'Scorecasting': Saying Sports Cliches Ain't So Punting the ball on fourth down seems like tried-and-true football wisdom. But the authors of Scorecasting argue that like many sports cliches, this one is based more on perceptions than on hard evidence.
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'Scorecasting': Saying Sports Cliches Ain't So

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'Scorecasting': Saying Sports Cliches Ain't So

'Scorecasting': Saying Sports Cliches Ain't So

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Sports fans love and live by bromides. You'll hear a lot of them in these days leading up to the Super Bowl: Game is won or lost on the line of scrimmage. Field position, that's the game. They're going to call a time-out now to ice the kicker, etcetera.

Now another University of Chicago economist has tried to apply some tenets of economic analysis to sports that his colleague Steve Levitt applied to the larger world with "Freakonomics."

Tobias Moskowitz, a behavioral economist and professor of finance at the University of Chicago, and Jon Wertheim, senior writer for Sports Illustrated, have written a new book, "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won."

Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim join us from New York.

Gentlemen, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JON WERTHEIM (Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated: Thank you.

Professor TOBIAS MOSKOWITZ (Finance, University of Chicago): Thank you.

SIMON: And let me begin with you first Professor Moskowitz. Your line of thinking begins with when you folks were together at summer camp.

Prof. MOSKOWITZ: Right. We go way back and we grew up in Indiana, met at summer camp in Michigan. He was at Bloomington. I was in West Lafayette. So were obviously college basketball fans but for rival teams. We've always had a love of sports and remained friends for many years.

SIMON: We're coming up to the Super Bowl, of course, and there is no home field advantage, but I'm fascinated by the section of the book where you folks suggest there is such a thing as home field advantage but not for the reasons a lot of us think.

Mr. WERTHEIM: Home teams get different calls than visiting teams. And we looked at...

SIMON: From the referees...

Mr. WERTHEIM: From the referees.

SIMON: ...from impartial officials.

Mr. WERTHEIM: From the impartial officials. And we looked at all sorts of data - how balls and strikes are called. We looked at replay and whether calls were being overturned in the NFL, red cards in soccer. And what we saw in a variety of sports and a variety of contexts was that officials were simply calling the game differently for the home team versus the road team, and when the games were closer that difference expanded. And when they knew they were being monitored, when there were cameras or whether there was replay, that difference, ironically went down.

And it just became pretty clear to us that this is where the home field advantage really resides.

SIMON: But officials are flown in from all over now, right?

Mr. MOSKOWITZ: What we think is that the root of this is social psychology, that people are influenced by group opinion. In sports is when the officials are calling things in favor of the home team, it's not on the obvious calls. You know, a pitch right down the middle of the plate, that's an obvious call; it's a strike. They don't try to give that to the home team. But when the pitch is uncertain, when it's on the corners, when you're not sure whether it's a strike or a ball, they tend to call it with the home crowd.

And part of it is the home crowd, of course, is biased and they see it in the home team's favor, and we think that influences the referees.

Mr. WERTHEIM: And nothing subversive. We don't think these refs are on the take, but it's just sort of a basic human nature.

SIMON: There's a bromide in football that when there's about to be a field goal attempt often the defensive team will call a timeout to so-called ice the kicker, to make him nervous. You say that's useless.

Mr. WERTHEIM: The data does not suggest that that's an effective strategy. But, again, this goes back to a theme that sort of recurred, which is basically, you know, risk, reward and perception and coaches wanting to save their jobs. And if you make that field goal, the obvious response from the fans and sports talk radio is: why didn't he call a timeout to ice the kicker? I mean, empirically, there's very little to support that but that's still guidelines that to kick the field goal and the coaches call a timeout.

And the irony of that is sometimes it even gives the kicker sort of dress rehearsal, that he can go ahead and kick the ball and it doesn't count and he can gauge the wind.

Mr. MOSKOWITZ: In fact, what I always find funny is that now it's almost expected that you'll call a timeout to ice the kicker. So, kickers expect it. So, you know, I think the right play might actually be not to do it. It might throw the kicker off.

But, Jon's right, we looked very hard in the data to try to find any effect from this and just couldn't. We actually even applied the same sort of analysis to basketball, where you see people try to ice the free throw shooter.

SIMON: You think teams punt too much on fourth down.

Mr. MOSKOWITZ: You know, one way to think about it is, you know, what's the expected number of points you'll get from any play. Another way to look at it is I got frustrated last week. I was watching the Bears game.

SIMON: Oh, a lot of us got frustrated watching the Bears game, but I digress, yeah.

Mr. MOSKOWITZ: And just to give you an example, they were, I think, you know, in Green Bay territory around the 40-yard line or so - can't kick a field goal from there. Fourth, I think, and a couple of yards, three or four yards, and, of course, they punt. Now, what happens when they punt? The most likely outcome, which is exactly what did happen, is it went into the end zone and the Packers got it at the 20. So, they gained something like 15 yards for giving up on fourth down, versus going for it. Even if they had failed, they would have been only slightly worse off - 15 yards. And they had a very good chance, perhaps, of making it and prolonging that drive. And those are things that can be difference makers.

SIMON: I was a little disappointed to read in the book that you, Tobias Moskowitz, big-name economist. You believe in randomness and even luck.

Mr. MOSKOWITZ: We as human beings have a very hard time understanding randomness and luck. And I think where we see this most evident are in streaks, so-called momentum or the hot hand. The idea being that that means that they're going to keep continuing to do well. The reality is when you look at the data, it's all pretty much consistent with randomness.

And the great example that I like to show people is, look, if you flip a coin 100 times, right, it's a random event. But that doesn't mean you won't get six or seven heads in a row at some point. Does that mean that there's a streak? That there's momentum in coin flipping? No, of course not.

It just means that whenever you have random occurrences you can get streaks just by chance. People don't like to attribute that to sports, but when you look at the data you can't refute that it's not just random. And I know that's controversial but certainly that's the data that we found. That was true in almost every sport.

SIMON: But Professor Moskowitz, let me pose the question that you folks take up in your last chapter: Why haven't the Chicago Cubs won a World Series in 150 years? All right, not 150 but 110.

Mr. MOSKOWITZ: That's a pretty bad streak, I agree. But I think there are some other elements besides just randomness there. One thing we talk about is economic incentives. So, with the Cubs in particular, we looked at how attendance moves with winning and losing percentage. And for the Cubs, it's perfectly stable. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. They're also at the 90-plus percent capacity whether the team's in first place or last place.

You know, fans in some sense impose an incentive on the team to produce wins by either showing up for the game or not when they're losing, and that doesn't seem to happen at Wrigley.

SIMON: Tobias Moskowitz, a behavioral economist and professor of finance at the University of Chicago, winner of the Fischer Black Prize for Finance Scholarship and L. Jon Wertheim, senior writer for Sports Illustrated. Their new book, "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won." Gentlemen, thanks so much.

Mr. WERTHEIM: Thanks, Scott.

Mr. MOSKOWITZ: Thank you.

SIMON: And to read an excerpt from "Scorecasting," you can go to our website, NPR.org.

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