Soccer/Fútbol Hooliganism Isn’t As Costly As it Used to Be

New research from R. Todd Jewell of the University of North Texas:

Football hooliganism, defined as episodes of crowd trouble inside and outside football stadiums on match days, is commonly perceived to have adverse effects on the sport. We are especially interested in the effects of football-related fan violence on a club’s potential for generating revenues. In this article, we measure hooliganism by arrests for football-related offenses. We analyze two distinct periods in the history of hooliganism in the English Football League: an early period, during which hooliganism was a fundamental social problem (seasons from 1984-1985 to 1994-1995), and a more recent period, in which hooliganism has been less prevalent (2001-2002 to 2009-2010). In the early period, we find evidence of an adverse effect of arrests on football club revenues for English League clubs. This effect disappears in the more recent period, showing that hooliganism, while still present but at lower levels, no longer has adverse effects on club finances. Our results support a hypothesis that recent “gentrification” has reduced hooliganism and thereby has had a positive influence on revenue generation.

Sorry Talking Heads, You Know Nothing About What Matters in the NFL Playoffs

For years, sports commentators who spew evidence-free clichés about the keys to athletic victory have monopolized our airwaves. But recently a technique some of them view as akin to witchcraft, but that’s more commonly known as “statistical analysis,” has begun to bring an end to their reign of terror.

The latest volley in this ongoing battle comes from a new study by Joshua Pitts of Kennesaw State University. Pitts analyzed all 445 NFL playoff games from 1966 through 2012. Among the factors he examined were the number of previous playoff games and playoff wins of quarterbacks and head coaches, the playoff experience of all players relative to their opponents, statistical measures of offensive and defensive quality in terms of both regular season passing and rushing, whether a team was playing at home, and the degree to which a team entered a playoff game on a winning streak. The outcomes Pitts examined included whether a team won their playoff game, and their points scored, points allowed, and margin of victory or defeat.

The most noteworthy of Pitts’ findings is that there’s little evidence playoff experience matters.

Perhaps a surprising result is that neither the previous playoff experience of a quarterback/head coach nor the number of previous playoff wins for a quarterback/head coach has a significant impact on any of the measured outcomes in this study after holding current team quality constant.


All the various measures of previous playoff experience included in this study, including measures of quarterback, head coach, and team playoff experience, are rarely statistically significant determinants of the outcomes measured in this study. Furthermore, even when these measures do prove statistically significant, the magnitude of the impact on the dependent variables tends to be extremely small.

So much for that talking point. At least there’s always the “Playoff success starts with running the football and stopping the run” cliché. Oh wait…

The relative productivity of a team’s passing offense and defense in the regular season is consistently a statistically significant determinant of all of the outcomes measured in this study. However, the relative productivity of a team’s rushing defense is not a statistically significant determinant of any of the measured outcomes. Furthermore, the relative productivity of a team’s rushing offense is only statistically significant at the 10% level in a single specification presented in column 8 of Table 4. This provides overwhelming evidence, as suggested by Arkes (2011), that the key to victory in the NFL postseason is controlling the passing game.

Pitts also found almost no evidence that being on a winning streak (“They’re peaking at the right time!”) had an impact on the outcome of playoff games.

But the news for institutional clichés wasn’t all bad. It turns out the defense does make you marginally more likely to win a championship.

For every 1.4% increase in relative offensive productivity, a team is about 1% more likely to win a postseason game. Similarly, for every 1.1% increase in relative defensive productivity, a team is about 1% more likely to win in the postseason. In general, the marginal effect of defensive productivity is a little larger than the marginal effect of offensive productivity which provides slight support in favor of proponents of ‘‘defense wins championships.’’

Another noteworthy finding concerned home field advantage:

The home team is about 18–29% more likely to win, depending on the specification of the model and holding other factors constant. The results shown in Table 4 predict a 6–10 point advantage for the home team in a matchup between two identical opponents, essentially implying that home-field advantage is worth at least a touchdown in the postseason.

Bookies generally give a team about three points for home field advantage, so this implies that in the playoffs people may be underestimating that edge.

The fact that the way pro football is played can change in just a few years means these results should be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps there’s been something important in the last five or ten years but it’s been masked by the prior 30 years of data. Alternatively, it’s possible that some of things that do appear to make a difference have already ceased to matter or will cease to matter in the next few years. But overall the study provides some compelling evidence that the clichés you hear about winning in the postseason are often disconnected from reality.

