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Dave Berri

Predicting the Winter Olympics with Economics

How many medals will U.S. athletes win at the Sochi Winter Olympics?

To answer this question, one might want to think about the abilities of the athletes involved in each competition.  And then use that information to forecast who is going to win each event.

Of course, that approach requires knowledge of the athletes involved in a wide variety of sports.  Furthermore, even if you knew how to measure ability, you would also have to figure out some way to forecast each athletes’ performance.

In a recent paper by Madeleine Andreff and Wladimir Andreff — “Economic Prediction of Medal Wins at the 2014 Winter Olympics” (PDF) — an approach advocated by a number of sports economists is employed. 

2/11/14

Why Masahiro Tanaka’s Yankees Contract Is Good for Baseball

A few days ago, the New York Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka to a $155 million contract. As Bryan Hoch of MLB.com notes, this is the fifth-highest salary for a pitcher in Major League history.  But the Tanaka contract is different from the top four on the list.  The top four contracts went to pitchers who were already playing Major League Baseball.  Tanaka played last season for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league.  And while his 24-0 record – and 1.27 ERA – helped the Golden Eagles win the Japan Series title, we do not know how he will fare against MLB hitters. Despite this uncertainty, there is still a sense that this signing illustrates that the Yankees have an unfair advantage.

2/4/14

Losing Is Not a Winning Strategy in the NBA

The NBA season is beginning this week and fans of each team are, of course, optimistic. At this point, everyone can hope a title is possible come next summer. 

Although everyone could theoretically have dreams of a title in 2014, it is clear that every NBA fan isn’t actually hoping their team is successful in 2014. Some NBA fans are actually dreaming of an event that happens just after the conclusion of the NBA Finals.  For fans of a few teams, the focus is already on the 2014 draft.  For example, some fans of the Philadelphia 76ers seem convinced that not only are the Sixers not trying to win this year, but that this is actually the best course of action for this franchise.

Proponents of “tanking” dream of such number one picks as Shaquille O’Neal or LeBron James. Each of these players were selected number one and went on to win multiple NBA titles.  Of course, other number one picks – like Yao Ming, Michael Olowokandi, Allen Iverson, Joe Smith, Glenn Robinson, Chris Webber, Larry Johnson, etc. –  played their entire careers and never won an NBA title.

10/29/13

Book Review: Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest — David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants – came out this week.   Like every other book by Gladwell, it is already a best-seller. And having read – and very much enjoyed — the book, I can see why. Gladwell once again presents a variety of interesting stories, this time centered on the question of whether underdogs are as disadvantaged as we believe (the opening story on David and Goliath – which makes this observation – is worth the price of admission).   My sense – from the few reviews I have seen – is that critics have primarily focused on whether the argument they think Gladwell is making is valid.  I am going to argue that this approach misses the fact that the stories Gladwell tells are simply well worth reading (i.e., these stories are interesting and make you think). 

The range of stories Gladwell presents is quite impressive. From the opening biblical story to a discussion of the number of students in a school classroom, the impact of dyslexia, the curing of leukemia, the battle for Civil Rights, French revolutionaries during World War II, etc… One has to wonder: where does Gladwell find these stories?

10/4/13

A Former NBA Coach Argues That Coaches Are Not Responsible for Outcomes

The coaching carousel continues to spin in the NBA.  In recent days, the Los Angeles Clippers – coming off the best season in franchise history – have decided not to bring back Vinny Del Negro as head coach.  The Phoenix Suns — coming off their worst season since they were in expansion team in the late 1960s – have decided to turn to Jeff Hornacek to lead their team back to respectability.   And the Atlanta Hawks – who were essentially average this last season – have turned to Mike Budenholzer to lead the team next year.

These are hardly the only teams to make a change.  Since the end of the 2012-13 NBA season, the Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Bobcats, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, and Philadelphia 76ers have all decided that the person who coached the team at the end of this past season shouldn’t be around for the next season. In all, at least nine of the 30 NBA teams will have a new coach next year. 

