'Scorecasting': Saying Sports Cliches Ain't So

Brad Maynard of the Chicago Bears punts the ball against the New York Jets on Dec. 26 at Soldier Field in Chicago. i i

hide captionBrad Maynard of the Chicago Bears punts the ball against the New York Jets on Dec. 26 at Soldier Field in Chicago. The authors of Scorecasting say statistics show that running a play on fourth down instead of punting can be more effective at getting points, contrary to common belief.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images Sport
Brad Maynard of the Chicago Bears punts the ball against the New York Jets on Dec. 26 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Brad Maynard of the Chicago Bears punts the ball against the New York Jets on Dec. 26 at Soldier Field in Chicago. The authors of Scorecasting say statistics show that running a play on fourth down instead of punting can be more effective at getting points, contrary to common belief.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images Sport

Freakonomics used basic economic principles to change the way many people looked at things right in front of them — like standardized testing, real estate and kids' names. Now, another economist from the University of Chicago has taken lessons from economic theory and applied them to a subject where cliches and mythology tend to dominate the field of accepted knowledge: sports. Tobias Moskowitz, a behavioral economist and professor of finance at the University of Chicago, and L. Jon Wertheim, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, have written Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won. And it will challenge most sports fans' basic assumptions about how to watch and evaluate professional games.

The book looks at bromides (such as "defense wins championships"), unquestioned traditions (like nearly always punting on the fourth down), and the curious World Series-less streak of the Chicago Cubs through a critical economic lens. Poring over data, the authors learned new lessons about things that are taken for granted in pro sports.

The authors talk with Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon about a topic sure to come up at the Super Bowl: icing the kicker. Coaches, Wertheim says, feel compelled to call a time out right before a player kicks a field goal to somehow jangle his nerves. If they don't, and the player makes the kick, fans and sports journalists will surely deride him for the missed opportunity.

"A lot of times, a guy lines up to kick a field goal and the coaches call a time out, and the irony of that is that sometimes it even gives the kicker sort of a dress rehearsal — he can go ahead and kick the ball and it doesn't count, and he can gauge the wind, and, again, just running the numbers, there's nothing to suggest that's an effective strategy," Wertheim says.

Scorecasting by Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim.
 
Scorecasting
By Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim
Hardcover, 288 pages
Crown Archetype
List Price: $26
Read An Excerpt

Another time the conventional wisdom doesn't quite pan out on the football field is when teams automatically punt the ball on fourth down, unless they're in a desperate end-of-game drive. Moskowitz says that according to the statistics, teams should run a play even in a situation like fourth-and-eight, as long as they're past the 50-yard line.

"People sort of view [a field goal] as, well, that's a sure three points," Moskowitz says. "Field goals aren't a sure thing, but the success of field goals is pretty high. But the success rate of gaining a couple of yards on fourth down is actually just as high if not higher on a lot of plays. And to keep that drive going and to potentially get seven points turns out to overweigh a lot of situations."

Moskowitz says many more things can be chalked up to randomness and luck in sports than players would like to admit, such as the concept of streaks. Just like flipping a coin, he says, one will sometimes get six heads in a row and the appearance of a streak. Situations generally described as "having momentum" or a "hot hand" are just random occurrences, much like the coin flip.

One exception to that idea, though, comes from one of the unluckiest teams in professional sports. The Chicago Cubs, who have not won a World Series in 102 years, have more factors at play than just randomness, the authors say. When they examined attendance data for the Cubs, the authors found it to be remarkably stable — around 90 percent — no matter if the team was at the top of the league or on a losing streak. Fair-weather fans, it seems, actually incentivize a team to win; team owners and coaches will work harder to win games so they can sell more tickets.

"We're going to come to your restaurant whether we enjoy our meal or not," Wertheim says in an analogy about Cubs fans. "We'll be back. Do you whip out the fancy sea foam, or do you just give the customers their meatloaf and mashed potatoes?"

