Alpha erosion and hot dogs?

Wharton Moneyball is a great podcast. The intersection of sports and business doesn’t do justice to the topics covered. Two events Moneyball does not overlook are the Kentucky Derby and Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.

During the July 2021 episode, co-host Shane Jensen asked if
it’s Joey Chestnut’s technique or some god-given gift that allows him to eat a record seventy-five hot dogs in ten minutes. Eating expert and co-host Eric Bradlow explained :

“They all do the same thing. Eat multiple hot dogs followed by buns dipped in water. Eat multiple hot dogs followed by buns dipped in water. Everybody, since Kobayashi started this strategy in the mid-2000s, uses this strategy.” – @EBradlow, Wharton Moneyball Podcast

Kobayashi’s creativity (and success) invited competitors. Alpha erosion is the idea that valuable advantages degrade with imitation. What was once scarce and valuable, is now abundant and worth less. Daryl Morey said that in the early days of basketball moneyball it was easier to draft players. By 2017 Morey noted how many other team’s draft boards looked a lot like the one in Houston.

But knowing alpha erosion exists and seeing it occur is not fait accompli. There are at least two paths: innovation and restriction.

Innovation occurs when an organization can deliver better products each year as judged by their consumers. Find the JTBD. The capacity for this is dictated by an organization’s culture. Does an organization allow for exploration, does it allow for an Innovator’s Solution. 

Restriction occurs when an organization can gain an advantage by acting in a way the competition cannot. Part-of-the-reason Dollar Shave Club and other DTC companies succeeded was because the distribution advantage of legacy companies was also a weakness. Gillette could not compete (as judged by the consumer) without upsetting the retail partners.

Restriction for an individual is to remove ego, which often opens new paths for competition success. Movie Producer Jason Blum demonstrated the success of the low-budget horror film and hasn’t suffered much alpha erosion. Part-of-the-reason, said Blum, is that people in show business like the rewards of the show part more than the business part. There are huge advantages for a person if they can look stupid.

Shoveling as many hot dogs into your mouth may not seems like a good idea. It’s probably not. But the lessons we get from it sure are tasty.

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