These changes – as I have argued before –will probably not make much difference.   A study published in the International Journal of Sport Finance (full PDF here) – which I conducted with Mike Leeds, Eva Marikova Leeds, and Mike Mondello – found that most NBA coaches across a sample covering 30 years did not have a statistically significant impact on player productivity. And in other sports, we also have evidence that coaches cannot systematically change outcomes.

5/30/13

Seattle Is Frustrated By the NBA’s Command Economy

For 41 years, the city of Seattle enjoyed NBA basketball.  And then the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder.

Across the past year, though, there was hope that the NBA was returning to the Emerald City.  Sure the team was the Kings, a team that has lost at least 65 percent of their regular season games in each of the past five seasons. But if the Kings came to Seattle, other NBA teams would have to come as well (hey, the Kings-SuperSonics have to play someone).  And since the prospective owners (a group led by Chris Hansen) of the “Seattle Kings-Supersonics” offered a purchase price equivalent to an enterprise value of $625 million – more than anyone else (and more than anyone has ever offered for an NBA team) – it seemed likely that in a market economy (where the highest bidder tends to get the product) that the NBA was coming back to Seattle.

Unfortunately, Seattle learned this past week that the NBA doesn’t quite follow the rules of a market economy.  For Seattle to get the Kings, the other 29 owners had to approve the deal.  And when the dust settled, a majority of those owners thought an inferior bid from another group that wanted to keep the team in Sacramento was preferred.  Consequently, Seattle has been frustrated again.

5/23/13

What’s a Wall Street Executive's Wins Produced?

LeBron James was recently given his 4th Most Valuable Player award by 120 sportswriters.  Well, at least 119 sportswriters agreed LeBron was MVP.  Gary Washburn – of the Boston Globethought Carmelo Anthony was the league’s MVP in 2012-13.

It doesn’t take much effort to establish that LeBron was more valuable than Melo.  The numbers tell us (numbers taken from theNBAGeek.com) that LeBron in 2012-13 was a much more efficient scorer from the field; and a better rebounder, passer, and shot blocker.   LeBron was also better with respect to steals and personal fouls.  Yes, Melo scored more.  But that is just because Melo took many more shots than LeBron.  Unfortunately, people tend to think that players who take many shots have a huge impact on outcomes in basketball (consequently, players have an incentive to take as many shots as their coaches and teammates will allow).

Although no other sportswriter shared Washburn’s view that Melo was MVP, 102 of the 120 voters thought Anthony was one of the five most valuable players in the league.  So Washburn was not alone in his belief that Anthony is a “great” player.  

5/10/13

How to Fix College Coaching?

Rutgers University fired Mike Rice – the head basketball coach – last Wednesday. This firing came about after ESPN released a video that showed Rice abusing his players. Such a video had already been seen by Rice’s boss at Rutgers in November, but until the video was shown to the public, Rutgers did not feel compelled to fire Rice.

Former NBA player Paul Shirley (author of Can I Keep My Jersey?) observed the following about the Rutgers case in a recent interview at HuffPost Live (around 13:30):

The thing that people don’t want to hear, but which is true, is that this is probably closer to the norm than not. 

Shirley goes on to note that he doesn’t think many coaches are actually hitting players. But he does note that coaches do tend to have a certain approach in conveying information to players (an approach Shirley describes in the interview).

Is this general approach to coaching effective?  To date, I am not aware of any study of the effectiveness of college coaching.  A study I co-authored with Mike Leeds, Eva Marikova Leeds, and Mike Mondello and published in the International Journal of Sport Finance (full PDF here) looked at 62 NBA coaches across thirty years of data. Across this sample, only 14 coaches were found to have a statistically significant and positive impact on player performance. So most NBA coaches do not appear to make their players more productive.

4/8/13

How About a Free Market for College Athletes?

In 2010, CBS and Turner Broadcasting agreed to pay $10.8 billion to broadcast the NCAA men’s basketball tournament from 2011 to 2024.  As a result of this contract, fans of this tournament can watch these games on four different networks.   And perhaps more importantly (for those of us who work during the day), we can see these games on our computers in our offices.

Certainly all these games make us fans very happy.  And all that money has to make coaches, athletic directors, and other university administrators happy.  But what about the people we are actually watching?  

