course. “Then I ask them to apply that learning to football. We do football because they can learn the baseball process, but they can learn that process better if they are forced to apply it to a slightly different application. Football presents unique challenges, and the students tend to have a familiarity of college players that they don’t have with baseball.”

On Dec. 8, students participated in a live mock draft co-hosted by NKU alumnus and former sports radio host Tom Gamble at NKU’s George and Ellen Rieveschl Digitorium inside Griffin Hall. Each student, acting as the general manager for his or her assigned team, was given 90 seconds to make a player selection in reverse order of the NFL teams’ season performance as of Nov. 10.

Word of the draft project has helped the course gain popularity among students in a variety of majors. In this, its third year, the course has become so popular that a second, online version was added this semester to permit double the enrollees. Students in that class will have a draft that will also be held online.

“I did hear about the draft prior to taking the class. I initially was nervous because there was a lot of data that each individual had to collect to complete the project. However, once the class started, I realized the entire class built up to what this project entailed,” said Allen, who picked eighth overall.

Allen, who is majoring in sports business with a minor in business administration, aspires to a career as an event coordinator for a professional sports organization, preferably in Cincinnati. She enrolled in the class to learn more about the economics side of professional and college-level sports.

“I think students benefit from this hands-on experience because we now know what the pressure is like for teams across professional leagues,” said Allen, who counts the Cincinnati Bengals and Ohio State among her favorite teams. “I think this is as close to real life experience that we, as students, can get. Thinking about what your team needs goes far beyond having a great quarterback, which I initially thought until I started correlating the stats.”

In previous drafts, Cobbs said, students embraced the general manager role by making trades and debating the merits of potential athletes relative to their cost. The draft, he said, lets students apply the labor market concepts unique to sports in a fun way.

“It’s definitely harder than they anticipate. They come in excited about the project, but closer to the event, they get more nervous and stressed out about how to assess their assigned teams’ needs,” said Cobbs.

Prior to pursuing his Ph.D., he worked in a marketing capacity at several sports organizations, including General Sports & Entertainment, the ATP Masters Series - Cincinnati (now the Western & Southern Open), and Palace Sports & Entertainment (Detroit Pistons). Most recently, he was the director of marketing for Miami University Intercollegiate Athletics while Ben Roethlisberger was the RedHawks' quarterback.