Paul Gift was 3,000 miles away in Florida when he saw an advertisement for Pepperdine University in Malibu. He was raised in a Church of Christ family and the connection appealed to him. Upon graduation, he packed his bags and headed west for college.
“I really loved Pepperdine and felt it was the right place for me. When I finished, I went to graduate school in economics and econometrics at UCLA and I taught some adjunct classes at Pepperdine and the teaching experience really appealed to me,” said Dr. Gift, an associate professor of economics.
When a career as a consultant supporting expert witnesses in anti-trust litigation came along, he took it. Gift, however, soon realized a judge constantly controlled his life and his time wasn’t his own. The study of statistics and economics continued to fascinate him and he began applying it to areas beyond his work as a consultant.
“I was at a gambling conference in the UK in early 2011 for a paper that I did about whether President Obama’s statements about how families shouldn’t go to Las Vegas during a down economy had an economic impact,” Gift said.
Gift concluded that the president’s statements had a negative impact on large casinos and conventions dependent on tourism, but had a positive impact on casinos with a local or regional focus. At the gambling conference, Gift met a sports economist who made him reconsider his research.
“I’m a big sports fan and I’d always had the idea of doing a paper on referee behavioral bias in the National Basketball Association. But I thought it would be this massive project to do that research. In fact, though, the Internet is full of people who have collected that data for me, and I went through it and did a paper on it and presented it at a sports economics conference.”
Gift was hooked. He’d found a niche in economics that is full of variables and data and that has implications far beyond sports.
“Sporting businesses are real businesses with real employees and you can kind of peek in. Everything is tracked and documented and that doesn’t happen in most businesses. It’s a fascinating world.”
Between 2004 and 2006, Gift was a practitioner or adjunct professor at Pepperdine. After 2006, he was granted tenure track.
“I’ve never taught anywhere else other than at UCLA as a graduate student,” Gift said. “What I love about Pepperdine is the encouragement toward teaching. Research is important, yes, but good teaching is paramount. My dad was a professor for a research university and he told the story about a friend of his who won a teaching award. When the chair of the department saw him after the ceremony, he said, ‘Congratulations. Now don’t ever do it again.’”
But at Pepperdine, Gift says teaching trumps research.
Gift said that he appreciates that Pepperdine encourages him to do practical research.
“Theory matters, but I was never too interested in living in a theoretical world. Everything I research has to be easily relateable to the real world.”
Using sports to experiment in economics research, Gift is currently working in the NBA again, analyzing how the height of different referees affects their foul calls in each game.
“We’re still in a draft phase, but it appears that there is an important statistical difference between these things,” Gift said. “I’m also doing some work in mixed martial arts looking at judges in each bout and how they evaluate the productivity of fighters in a cage and once you control for how they evaluate performance, you can actually look to see if non-performance factors influence a judge’s decision. It’s about bias and how it affects us.”
Gift said the mixed martial arts world is interested in his research to see what it will tell them.
It’s not just Gift’s research that’s unique, however. His approach to the classroom changed dramatically after he sat in on Dr. Wayne Gertmenian’s 15-week course just as the global economic crisis was unfolding.
“Everyone began to care about economics,” Gift said. “He changed the way I view and approach teaching and that corresponded with the recession, which affects everyone. How do the ideas and concepts of economics change the way we see the world? Before that happened, I was just going through the models and talking concepts. Now, though I talk about real world advantages and disadvantages. In the fall of 2008, everything changed and I did too.”
Among the many changes Gift made is how he gets to know his students in his economics classes.
“One of the things I do is start each class with a discussion about what’s happening in the world today. For about 30 minutes, we’ll just talk about current events and apply the ideas of economics to them. That’s where the sports come in. We’ll talk about what’s happening and that ends up impacting the learning.”
Gift also starts each term by meeting students at a karaoke bar in West Los Angeles where the group gathers together in a relaxed atmosphere and gets to know each other.
“We also go to this really great Korean barbecue place in Koreatown and they accommodate us well and we eat some great food and become better acquainted in an informal setting.”
About four years ago, a student and he put together a faculty-student basketball game.
“It’s morphed into this whole big event called the faculty-student Olympics and we do it every year. We do sporting events, and we hand out trophies and it’s a lot of fun,” he said.
Gift said that Pepperdine’s impact on him as a student was profound. Now, he has the chance to represent the school to new students and, he said, hopefully make an impact on them.
“I really like those students. I love what I’m doing.”