The people on the court are referred to as student-athletes.  And according to the NCAA rules, these athletes are supposed to be amateurs.  In other words, other than a scholarship, these athletes are not supposed to be paid.

3/22/13

An Economist on the Oscars

The “best” picture of 2012 was Argo

At least that’s the film that won the Oscar for best picture.  According to the Oscars, the decision to give this award to Argo was made by the nearly 6,000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As Oscars.org notes, “the Academy numbers among its members the most gifted and skilled artists and craftsmen in the motion picture world.”

In other words, this choice is made by the “experts.”

There is, though, another group that we could have listened to on Sunday night.  That group would be the people who actually spend money to go to the movies.  According to that group, Marvel’s the Avengers was the “best” picture in 2012. With domestic revenues in excess of $600 million, this filmed earned nearly $200 million more than any other picture. And when we look at world-wide revenues, this film brought in more than $1.5 billion.

2/26/13

How Did the Worst Team in NBA History Become a Title Contender?

Kobe Bryant says that “other team” in LA – the Clippers – are title contenders in 2013.

And Kobe made this statement before the Clippers defeated the Lakers on Friday night and then destroyed the Golden State Warriors (who are currently a playoff contender in the West) the next night. 

Yes, the 27-8 Clippers look like contenders. 

Of course, fans in LA can easily remember the last time this happened. That was back in …

Okay, this has never happened.

Unlike every other big market team in North America, the Clippers have never, ever, ever been a title contender.  In fact, the very best season in franchise history was last season.  When the 2011-12 regular season ended, the Clippers had a mark of 40-26.  This mark was surpassed by seven other teams (including Kobe’s Lakers).  In the post-season, the Clippers reached the Western Conference semi-finals — where they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.  

Such a season likely left many NBA observers thinking the Clippers were a “good” team, but hardly a real title contender.  Again, though, this was the best team in the history of the Clippers.  For the first time in franchise history (which began in Buffalo in 1970-71), the Clippers won 60% of their games. 

In 2012-13 the Clippers have moved beyond being the best team in franchise history to being one of the very best teams in the NBA.  After 35 games, the Clippers have a 0.771 winning percentage; a mark that – as of Tuesday morning – currently leads the NBA.

Clearly the Clippers are better than they were last year.  And that leads one to wonder… how did this worst team in NBA history become a title contender?

1/8/13

How Can A New College Football Coach Avoid Getting Fired?

More than 25 college football teams have decided to change head coaches in the past few weeks.  As the new coaches get hired and settled into their new jobs, one suspects that all of them believe that they will be the person who will change the fortunes of their new schools.

Unfortunately – as published research seems to indicate – it doesn’t seem likely that many of these coaches will really make a difference. Aside from that ambition, these coaches are definitely hoping to stay in their current position until they decide to voluntarily leave for an even better paying job.  In other words, these coaches hope to avoid getting fired.

1/3/13

Is Changing the Coach Really the Answer?

Much of the focus today on college football is on the teams at the top.  Will Notre Dame win the national title and finish undefeated? Can Alabama win another championship?  Then there are the 34 other bowl games.  In all, 70 teams have an opportunity to finish the year as a winner.

For those without this opportunity, though, this past season was a disappointment.  For these “losers,” the focus these past few weeks has been strictly on preparing for the next season.  And part of that preparation appears to be changing the head coach.

Already, at least 25 schools have announced that the head coach from 2012 will not be on the sideline in 2013.  For some, this is because a successful team lost their coach to another program.  In many instances, though, teams have asked a coach to depart in the hope that someone else will alter their team’s fortunes.

12/21/12

The Man Who Changed Professional Sports

Marvin Miller passed away last week.  When this happened I immediately began work on a post detailing the important impact Miller’s work — as the first leader of the Major League Baseball Players Association — had on sports.  And then I noticed that many other people had the same idea (see Jayson Stark, Jon Wertheim, Lester Munson, and Richard Justice – among many others).  Given all the wonderful writing on Miller’s life and career, I decided to focus on how Miller impacted our understanding of both sports and economics. 

