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Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

The Myth—and Psychology—of the Better Bat

Lloyd Smith spends a lot of time pondering the performance of bats and balls—aluminum, wood, baseballs, softballs. It’s his job, and he does it well enough that his Sports Science Laboratory is the official bat testing facility for the NCAA.

But while the WSU associate professor of engineering might use his ball cannons and high speed cameras to facilitate an arms race of ever bouncier balls and more powerful bats, the lab focuses more on uniformity, or to mix a metaphor, a level playing field among the tools of the trade.

Flickr photo courtesty of MelvinSchlubman, http://www.flickr.com/photos/pauldineen/

In fact, if you ask him what bat is best, he can’t tell you. That would be a conflict of interest, an implicit endorsement of the people he is supposed to help regulate. Moreover, he says, it just doesn’t matter that much.

It’s a common misconception that there is an enormous difference between bats, he says. By design, the highest-performing softball bat is 10 percent more powerful than a wood bat. The best college bat is 5 percent better.

“The big difference is in player ability,” he says, referring to an on-the-field study showing as much as a 20 percent variation between players.

“When parents come to me and say, ‘Hey, which bat should I buy for my kid,’ I tell them, ‘Go to the weight room and work out. Go play the game. Go work on your skills.’ That’s going to make a lot more difference than spending $300 on the latest and greatest bat.”

Then there are the intangibles that lie outside the realm of measurable physics, like bat comfort. Smith can measure 100 bats and determine the best performer, “but if a player is convinced that this other bat is better, what does that psychology do? What factor does that have?”

That may even have been a factor in the use of illegally corked bats. A study co-authored by Smith in the recent American Journal of Physics found a ball bounced better off a solid wood bat than one hollowed out and filled with a material like cork.

It could be that the lighter corked bat improves a player’s ability to turn on the ball, and a player like Sammy Sosa—caught with a corked bat in 2003—was aiming to improve his batting average, not power. Or it could go back to that intangible psychological factor: He thought the bat worked better, and thinking made it so.

“Suddenly superstition does have a reality,” says Smith, “but we can’t really measure that here, so we stick with the science part.”

To learn more, see “The Physics of Cheating in Baseball” at Smithsonianmag.com.

 

 

Will the World Cup usher in a Golden Age of U.S. soccer?

As the World Cup begins today in South Africa, tens of millions of fans will devote many hours to watching what we call soccer, in hopes of their national team winning it all. I plan to watch a number of the matches myself, especially Saturday’s clash against England.

I’ve also been pondering the state of soccer in the U.S. after reading The New Yorker’s profile of goalkeeper Tim Howard and a few other articles on the sport in Slate and The Chronicle Review. Is there a “Golden Age” of soccer coming to the U.S., and will a good showing by Team USA in South Africa usher it in? Does soccer stand a chance of competing, as a business and major league sport, against the likes of the NBA, MLB and NFL?

Clint Dempsey on the US Men's National Team practicing. Photo Jarrett Campbell (CC)

Clint Dempsey on the US Men's National Team in practice. Photo Jarrett Campbell (CC)

I posed my questions to Dr. John Wong in Washington State University’s Sport Management Program. Dr. Wong, an expert on hockey and the business of sport, and an avid fan and participant in soccer, had these answers:

“Your queries seem to (to me) fall into two categories:

1. Soccer as a cultural institution as measured by its popularity, or lack thereof.

2. Soccer as a viable business

To answer the first point, we should be aware that soccer is very popular at the grassroots level, i.e. high schools and youth leagues. Participation increased during the 1990s and has leveled off in this decade. It is interesting to note that the average age of soccer participants is the youngest of all team sports in a survey conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. If there is a “Golden Age,” we may be in it now. Of course, the growth of soccer has not been translated into paid customers for the men’s and women’s professional leagues. That has been the vexing, $20 million question for league management.

As far as soccer being a viable business, the current version of men’s professional soccer league, MLS, is a result of the U.S. hosting the World Cup in 1994. If the U.S. national team does well in the 2010 tournament, it will have some impact on MLS as many of the national team play in MLS. A problem with MLS is that knowledgeable fans (and there are many in the U.S) know that it is not in the elite group, unlike the European leagues in the U.K., Italy, Spain, and Germany. In this sense, MLS is not alone. Of course, the NFL, NBA, and NHL are top leagues in their respective sport. What is encouraging is that European top leagues are taking notice of American players and some even play overseas now. This development is similar to what is going on in other lesser leagues around the world where talent is moving out of the country in search of better competition and paycheck. This is a double-edged sword however. One the one hand, the U.S. is beginning to produce skilful players. The down side is that they are not here to promote the game locally. For the MLS, its present financial situation is not capable to go into a bidding war with major European leagues.

Where does soccer in the U.S. go from here? If I knew, I, of course, would be making millions but this is my take on it. First, we need to keep in mind that organized professional soccer in the U.S. is a relatively young business when compared to the other four leagues. If we look at these other leagues, none of them succeeded right away without growing pains. Take baseball as example. The first organized professional league appeared in 1871 in the form of the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, which gave way to the National League (NL) in 1876. Until the NL merged with the AL in 1902, there are a myriad of leagues appearing and disappearing. NL and AL are just two among them and importantly, of course, the two that make it to this date. So for people who question the viability of professional soccer, we need to take a longer view.

Despite the current economic climate, the United States is still among the world’s largest economies and the U.S. economy happened to rely heavily on consumption. As such, it is no wonder that the international soccer community would look at the U.S. as an under-developed market. Unlike the auto industry in the 1970s when the Japanese automakers decided to venture into the U.S. market, there are no established major producers (in soccer) in the U.S. As a “one-time” spectacle like the Olympics, the World Cup would be an opportunity for FIFA to tap into this market for a quick profit. Economics aside, the U.S. would be attractive as a host in terms of infrastructure and political stability.”