Faculty Stories & Profiles

The Economics of Professional Sport


The Economics Department at the University of Lethbridge has experienced rapid growth over the last 10 years, with nearly triple the number of students graduating with a major in Economics—Thanks in large part to the efforts of Dr Duane Rockerbie.

Duane began his career at the University of Lethbridge in 1989, after obtaining his PhD at the Simon Fraser University. “Lethbridge was very attractive career option to me with a young family in tow, because of its size and small-town atmosphere. I also wanted to be a part of the rapidly developing academic opportunities the U of L had planned,” Duane recalls.

As Chair of the Economics Department for seven of the last nine years, Duane has worked with his colleagues to modernize the department. He also saw the need to develop a much more aggressive research program, while maintaining a friendly and supportive learning environment for undergrad students.

As an economist, Duane understands the financial sacrifices some students must make in order to attend university. As he explains “It is a huge decision where to get a post-secondary education, and keeping this in mind, I (and the entire Economics Department) want to give students the best education for their money.”

“We’ve tried to build a strong department, so students graduating with a major in Economics will be highly competitive in the market. I believe that we have achieved this goal over the last few years,” says Duane.

One initiative Duane kicked off at the University that has been extremely successful in attracting Economics majors from across the country is based on his primary field of research, the Economics of Professional Sport. As one of only a handful of institutions in Canada to offer courses on this subject, it is has proven very popular with the students.

“The class fills up almost immediately when it’s offered. The students really seem to enjoy it,” Duane says. The course is based on Duane’s research of the economic practices of professional sport and is taught with the textbook he wrote specifically for the course, which he provides to his students—for free!

“My research explores the unique business practices of the professional sport industry and how there are large spillover effects from this industry to the rest of the Canadian and U.S economies.” He has conducted research as to how and why certain sports teams are able to escape legislation and conduct business in a way that is not accepted in any other industry.

“Professional sport is huge in Canada! The GDP is larger than that of the entire Agricultural Industry and is seven times larger than the Movie Industry,” explains Duane, yet he is one of only a handful of experts exploring the field.

The decisions made by the athletic industry can have a profound impact on the whole economy. For example, one of the large issues facing Canada currently is whether or not to finance the Olympics, as the cost of building stadiums and venues is enormous. As Duane says, “The question can be asked, should the federal government spend money to bail out companies like GM, or put money into the Olympics? Which one will benefit the economy, and the country as a whole, more?”

Another area of research that Duane is working on may well have a profound impact on all university students. He is currently investigating the economic practices of universities, and how best to control quality and cost. With heavy constraints on enrollment fees, and tuition fees set by the government, Canadian universities have a difficult task in how to make the best use their funding.

“Since 70% of university money comes from the taxpayers, I think it’s important that students are given a good return for their money,” says Duane.

Along with other experts in the field, Duane investigates areas such as the optimal size of enrolment and what potential students are willing, or able, to pay. He then presents his findings to the Board of Governors (at any particular university) with the hope they will be able to make sound financial decisions when facing tough economic times.

“Canadian universities operate under a much more controlled market compared to institutions in other countries, like the U.S. In the States, universities and colleges are able to charge whatever they want for tuition, making for a much more competitive—and profitable—environment. Canadian Universities must be much smarter when making their budget decisions.”

Dr Rockerbie also conducts research in the field of International Finance, calling for change to international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund).

“When giving large loans to developing countries,” as Duane postulates, “we need to figure out a way to give these countries enough time to use the money and develop their economies without the loan and interest payments overwhelming them.”

Duane says that one of the problems is that these international institutions do not give the developing countries enough time to re-pay the loan. He has written numerous articles on the issue, and along with colleagues in the field, has opened the dialogue for change to the lending system. “We are moving in the right direction now, the conversation has started…I like to think that what I have done has, or will, made a real difference to developing nations.”

Besides his extensive research, teaching and Chair duties at the University, Duane is also actively involved in the community. He has coached the Lethbridge Track and Field Club, and has been involved in committees at Southminster United Church. He has performed charity work with Simon Fraser University Alumni Association and Unicef. In his spare time, Duane enjoys fly-fishing, restoring old cars and gardening.

As seen in Lethbridge Living, Winter 2009
Written by Ben Young