Such a post… well, I could write more than a few thousand words on just that topic.   Since few people want to read that many words at a blog, I am going to focus on Miller’s work to end baseball’s reserve clause (and what that has meant for baseball, sports, and economics).

Our story begins back in the 19th century. As noted in a wonderful article by E. Woodrow Eckard in the Journal of Sports Economics, the National League began in 1876 with a labor market quite similar to the markets we tend to observe outside of sports. 

12/7/12

Does the “Best” Team Win the World Series?

It’s been a few days. And although I ain’t over it yet, I think I can write about the Detroit Tigers losing the World Series.

When the playoff in baseball began, 10 teams – and their fans – were very happy.  But the playoffs being what they are, we knew that only one team – and its fans – would actually be happy when the whole thing was over.

After the best-of-five series, the Tigers – and this fan – were quite happy.  When the Tigers swept the Yankees, I was very happy.  And then when the Giants swept the Tigers… okay, I wasn’t happy anymore.

So what did the Tigers and all the other “losers” (and yes, that includes the Yankees) learn from the playoffs?

11/9/12

The Oklahoma City Thunder Stumble While Following the Oklahoma City Thunder Plan

Much has been made of the plan the Oklahoma City Thunder followed in building a title contender.  Here are the basic steps the Thunder supposedly followed:

1.Lose a bunch of games across a few seasons, which allows a team to accumulate lottery picks
2. Draft “stars” with lottery picks
3. Sign “stars” to long-term contracts
4. Win a title (or more)

The Thunder did well with step one.  Starting with their last two seasons in Seattle in 2006-07, this franchise had three seasons where it won 31 games, 20 games, and 23 games. 

These performances primarily led to the following four high picks in the draft:

10/29/12

Money Didn’t Buy Happiness in Baseball in 2012

If you wish to win in baseball, your team has to spend money. Just look at the New York Yankees. USA Today reports that in 2012 the Yankees led the American League in spending.  And the Yankees finished with the best record in the American League.

Of course, one data point doesn’t a trend make. What do we see when we look past the Yankees?

10/11/12

It Really Is All About the Players

Economists are often asked – and perhaps, just as often just volunteer – to make predictions. This is odd, since – as the old joke goes – economists only seem to exist to make meteorologists look good.  In other words, economists often get their guesses about the future wrong.

Given this tendency, I always like to note when I get a prediction right (and it has actually happened before).  And prior to the Olympics, I did predict that the U.S. would win the gold medal in men’s basketball.  And on Sunday, that prediction came true.

Okay, that wasn’t much of a prediction (did anyone predict that wouldn’t happen?).  And despite the lack of challenge with respect to this prediction, I also heavily qualified my original forecast. Nevertheless, I did make something that could be called a prediction.  And it was right.  So that means something!

8/14/12

Woulda, Coulda, and the Real Story Behind the Redeem Team

ESPN.com recently offered a somewhat confusing article comparing the 2012 U.S. Men’s Olympic basketball team to the 1992 Dream Team.  The headline of the article – “LeBron: We Would Beat Dream Team” – makes it clear that LeBron James believes the 2012 team would defeat the 1992 Dream Team. 

The first line of the story, though, makes a somewhat different claim: “LeBron James has joined Kobe Bryant in saying that he believes this year’s Team USA Olympic men’s basketball team could beat the 1992 Dream Team.”

And then further in the article, we see…

James’s comments echoed those of Bryant, who two weeks ago made a similar proclamation.

“It would be a tough one, but I think we would pull it out,” Bryant said at a news conference. “People who think we can’t beat that team for one game, they are crazy. To sit there and say we can’t, it’s ludicrous. We can beat them one time.”

Bryant appeared to soften those comments a bit Friday, telling reporters, “I didn’t say we were a better team. But if you think we can’t beat that team one time? Like I’m going to say no, that we’d never beat them.

“They are a better team. The question was ‘Can we beat them?’ Yes we can. Of course we can.”

7/31/12

Price Controls in the NBA Force Teams to Find Different Ways to Keep Their Stars

The NBA free agent market opened this month and the moves making headlines include:

Steve Nash signing with the L.A. Lakers
Ray Allen signing with the Miami Heat
Jason Kidd signing with the New York Knicks
Deron Williams re-signing with the Brooklyn Nets

And then there is the Dwight Howard saga. 

