Friday, October 26, 2007

Undefeated seasons and aligning incentives

The Sports Guy has written recently about the relative probabilities of going undefeated in the NFL and in a given fantasy football league. Simmons skips the obvious historical approach--getting the a fantasy stats service to tell him how many teams go undefeated and comparing the incidence with the NFL's history--but he offers good reasons for thinking the undefeated fantasy season the rarer achievement. I'll add a couple of thoughts about the role of incentives in the comparison.

Many of Simmons's points boil down to the simple fact that fantasy results are hard to control due to misaligned incentives. If the Patriots are winning by three touchdowns and your fantasy team needs Tom Brady to through for two more, you're out of luck because Brady doesn't care what you need. His incentives are different from yours. Incidentally, this scenario demonstrates why I think fantasy baseball is a better pretend sport than fantasy football: in baseball, Manny Ramirez is going to try to hit well whenever he comes to the plate. His incentives are aligned with his fantasy owners' because there's no way to run out a clock.

(Side note: the latest Nobel prize in economics was awarded for work on mechanism designs that maximize incentive alignments. Here is one explanation of the work.)

OK, so the point is that misaligned incentives make fantasy football tougher to control. But there's also a contrary influence of incentives. In most fantasy football leagues, every team is trying to win a given year's championship. In the NFL, some teams are trying to win the Superbowl, but many of them are looking at least partly to the future, some are in full rebuilding mode, and a few are coasting along on low salaries to soak up guaranteed profits through revenue sharing. Therefore, the NFL is guaranteed to have unbalanced resources, with a handful of really good teams standing in the way of any undefeated season. It would be much easier to sweep a league that disbanded every team each year.

How do these variously misaligned incentives shake out to answer Simmons's question? I don't know. I'd love to see some data.