19. juli 2021

Measuring the Cost of Racial Abuse in Soccer

"Like many soccer fans around the world, Paolo Falco, was delighted by the outcome of the European Championship final last Sunday, which saw Italy defeat England in a climactic penalty shootout. And he was appalled in equal measure by the aftermath". So writes Alan Burdick for The New York Times on July 16, 2021. Hre continues:

"In the hours following the match the three England players, all Black, who missed their penalty shots were heaped with racial abuse on social media. The abuse prompted outrage from Prince William and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and revived a too-familiar aphorism: “When you win, you’re English; when you lose, you’re Black.”

In recent years, UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, has worked to combat racism against its players, both online and in stadiums. But the behavior persists; in Italy and elsewhere, world-class players of color have been subjected to racist chants and epithets, and to even have bananas thrown onto the field. “I have experienced firsthand all sorts of terrible things being said and cursed and yelled at players,” said Dr. Falco, who closely follows Serie A, Italy’s top league.

In December, he and two colleagues — Mauro Caselli and Gianpiero Mattera, economists at the University of Trento, in Italy, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, respectively — posted one of the first studies seeking to measure the impact of in-stadium abuse on the game. Their working paper, which awaits publication in a peer-reviewed journal, compared the performances of roughly 500 Serie A players in the first half of the 2019-2020 season of the main Italian championship league — before the Covid-19 pandemic, when stadiums were full and raucous — to the second half, when “ghost games” were played in empty stadiums.

Their results were stark: One subgroup of players, and one only, played noticeably better in the absence of crowds. “We find that players from Africa, who are most commonly targeted by racial harassment, experience a significant improvement in performance when supporters are no longer at the stadium,” the authors wrote."

Alan Burdick interviews Paolo for his article. Over the phne Paolo explains what inspired the study - that football players are targeted with racism because of their clour, and that the question whether they would play better with the pression removed is impossible to answer under normal circumstances. But corona lockdown offered a natural experiment.

That data Paolo and his peers used for the study were publicly available statistiscs commonly used for betting information and forming fantasy teams.

Paolo explains: "We found that African players performed 3 percent better in the second part of the season compared to the first part. You may think, OK, 3 percent isn’t such a big deal. But if you were talking about the productivity or profits of a firm and its workers, 3 percent would be huge. If you see football players as workers, which is ultimately what they are, and they are 3 percent less productive, that has repercussions for the team as a whole.

These are economic costs, not just moral or ethical concerns. Players of African origin play worse in front of spectators, but nobody else performs better, so overall the quality of the game decreases. This is something that should bother club owners, because they are making investments in players.

We also looked at players for teams that we know were particularly subject to abuse at the beginning of the season. The Italian authorities actually record episodes of abuse from fans in the stadium, so we know which teams were playing in matches before the lockdown where there was such racist behavior. And it was the players on those teams, including Napoli, that saw the biggest improvement in performance the most — 10 percent better — in the absence of spectators."

You can read the full story in The New York Times - the story is behind paywall but everyone is offered free trial.