We live in the age of the superstar athlete. Mega-star basketball players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwight Howard not only take home huge paychecks and ink mega endorsement deals, they incite massive bidding wars for their services and, especially when they team up with each other, seemingly have the power to commandeer entire teams.
Current thinking around the NBA has it that a team needs a superstar duo, or increasingly a superstar trio, to compete for the championship. An intriguing new study looks at the connections between superstars' and their teammates’ performances, and what happens when they change teams.
The study, titled “Rise and Fall of Stars: Investigating the Evolution of Star Status in Professional Team Sports,” was recently published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing. Its authors, Yupin Yang at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University and my colleague Mengze Shi at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, take a hard empirical look the career of superstar basketball players, tracking the arc of a star athlete’s career and identifying the key factors that shape his rise and, ultimately, fall. Star status is equated with appearances in the NBA All Star game. A measure of both individual performance and fan popularity, All Star status is a key driver of salaries and endorsement dollars.
Tracking more than 500 players over two decades, the study zeros in on how three factors — individual player performance, the effects of teammates, and the effects of teams — impact All Star status, using sophisticated statistical techniques like Tobit regressions and hazard models. "Rise and fall are critical moments in the life cycle of an athlete during his professional career," the authors note. They define "rise" as the first time a player makes the All Star team and "fall" as the point at which a player is no longer an All Star.
Individual performance, which they measure with statistics on scoring, rebounding, assists, championship wins and previous All Star votes, matters considerably, especially in the rise of a superstar athlete. That alone is not so surprising. But what’s interesting is their finding that it is much less significant in his demise. A player’s position in the draft also plays a role, again not surprisingly: Players drafted after the fifth round rarely show up in superstar ranks. Position matters too. Centers have an easier go of it than guards and forwards. There are fewer quality centers to go around, the authors surmise, so competition among guards and forwards is more heated.
What about teammates? They matter a great deal, according to the study. "The popularity of one star athlete has a positive and significant effect on the popularity of another star athlete," they write. Having an All-Star starter is especially significant. "Stars tend to attract substantial media coverage, and their games are more likely to be shown on TV," they write. "Such media attention naturally extends to coverage of the team and the teammates."
As for the team itself, its effects can be considerable. First off, superstars stay All Stars longer if they play on a winning team. Winning teams get more coverage and attract more fans.
Location matters too. The authors find a clear "big city" effect. Stars heading to New York or Los Angeles are doing something that matters to their careers and economic success. "All else being equal," the study notes, "athletes who played in bigger cities (larger fan bases) tended to receive more votes than those who played in smaller cities ... This result implies that an athlete can move to a larger city to increase his popularity." Just look at the jump in Amar’e Stoudemire’s career after his move to New York.
But changing teams can be risky. If the star is well-liked and the team is a winner, the benefits can be substantial. But if a player changes teams too soon after achieving All Star status, he risks a backlash. Less established stars also run the risk of being overshadowed by mega-stars. Take the example of Chris Bosh, who was the centerpiece of the Toronto Raptors but is now the "third wheel" in Miami. This can be costly both in terms of individual performance (there are less opportunities for him to score) and also in terms of votes and All Star appearances.
All in all, the study finds, the optimal superstar career path is for a young player to excel early, lead his team to more wins, and ultimately to a championship. If a superstar does decide to make a change, the study cautions, he’d best be careful to jump to a championship caliber squad. By encouraging James and Bosch to join him in Miami, incumbent star and hometown favorite Dwayne Wade, who brought the Heat their first title in just his third year when paired with Shaquille O’Neal, appears to have played it just right.
"An athlete is merely a component of a team, and the popularity of an athlete is thus strongly associated with the popularity of his team," the study finds. There might not be an “I” in the word “team,” but when you get right down to it, that’s what stardom is all about.