What is striking about the current Winter Olympics is the concentration of competitors and medallists among a smaller number of countries than the Summer Olympics. This is hardly surprising given that some countries have an advantage in winter sports because they see lots of snow in winter. Ireland will never be a powerhouse in men's snowboarding or women's mogul.
Even in popular sports that do not require specific climactic conditions, like football or rugby, there are spatial concentrations in participation and performance. Within many football leagues there are persistent high performing clubs and at international level there are some countries who consistently excel. In 20 years of the FIFA World Cup, only 12 different teams have played in the final, with just 8 different winners.
It is surprising to me that there has not been greater application of spatial analysis to sports performance. To date, most academic literature focused on the spatial aspects of sports have been concerned with the localised impacts of sports clubs or the hosting of large sports events. That is the literature has tended to look at the effect of sports on locations, rather than the effect of location on sports.
In a recent paper in Regional Studies, Justin Doran and I examined the effect of geographic proximity between clubs on performance in the English football League over 21 seasons. We tested for spatial interdependence, that is that a given club would perform better if it is nearer to a high-performing club and worse if it is near a poorly performing club, all other things being equal. We controlled for club wealth, managerial churn, and other locational factors, such as location in London and population density.
The map on the left shows the location of all clubs that have played in the English football leagues in every season between 1993 and 2013, weighted by average performance. Performance is measured by end of season position. More detail is available in the paper.
We found that location matters for performance, even after controlling for those other factors. We found that "clubs perform better when they are located closer to other well-performing clubs, and the poor performance of some clubs is explained by the relatively poor performance of close clubs. This suggests that location matters for performance in English football, just as it has been found to matter in other sectors, even though clubs are largely immobile, do not share locally provided intermediate inputs, and rely (increasingly) on global labour markets rather than on local labour markets".
There is, in my view, a potential rich research agenda on the effects of location on sports performance.
To tap into this agenda I am co-convening a special session on Spatial Aspects of Sports Performance at the Annual Congress of the European Regional Science Association (ERSA) in Cork at the end of August. My co-conveners are Robbie Butler of this parish and Paulo Mourao of the University of Minho. Details of the call for papers for the special session can be accessed here. It is intended that the special session could lead to a special issue in REGION, the journal of ERSA.
If you would like to take part please submit an abstract proposal by the deadline of February 28.