The Deadweight Loss of Brett Favre

If you’re looking for a silver lining in this bad economy and especially in a dismal Christmas retail season, you can at least console yourself with the thought that there will be less deadweight loss this year than in past Christmases — that is, less inefficiency generated by people spending money to buy things for other people who value the gifts at significantly less than they cost. (We once wrote a column that touched on deadweight loss, and here’s a seminal paper on the topic, by Joel Waldfogel.)

On the other hand … how about all those New York Jets Brett Favre jerseys? After a long and fruitful career with the Green Bay Packers, Favre retired last year, then tried to unretire with Green Bay, which didn’t want him, which led him to sign with the Jets, whereupon his new jersey became this year’s best-seller at NFLShop.com. The day after he signed with the Jets, his jersey broke the single-day sales record: 6,500, versus the old record of 900 (for Tony Romo).

A lot of Jets fans envisioned Favre leading them to the promised land, and as of five weeks ago, things looked great. After beating the previously undefeated Tennessee Titans, the Jets even had a few pie-eyed optimists talking about an all-New York Super Bowl (Jets vs. Giants), just as a few pie-eyed optimists once talked of an all-New York presidential election this year.

But then Favre started to look … well, like the quarterback the Packers were so willing to get rid of. The Jets lost four of their last five games (they really should have lost the fifth as well), and Favre was a big part of it. Here’s how he performed during that time — against a slate of opponents, it should be noted, who aren’t exactly world-beaters: Denver, San Francisco, Buffalo, Seattle, and Miami.

Attempts/completions: 175/98
Passing yards: 1,011
Touchdowns: 2
Interceptions: 9
Sacks: 9
Passer rating: 55.4

So how do all those people who paid $80 for Favre Jets jerseys feel today? Do they wish they’d spent their money elsewhere? How much would they pay for the same jersey today? Did they derive $80 worth of pleasure from it up to this point — i.e., was the thrill of the first two-thirds of the season worth the pain of the last third?

The sense of loss is even greater because the Jets were beaten on the last day of the season by the Miami Dolphins, who went from a 1-15 season last year to the playoffs this year while employing the very quarterback (Chad Pennington) whom the Jets ditched to make room for Favre.

What will this do for Favre jersey sales?

It is unlikely Favre will come back for another season with the Jets — so maybe sales will hold up since his jersey is essentially a collector’s item.

But it is also unlikely many Jets fans will have fond feelings for Favre any time soon. So it is hard to imagine too many of them buying a Favre jersey again, ever.

And what about wearing the jerseys they’ve already bought? Psychologists have noted a pair of phenomena related to this question: Basking in Reflected Glory (BIRGing) and Cutting Off Reflected Failure (CORFing). This boils down to the fact that people like to wear a team’s jersey after the team wins (that’s a BIRGer binge) and they like to bury a team’s jersey deep in the closet after the team loses.

The market for used and new Favre jerseys would make a good case study for a young economist or psychologist. My prediction is that Favre will be almost universally disliked for a few weeks or months, but then he’ll finally retire for good, at which point he begins to regain his status as the beloved, grizzled gunslinger. Then we don’t hear about him too much for five years, at which point he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame, at which time his jersey becomes a No. 1 seller all over again.

But in the Packers’ green and gold, I’m thinking, not the Jets’ green and white.


Grant

Important note: Favre didn't "sign" with the Jets. They traded a conditional draft pick (not sure which round it ended up being in) for him, then cut the better quarterback. All for a washed-up and overrated quarterback whose declining arm can no longer make up for his propensity to make absolutely inexcusable boneheaded decisions.

Good riddance, Brett Favre. Now maybe Peter King, Tony Kornheiser, and the rest of your sportswriter sycophants will finally stop shoving you down our throats.

AaronS

This is why economists are right up there with used car salesmen....

When Brett signed with the Jets, he had not as of then done a single thing for the Jets. Yet his jersey sold like crazy.

So it wasn't his production that brought that--it was the promise.

Further, however this season turns out, the Jets have been rejuvenated by Brett. There is something there that wasn't before--and excitement and anticipation.

Brett will not only return for another season, but the Jets will love it. They will think, "Man, if Brett's first year here got us this far, then for sure his second year will be even better."

