The economic case for playing hard to get

Research finds signaling theory predicts football success


In the winter of 2003, bluechip quarterback recruit Joe Fields forwent his last semester of high school to join the Syracuse University football team. There was buzz around the campus, the touted recruit could squat over 400 pounds alongside an impressive 40 yard dash time. He had refused to even visit other universities, accepting his scholarship months before the deadline.

Following two mediocre seasons, Fields’ lack of on-the-field success was sparking numerous theories from Syracuse fans. A graduate student at the time, Dr. Andrew Hanson’s theory developed into a research project able to predict Fields’ situation through economic theory.

Hanson serves as an associate professor of economics in the College of Business Administration.

Hanson, now an associate professor of economics at Marquette University, applied signaling and game theory to research college football recruitment. The study went beyond rankings based on observable skills — height, weight, 40 yard dash time, etc. — and found there was an indicator of a recruit’s success not measured by a bench press or stop watch.

In Hanson’s view, college recruitment functions just like the labor market. Athletic programs are buyers seeking the top talent. Recruits are sellers, marketing themselves for the best offer.

On paper, recruits can appear similar, not unlike the labor market’s résumé pool. So just like a job applicant, recruits must find intangible ways to distinguish themselves — but how?

According to Hanson, one way for recruits to make themselves appear more valuable is to make themselves scarce. It’s basic supply and demand theory.

To explore this hypothesis, the study followed recruits from 66 Football Bowl Subdivision colleges between 2003 and 2006, comparing the number of games someone played and the number of days prior to the deadline the player accepted a scholarship. While there are various measurements of success by position, playing time was used as a universal indicator of production.

The research showed Fields’ story was not uncommon. A player’s early commitment was linked to less playing time — despite their observed level of skills.

In their study, players who participated in four games accepted their scholarship on average 108 days before the deadline. In contrast, players who participated in a full season accepted their scholarship an average of 66 days before the deadline.

In other words, those with more playing time held out for nearly a month and a half longer on average before committing to a program.

Photo via Flickr by Penn State
Despite an observed ability level, a player’s early commitment was linked to less playing time.

The time at which a recruit accepts a scholarship reflects immeasurable factors. Tune in to SportsCenter and there will likely be a discussion of “intangibles.” These intangibles, such as character, lingering injuries or work ethic, don’t show up on paper, but Hanson explained they are expressed by nonverbal “signaling.”

“The good type (of player) doesn’t have a way of saying ‘Hey coach, I’m really good, I promise,’ because anyone can say that.” Hanson said. “These players do have the ability to signal these factors.”

In economics, signaling is a way private information is credibly conveyed from one party to another. Hanson’s research showed that recruits signal their value by holding out on scholarship offers.

Of course, playing hard to get can come at a cost. Holding out could lead to the scholarship being offered elsewhere or the recruit could suffer injury. But players who are more successful are willing to take that economic gamble.

This is similar to the labor market as job seekers with greater confidence in their abilities are able to let offers pass because they know their skills will find them a better deal.

However, recruiting services and national rankings don’t reflect this predictor of success.

“This is about 20 percent of the story (recruiting services) are missing,” he said.

That may have been the part of the story Syracuse was missing with Joe Fields. After two seasons at quarterback, he was moved to defensive back and was an undrafted member of the Carolina Panthers for less than a season. Today, he is the assistant director of academic support for Syracuse.

Hanson believe economic theory can be applied to other areas of sports as well. His new research will analyze the rule changes in the NFL, seeking to determine if the new rules to protect an athlete’s head and neck are increasing other injuries.

Read Dr. Andrew Hanson’s complete study about football recruiting commitments.

Research and reporting by Wyatt Massey, a junior studying writing-intensive English and advertising. Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.