Christoph Schumacher: Find Halberg winners via prize money

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The choice of Lydia Ko provokes more debate over the Halberg Awards. Photo / AP
The choice of Lydia Ko provokes more debate over the Halberg Awards. Photo / AP

Choosing a winner of the Supreme Halberg Award is never free of controversy. And this year has been no different.

Lydia Ko, New Zealand's golfing prodigy, beat an impressive field of athletes including Scott Dixon, Valerie Adams, the Black Sox and the All Blacks. Her competition for the award pitted her against world champions in their sporting fields.

Yet Lydia is ranked number four in the world. In 2013, she won only three tournaments, none of which were majors. So, it is not surprising that after the awards ceremony radio stations and newspapers around the country became congested with debate over who really deserved to win.

Within a particular sporting code, ranking systems and results provide a compelling foundation by which the best performer in a calendar year can be determined. So it is easy to decide who the best golf or tennis player is, or how well a soccer or rugby team is doing. But how do you compare performances across different sporting codes? This is the conundrum that faces the Halberg judges each year.

A 30-person voting panel made up of media representatives, athletes, and coaches independently votes to determine the Halberg Award recipients. While this relatively large panel does consider factors such as the global nature of a sport and whether an achievement occurred in a 'pinnacle event', there is still a large element of subjectivity in this process.

So how can we find an objective performance measure for a highly subjective choice? Economics may provide an answer. Given that sport is now very much a professional activity, it would seem there is a simple, objective, and easily quantifiable measure that could be used to make a comparison: prize money.

Within any other profession, the amount an employee gets paid is directly related to the value of the output that the employee contributes to. Thus the more an employee gets paid, the more valuable they are to an organisation.

The prize money available for a specific sport is proportional to the size of its public following.

Sport is no different to any commercial product or service. And as in most industry sectors, sports that have high earning potential attract more competitors.

The annual prize money an athlete has earned therefore seems to be a very good proxy for how well an athlete has performed, how important the events were, how broad the global following of the sport is and how stiff the competition would have been. And since money is a universal measure, it is simple to compare achievements across different sporting disciplines.

If Lydia Ko had kept her prize money in 2013 (instead of playing for most of the year as an amateur), economics would have reached the same conclusion as the Halberg Awards judges.

Clearly the use of prize money as a metric to judge the Halberg Awards is not without its shortcomings.

Using annual prize money winnings also means we shouldn't pit teams such as the All Blacks against individual athletes. There needs to be different categories.

While the prospect of using prize money may provide an objective and easily quantifiable way to judge the Halberg awards, it will no doubt receive criticism for being a soulless approach.

We must also remember it is likely the winners of the Halberg Awards could be determined well in advance, which, for many, would detract from the surprise and the fun of the occasion.

Christoph Schumacher is a professor of innovation and economics within Massey University's College of Business.

- NZ Herald

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