Lastly, it is not mainly the numbers that matter for Brett. It is his aura of ruggedness, strength, underdog-edness, old-guy-hangs-tough-with-the-young-guys, and the such. THAT is what sells Brett and his jerseys.

HW

Stephen, you should know better than to pose sports-related questions to this pretentious crowd.

Between the Jets (Favre) and Miami (Pennington, former Jet), I feel like Miami definitely got their money's worth. Favre is certainly one of the great quarterbacks, a legend in his own time, but that time is about over and he probably brought his legend down to the realm of mere mortals with a less-than-stellar return, much like Joe Gibbs did with his second run as the Redskins' head coach. But maybe that will fade, I don't know.

I expect the Favre Jets jersey is more of a novelty than anything near genuine fandom. I wouldn't be surprised, therefore, if many Jets fans were ashamed of the jersey that they bought. I think everyone loves to BIRG, but it takes more than a novelty to make one want to suck up the CORF.

LW

I'm just eagerly awaiting the "then we don't hear about him too much for five years" phenomenon. It's long overdue.

The key to the initial surge of Favre jersey sales was the enormous PR campaign waged by the sports media over the past decade to persuade the public that Favre is one of the true legends of the game. (It obviously worked on Mr. Dubner, given his "beloved, grizzled gunslinger" comment.)

We are talking about the career interception leader, are we not? A man who has thrown away countless big games, and whose career passer rating lags far behind Pennington's?

The reality of the product didn't live up to the hype, so the gift gets tossed to the back of the closet...along with the head coach.

Natalie

You also can't forget about the die-hard Brett Favre fans from his hometown Kiln, MS. I bet you can account for about 1000 of the jerseys right there. The local bar got rid of all the cheeseheads and now everyone refers to the new favorite team as the New York Bretts.

cy1time

I'm not sure that it is fair to lump the Dolphins in with the "non-world-beaters". They did win their division.

Randy

how much is joe montana's chiefs jersey or jerry rice's raiders' one worth? that's (and similar) probably the best indication.

Rocky from Wisconsin

My condolences, New York. We feel your pain.

Steve

My spouse just bought the Favre Jets jersey for my son without consulting with me.

I cringed when he opened it Christmas morning, but then realized that there is not a good widely available second choice for the Jets. I was also somewhat relieved when I leaned my son's best friend also got the Favre jersey for Christmas.

This is why the name-less winter cap is the way to go.

BSK

JW-

Don't forget that Favre was addicted to drugs as a result of self-medicating, drugs he procured illegally via his wife's prescription. For years he has engaged in "me-first" actions that have harmed his team (the un-retirement is just the latest saga) and alienated teammates. He showed little respect for the sanctity of competition when he "gave" Michael Strahan his record-setting sack because they were buddies from the Pro-Bowl.

The media has shoved Favre-as-good-guy down our throat for years when that perception is wholly inaccurate. If Favre were a black WR acting as he had for most of his career, he would be labeled a punk, thug, selfish prima-donna and people would probably bemoan the influence of rap music in his life. Instead, he has been embraced as a gunslinger (aka, irresponsible) and an enthusiastic player (aka, showboater).

I for one am glad to see him go and think the Jets and the NFL are better for his retirement. He has accomplished alot in his career and has earned many accolades he is deserving of, but far more have been bestowed upon him undeservedly. Three out of his past four years have been below-average. Time to hang it up...

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EdM

You guys aren't thinking about this as a purely economic factor? How much money did the Jets make off of his jersey sales, new ticket and other merchandise sales as well as the increase in ad revenue?

The BeeCharmer

Welcome to our world here back in Packerland. You live and die with Brett Favre. You just died. Last year a play away from the Super Bowl. What does Brett do? Throws the pick. Three other receivers were wide open on that play. Ted Thompson did know what he was doing.

Chris

Hmm... I wonder where AaronS is from.

Victoria

SInce I have some background in statistics, I need to correct your ratio of Attaempts/ completions. This should read completions/attempts. Otherwise, he would have completed almost 2 passes for every attempt. I guess everyone can have a bad day or a bad week or a bad season.
I feel for Brett Favre; here is probably one of the greatest quartedbacks evry and no superbowl ring. It shows how really screwed up our reward system is in this country; from sports to wall street to academia and yes to journalism, where someone can publish such an obvious error without anyone noticing?

