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‘Psychic Benefits’ and the NBA Lockout

Malcolm Gladwell explains why owning a basketball franchise has always been a bad business — and ought to stay that way.

The best illustration of psychic benefits is the art market. Art collectors buy paintings for two reasons. They are interested in the painting as an investment — the same way they would view buying stock in General Motors. And they are interested in the painting as a painting — as a beautiful object. In a recent paper in Economics Bulletin, the economists Erdal Atukeren and Aylin Seçkin used a variety of clever ways to figure out just how large the second psychic benefit is, and they put it at 28 percent.7 In other words, if you pay $100 million for a Van Gogh, $28 million of that is for the joy of looking at it every morning. If that seems like a lot, it shouldn’t. There aren’t many Van Goghs out there, and they are very beautiful. If you care passionately about art, paying that kind of premium makes perfect sense.

Pro sports teams are a lot like works of art. Forbes magazine annually estimates the value of every professional franchise, based on standard financial metrics like operating expenses, ticket sales, revenue, and physical assets like stadiums. When sports teams change hands, however, the actual sales price is invariably higher. Forbes valued the Detroit Pistons at $360 million. They just sold for $420 million. Forbes valued the Wizards at $322 million. They just sold for $551 million. Forbes said that the Warriors were worth $363 million. They just sold for $450 million. There are a number of reasons why the Forbes number is consistently too low. The simplest is that Forbes is evaluating franchises strictly as businesses. But they are being bought by people who care passionately about sports — and the $90 million premium that the Warriors’ new owners were willing to pay represents the psychic benefit of owning a sports team. If that seems like a lot, it shouldn’t. There aren’t many NBA franchises out there, and they are very beautiful.

The big difference between art and sports, of course, is that art collectors are honest about psychic benefits. They do not wake up one day, pretend that looking at a Van Gogh leaves them cold, and demand a $27 million refund from their art dealer. But that is exactly what the NBA owners are doing. They are indulging in the fantasy that what they run are ordinary businesses — when they never were. And they are asking us to believe that these “businesses” lose money. But of course an owner is only losing money if he values the psychic benefits of owning an NBA franchise at zero — and if you value psychic benefits at zero, then you shouldn’t own an NBA franchise in the first place. You should sell your “business” — at which is sure to be a healthy premium — to someone who actually likes basketball.

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Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, Blink, Outliers and most recently, What the Dog Saw.