Each of these stories appears to be summarized by a familiar line: 

Big star signs in Big Market. 

7/18/12

Michael Jordan, the Bobcats, and Running the Lottery Treadmill

The Charlotte Bobcats came into existence in 2004.  At the conclusion of the next five seasons, the Bobcats finished out of the playoffs and hence earned a trip to the NBA’s lottery.  

After all of these lottery picks, the Bobcats finally made the playoffs in 2010.  That Bobcat team – the best in franchise history – only won 44 games and failed to win a playoff game.  Nevertheless, this squad was the highlight in the brief history of this team. 

Two short years after this epic campaign (epic by Bobcat standards), Charlotte has posted the worst season in franchise history.  In fact, with a winning percentage of only 0.106, the 2011-12 Bobcats were the worst team in NBA history.

If we look at what happened to Charlotte’s roster, it is easy to see why this team became so bad so quickly.  Back in 2009-10 the Bobcats were led by the following players (Wins Produced numbers taken from theNBAGeek.com, explanation of Wins Produced offered here): Gerald Wallace, Raymond Felton, Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson, Nazr Mohammed, and Tyson Chandler.   

6/5/12

Are Voters Just Rooting for Clothes?

Matthew Yglesias recently noted that the very rich are unhappy with President Obama because he would like to increase the taxes on the very rich.  Although this might be true, the number of people unhappy with Obama exceeds the number of people who comprise the very rich.  So why are many of the non-rich unhappy with Obama?  And why are so many other people quite happy with our current president? 

Perhaps the answer is similar to a story frequently told about sports fans.

Back in the early 1990s, a friend of mine declared his hatred of Charles Barkley.  At the time, Sir Charles was an All-Star for the Philadelphia 76ers.  Sometime after this declaration, though, Barkley was traded to the Phoenix Suns.  As a fan of the Suns, my friend changed his tune.  With Sir Charles in Phoenix, my friend was now a fan of Barkley.

More recently, LeBron James was an extremely popular athlete in Cleveland.  But when he changed his uniform to something from Miami, his popularity in Ohio plummeted.  

These stories are not uncommon among sports fans.  In fact, Jerry Seinfeld once observed that fans who behave like this are essentially “rooting for clothes.”

5/24/12

Don’t Be Deceived by Carmelo Anthony’s Scoring Totals

Here is how the Associated Press led the story describing the Miami Heat’s elimination of the New York Knicks in the 2012 NBA Playoffs:

The final horn sounded, and LeBron James wrapped his arms around Carmelo Anthony in a warm embrace.

Their head-to-head scoring matchup in this series was even, 139 points apiece.

Just about everything else tipped Miami’s way — so the Heat are moving on and the New York Knicks are going home. 

Such a lead gives the impression that Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James played about the same in this series.  If we delve a bit deeper, though, we see that the scoring totals are quite deceptive.

5/14/12

Kevin Durant Impersonates Russell Westbrook for Sprint

If you have been watching the NBA recently – and with the playoffs going on, you should be – you may have seen the following ad for Sprint.

Often people don’t pay attention to what people say in ads.  But this one – starring Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder – has a very interesting opening line: “Man I was double-teamed.  With no one to pass it to, so I pulled up and hit the shot for the win…” 

Let’s think about this for the moment. Durant says he has two defenders on him (i.e. he is double-teamed).  That means – if the other team is playing the standard five players, there are three more defenders on the court. And if Durant has four teammates on the court (and that would be standard), there must be someone open. But Durant says that there is no one to pass it to. 

Hmmmm…. 

5/9/12

Exploitation in College Sports: It's Not Just Football and Basketball

When we think of money and college sports, we tend to think only about basketball and football.  In fact, defenders of the excesses we see in those sports – with respect to salaries to coaches and university expenditures – argue that these sports are necessary to support all the other teams universities field. People often argue that outside of football and basketball, athletes in other sports don’t generate enough revenue to justify their scholarships. 