Navin

Cheeseheads like me rejoice in Brett's demise with Jets; get back to Wisconsin and redeem your glory Brett!

Janet V

This is why economics is called The Dismal Science.

And, I live in Detroit. I can't feel your pain because I've grown to feel nothing at all for football anymore.

PsiCop

First, I'm not a Favre fan. He's egotistical, manipulative, sometimes to the point of harming his own team and himself. On the field he's interception-prone, and generally overrated. His "un-retirement" was just the latest in a long history of juvenile and antisocial behaviors which the sports meda -- for some reason that I will never fathom -- seem to enjoy, so they fostered and condoned it. BSK (#11) and other commenters make the same case, so I need not say much more.

Having said all of that -- let's not forget that the Jets were for 4-12 in 2007 (i.e. a winning percentage 25%). They were 9-7 in 2008 (win pct 56%). This means the Jets more than doubled their winning percentage.

Am I saying Favre was responsible for that? No. Am I saying they should not have done better, considering the other talent they acquired between seasons? No again. What I am saying is that they did see a substantial performance improvement. Could the Jets have done better, had they kept Pennington? Perhaps ... but perhaps not. We will never know what a 2008 Jets season would have been with Pennington rather than Favre. We're dealing here with "what-ifs" which cannot be resolved definitively.

Even so, it stands to reason that at least some of this performance improvement should be attributed to Favre. Maybe Pennington or another quarterback could have done better ... but then, they might also have done worse. As it was, the Jets (with Favre) beat the previously-undefeated Titans, after all, and that was no small feat.

Perhaps Favre is not solely to blame for the Jets' end-of-season collapse. I expect there are multiple factors to blame. When it comes to team sports, it's usually easy to fault one player or the coach (manager in baseball) when a team doesn't perform as it should, but the law of averages says that when you have some 40 people (plus more, with coaching staff) all participating in a team's performance, it's not necessarily reasonable to pin the blame on only one of those contributors.

In fact, part of being on a team means the others are supposed to make up for the failures of teammates. This is called "stepping in to fill the gaps," and it's often the difference between great teams and lesser ones.

I will finish by saying that it's definitely time for Favre to hang up the cleats -- for good this time -- and end his career. There is no reason to expect his next season would be any better, if for no reason than his age. His time has come and gone. The Jets will have to get someone else and hopefully build on their improvement (because yes, they did improve over 2007!).

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Stevis

Speaking of obvious errors, Victoria, you may want to check out Super Bowl XXXI.

Adam Caper

OK, I'm starting to become convinced that not only are you guys questionable as economists, you're completely lacking in judgment about what you choose as topics.

As to the economics of the decision to hire Favre, it's obvious to anybody with a passing knowledge of either sports or finance that the immediate impact on a team's win/loss record is only one component of a fairly complicated set of drivers that enter into the thinking. Direct impact on ticket & TV revenues are probably more important to an owner -- certainly to the finances of the hiring decision -- and the intangibles of the symbolism of bringing an old lion back for one more roar, of kicking a perceived loser to the curb, of taking a place on the national stage, or re-setting expectations as to what they're willing to do to bring home a ring, to name but a superficial few, all come into play.

As to the sports, a good owner/GM would think about the impact of the move on players' attitudes, the chemistry, the potential for leadership, bringing some glory (your BIRG effect) to a team that hasn't had much since Broadway Joe retired, sending a signal to other last-hurrah seekers in the league that the Jets might just be a place to stay in the game a little longer...the list goes on.

As to the article, there's an weird mix of (literal) Monday morning quarterbacking, 20/20 hindsight and myopia in what you've written. And applying the (questionable at its root, but that's a topic for a separate conversation) concept of deadweight loss to a year-old statistic is at least a stretch, and probably bad economics.

Sadly, I'm starting to wonder if your foray into regular columns hasn't perhaps run its course? I have to say that I think you're starting to harm your brand....

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Lois Hand

Victorie, Brett, the greatest quarterback ever to play in the pros, does have a superbowl ring.