Excerpt: 'Scorecasting'

Scorecasting by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim
 
Scorecasting
By Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim
Hardcover, 288 pages
Crown Archetype
List Price: $26

Why are the Pittsburgh Steelers so successful and the Pittsburgh Pirates so unsuccessful?

The noise level and the sun rose in tandem. A couple of nights earlier the New York Yankees had won the 2009 World Series, and now, on this chilly November morning, it was time for their parade. Fans had been lining the streets of lower Manhattan since the infomercial hours. By 7:00 A.M. the crowd was five deep. An hour later the inevitable "Let's go Yankees, tap- tap- taptaptap" cheers began. Kids pulled from school sat regally on their par­ents' shoulders. The New York cops, their spirits buoyed by the overtime they were racking up, were uncommonly friendly. Wall Street traders and analysts and bankers peered from their offices overhead and smiled for one of the few times all year. The motor­cade wouldn't crawl past until noon, but in a congenitally impa­tient city where no self-respecting pedestrian waits for the light to change, this was the rare occasion when millions of New Yorkers stood happily along Broadway for hours.

The 2009 World Series parade attracted more than 3 million fans— a greater mass of humanity than the entire market of some MLB teams. Among the crowd: former mayor Rudy Giuliani, Spike Lee, and Jay- Z, who performed the civic anthem at the time, "Empire State of Mind." There were the obligatory keys to the city, mayoral proclamations, and a forest's worth of confetti. It was a tidy snapshot of why the Yankees might be the most polarizing team in all of sports. While the rest of the country seethed and cursed the arrogance and excess, Yankee Nation gloated over still another World Series triumph, the twenty-seventh in the franchise's storied history. Mocking, of course, the milk ad campaign, one T-shirt sold at the parade tauntingly asked of other teams' fans: "Got Rings?"

The answer was probably "no," or at least "not many." The World Series has been held since the early years of the twentieth century, yet only a few franchises have won a significant number of titles. Eight current organizations have never won a World Se­ries, and nine others have won fewer than three. The Texas Rang­ers have been around in one form or another since 1961, and prior to 2010 they had never even been to the Fall Classic, much less won it. In contrast, since 1923, the Yankees have won on average once every three years.

As a rule, we're offended by oligopolies and monopolies. We much prefer competition; it's healthier, it's better for consumers, it encourages innovation, it just feels fundamentally fairer. We have antitrust laws to promote competition. We're careful to crack down on cartels and regulate industries— yes, some more than others. In the heavily regulated airline industry, the largest carri­ers in the domestic market, American and Southwest, each have less than 14 percent of the market share. Banks, too, are heavily regulated, so much so that under the so-called Volcker Rule, no institution may exceed a 10 percent market share. Citigroup may have been deemed "too big to fail," but its market share is only 3 percent. Walmart might be the American company most ma­ligned as a monopoly, but in 2009 its share of the $3 trillion U.S. retail market was 11.3 percent.

The Yankees? Inasmuch as World Series rings constitute a mar­ket, their market share is 25 percent.

How can one team dominate like this while other teams are barely competitive? The quick and easy answer is money, espe­cially in the absence of a salary cap. Fans of 29 other teams will note that when the Yankees can spend north of $200 million on players, as they did in 2009, and most other teams spend less than $100 million, they're naturally going to have a heavy concentra­tion of titles. They'll handily beat the Phillies— their opponents in that World Series— who spent "only" $113 million on pay­roll. Just as in the previous year, the Phillies ($98 million) beat the Tampa Bay Rays ($44 million), and the year before that the Boston Red Sox ($143 million) beat the Colorado Rockies ($54 million). No wonder the small-market Pittsburgh Pirates—2010 payroll, $39.1 million— haven't had a winning season since 1992.