A recent paper by Leo Kahane (editor of the Journal of Sports Economics) challenges this line of thinking.  Kahane’s paper looks at college hockey, which will hold the Frozen Four this week in Tampa, Florida (really, Tampa).  This is college hockey’s championship, an event which doesn’t get quite the same attention as the NCAA Final Four for men and women. (Perhaps also because people don’t associate hockey with Tampa?)

4/6/12

You Don’t Need to Be Bad to be Good in the NBA

The Portland Trail Blazers – a team that won 48 games in 2010-11 and was only three games below 0.500 this season – made two puzzling trades a couple of weeks ago.  Gerald Wallace was sent to the New Jersey Nets for two injured players and a first round pick in the 2012 draft.  And Marcus Camby was sent to the Houston Rockets for a second round pick and two players who had only played 158 minutes this year.

Camby and Wallace combined to produce more than 10 wins for the Blazers this season, and at the time of the trade their level of productivity led the team.  Given what the Blazers received back, it seems likely the Blazers just got worse.

3/26/12

Would Paying College Players Really Destroy Competitive Balance?

March Madness is in the air. Over the next few weeks the nation will be focused on the fortunes of 68 college teams.  And all this focus on a supposedly amateur sport generates tremendous amounts of money.  For example, in 2010 CBS and Turner Broadcasting agree to pay the NCAA $10.8 billion to broadcast these games for fourteen seasons. This money represents more than 90% of the NCAA’s revenues.

Since colleges and universities tend to be non-profit, who gets all this money?  One person who seems to benefit is John Calipari, head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky.  Last summer, Kentucky extended Calipari’s contract, with a new deal that will pay him $36.5 million across the next eight seasons. Contracts like this – which seem comparable to what an NBA coach might command — are somewhat surprising. As economist Andrew Zimbalist has observed, the revenues of college sports – although apparently immense – pale in comparison to what we see in professional sports. And that leads one to wonder how a coach in college can command such a salary.

3/15/12

How the NBA Takes Money From People Who Don’t Like Basketball

The Sacramento Kings will continue to exist. This week, the City Council approved a plan to finance a new home for the Kings in Sacramento. The price tag, though, is pretty steep.  The arena will cost $391 million, and $255.5 million will be coming from the city of Sacramento.   

Opponents of this plan – and there were just two on the nine-member Council – noted that sports arenas don’t provide much economic benefit. Furthermore, they questioned why public money should be given to a private business. 

As Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy – who voted no – observed: “This city is on the verge of insolvency. As far as I know, we still technically qualify for bankruptcy under federal law.”

Proponents of this plan, though, argued that this plan will create jobs and economic benefits.  And it was this argument that apparently persuaded the majority.

So we have two perspectives and one question: Do sports generate jobs and economic growth? 

3/13/12

Why Did the NBA Miss On Jeremy Lin?

In my last post, I reviewed how difficult it was to evaluate quarterbacks in the NFL draft. Essentially, I noted that there were several factors connected to where a quarterback was selected in the draft. But those factors failed to predict future performance. Given how difficult it was to just predict the future performance of veterans in the NFL, the difficulty people have forecasting the NFL performance of college quarterbacks is not surprising.  In sum, “mistakes” on draft day in the NFL simply reflect the immense complexity of the problem.

In the NBA, though, it is a very different story. Veteran NBA players – relative to what we see in the NFL – are far more consistent over time. And although we cannot predict future NBA performance on draft day perfectly, we certainly know something. Part of that “something” that we know is that NBA teams make mistakes by focusing on the “wrong” factors.Right now, people are wondering how a player like Jeremy Lin could have been missed by NBA decision-makers.

2/29/12

Talent Evaluation is Different in the NFL and NBA

The sudden emergence of Jeremy Lin has led people to wonder about talent evaluation in the NBA. Two recent examples — from Stephen Dubner in this forum and from Jonah Lehrer at Wired Science — both take similar approaches.  Both begin with the story of Lin, and then pivot to a discussion of the National Football League.  In essence, each writer argues that talent evaluation in basketball and football is similar.  

In my next two posts, I wish to address why I think talent evaluation in the NBA and the NFL is quite different.

2/24/12

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