Thaler, a founding father of behavioral finance and author of Nudge (with Cass Sunstein), is an avid NFL fan. In “The Loser’s Curse” (with Cade Massey, forthcoming in Management Science), he investigated if people make rational choices in this multi-billion-dollar industry when it comes to selecting draft picks and, second, if the notion of market efficiency holds true.
“We suspected that teams were falling prey to cognitive biases, including overconfidence, that led them to put too high a value on picking at the very top of the draft,” says Thaler of the study.
Under the NFL system, young players enter a draft and are picked by teams according to their estimated potential and needs of the team. The worst performing team in the previous season gets first pick, followed by the second-worst team and so on, through several rounds. Teams often trade picks, so it is possible to estimate the value teams put on choosing early.
“That price turns out to be very high,” says Thaler. “A team can trade the first pick for the eighth and ninth picks, or the last four picks of the first round. For these prices to be rational, the first player taken has to be much better than the eighth player since he also gets paid nearly twice as much.”
While performance relates to draft order, it is far less strong than prices imply. According to calculations based on 20 years of data, the most valuable picks in economic terms (picks that give teams the greatest “surplus value”) are actually in the second round, with the surplus value at its highest late in the first round and early in the second. This is where the teams will get the best players for their money.
“After looking at financial markets for 25 years, I have to say this is the biggest anomaly I have found anywhere,” says Thaler. “It is saying that I can trade the first round for four or more second-round picks each of which will be worth more than the first pick I gave up. That is huge, especially when you remember professor Becker’s claim that in a rational word, where money is at stake, the people in charge will get stuff right.”