However, the reason for the Yankees' extraordinary success is more complex than that. Just about everything in baseball's structure militates against parity. Start with the 162-game season. In the same way an opinion poll sampling 100 subjects will be a more precise reflection of the way the public thinks than a poll sampling 10 subjects, baseball's long season lends itself to an ac­curate reflection of talent. If two teams play one game, anything can happen, but if they play a good many games, the better team will win the majority of the time.

Then consider the playoffs. Only the eight best teams make it to the playoffs, so 22 are out of the running. Teams play a best-of-five-game series followed by a best-of-seven League Cham­pionship Series followed by a best-of-seven World Series. As with the regular season, the sample size is large enough that the best team ought to win the series, especially with a home field advan­tage. The Yankees may be the best team in baseball because they buy the best players, but the imbalance is allowed to flourish be­cause of baseball itself.

Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers climbs into the stands to celebrate with fans after their win over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship game. i i

hide captionHines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers climbs into the stands to celebrate with fans after their win over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship game. The smaller-market city has the most-Superbowl-winning NFL team, while baseball's less egalitarian structure leads to one of the least-winning MLB teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates, say the authors of Scorecasting.

Nick Laham/Getty Images
Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers climbs into the stands to celebrate with fans after their win over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship game.

Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers climbs into the stands to celebrate with fans after their win over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship game. The smaller-market city has the most-Superbowl-winning NFL team, while baseball's less egalitarian structure leads to one of the least-winning MLB teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates, say the authors of Scorecasting.

Nick Laham/Getty Images

Contrast this with the NFL, the league that openly strives for parity and democracy. The season spans only 16 games, hardly a robust sample size. A few breaks or injuries could represent the difference between a 7–9 season and a 9–7 season. Not only do 12 teams qualify for the playoffs, but there is no "series format." It's single elimination, "one and done," a format much more conducive to upsets, much more likely to generate randomness. One unlucky game, one untimely injury to a star player, and it's easy for a lesser team to win and move on. Plus, until 2010 there was a salary cap that prevented the wealthy teams or the teams blessed with cavernously pocketed owners from outspending their rivals by factors of three and four. And with the bulk of team revenue coming from leaguewide television contracts, the schism between the economic haves and have-nots is much narrower than in baseball.

The result? As you'd expect, the concentration of champions is lowest in football, the "market share" remarkably balanced. The NFL has been holding the Super Bowl only since 1967, but al­ready 18 of the 32 franchises have won the Lombardi Trophy and all but 4 have appeared in the Super Bowl at least once. (That's al­most the same number of teams that have never been to the World Series— and they've been holding that since 1903.) Market size doesn't matter much, either. Most Super Bowls? The Steelers, with six, hailing from . . . Pittsburgh, the same town that hasn't fielded a competitive baseball team in almost 20 years. The Packers from Green Bay, Wisconsin, the smallest market in major U.S. profes­sional sports, have won three titles.

There are far more than 16 games in the NBA and NHL regular seasons, and the playoffs are seven-game series. That cuts against randomness and in favor of the monopolies. In contrast, unlike in baseball, more than half the teams make the postseason. And the NBA and NHL both have a salary cap. So we shouldn't be surprised to learn that the concentration of champions in pro bas­ketball and hockey is significantly greater than in the NFL and significantly less than in Major League Baseball.

Three months after the World Series parade in New York there was a similar processional for the Super Bowl champs in small-market New Orleans. The city sported a few hundred thou­sand fans rather than a few million. And this wasn't the franchise's twenty-seventh title; it was the first. But it was just as jubilant. A week before Fat Tuesday, players rode around on floats, wearing masks and tossing beads. Lombardi Gras, they called it.

Trying to predict who will win the next Super Bowl is a fool's errand, but trying to predict who will win the next World Series is far easier. Though you might not be right, you can limit your potential candidates to a handful of teams even before the season begins. Funny thing about sports: Distilled to their essence, they're all about competition. But as an industry, some are more competi­tive than others.

Books Featured In This Story

Scorecasting
Scorecasting

The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won

by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim

Hardcover, 278 pages | purchase

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