Finally, because no NFL playoff post is complete without a discussion of Tim Tebow, Pitts also used his models to predict the greatest playoff upsets of all time. And wouldn’t you know it, the Broncos Tebow-led overtime win against the Steelers in 2011 ranked in the top 10 in Pitts’ model based on expected win percentage and his model based on expected points margin. (The Vikings 1987 Divisional round win over the 49ers and the Patriots win over the Rams in the 2001 Super Bowl were ranked first, respectively.) In other words, to the surprise of nobody, Tebow’s playoff victory was a statistical anomaly (i.e. fluke.)
Pitts, J. (2014). Determinants of Success in the National Football League’s Postseason: How Important Is Previous Playoff Experience? Journal of Sports Economics DOI: 10.1177/1527002514525409

Sorry Russia, Olympic Hosts Don’t Get a Long-Term Medal Boost

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the exorbitant cost of the Sochi Olympics. And with good reason! Purchasing everything necessary to build a lavish two-week global athletic competition is rarely a wise investment strategy.

One allure of hosting the Olympics is the prospect of home-field advantage. Research suggests that countries actually do benefit from hosting the summer or winter Olympics, particularly in sports that involve subjective judging.

There’s also the idea that hosting the Olympics can inspire new athletes, improve facilities, and be an all-around boon to a country’s Olympic program. If this were true, it would strengthen the rapidly weakening case for hosting an Olympics. So the question is, do host countries reap benefits in subsequent years?

According to two Chilean economists, Jose Contreras and Alejandro Corvalan, the answer is no. Contreras and Corvalan analyzed the 17 Summer Olympics between 1948 and 2012 to determine if there was an ex-host effect, which they defined as “the effect of hosting the Summer Olympic Games on the total number of medals in the subsequent games.” They examined the performance of countries four years prior to hosting, while hosting, and four years after hosting. Countries that made losing bids to host the Games were used as controls.

Contreras and Corvalan found no evidence that hosting the Olympics had a positive effect on performance four years later. In general, countries did about the same four years prior to hosting as they did four years after hosting.

That the advantage of hosting is short-lived lends support to the idea that it’s driven more by the crowd than by structural improvements to a country’s Olympic program. The findings also align with the broader social trend of people no longer blindly believing it’s always desirable to host a major sporting event. Even the Super Bowl can’t avoid scrutiny. The jig is up.

As for the Russians, the lesson is to get all they can out of Sochi. Don’t be surprised if in 2018 there’s a large drop-off in performance that can’t be blamed on failed score-fixing.
Contreras, J.L., & Corvalan, A. (2014). Olympic Games: No legacy for sports Economics Letters DOI: 10.1016/j.econlet.2013.12.006

Momentum: Not Just For Silly Pundits

Watch TV for long enough and you’ll come across a talking head expounding on the awesome power of momentum. For example, sports commentators often praise terrible decisions (e.g. taking a sure field goal instead of going for a touchdown) based on the need to “keep momentum going,” as if scoring points has some significant intrinsic value beyond the benefit of increasing your point total. (Grantland’s Bill Barnwell has been doing the yeoman’s work of tamping down on silly momentum narratives.)

The power of momentum also emerges during political campaigns, when pundits routinely feel the need to conjure momentum out of thin air. If a particular candidate has a good polling day, it’s surely a sign he’s on his way to the top. If he gets a string of positive news cycles, there’s never any doubt that things might change. Not surprisingly, Nate Silver has been quick to debunk such narratives.

So sports and political commentators clearly buy into the myth of momentum, but the question remains: Do people who aren’t paid to fill airtime with dubious narratives believe that momentum is a real thing? That is, do people believe that improvement is bound to lead to more improvement?

A new study led by NYU’s Nathan Pettit suggests the answer is yes. Pettit and his team conducted a series of five experiments, each a variation on the same basic design. In the initial experiment participants were told about a person occupying a given position in the hierarchy of a work group (e.g. 6th out of 10). Some participants were told the person had risen to that position (from 8th to 6th), some were told the person had fallen to that position (from 4th to 6th), and some were merely told the person was 6th (the control condition.) When asked to judge the person’s prestige, participants who were told he had moved up to 6th rated him significantly higher than participants in the control condition (momentum!), while those who were told he had fallen to 6th rated him significantly lower than participants in the control condition (nomentum!)

Similar findings occurred in experiments involving college rankings (a school that moved up to 11th was rated as more prestigious and advised to increase tuition more than a school that dropped to 11th), product rankings (luxury watches that had risen in a magazine’s rankings were seen as more prestigious), and players in a trivia league (players with the same ranking were judged differently depending on whether they had recently risen or fallen to their spot.)

On some level, the findings are nothing more than a specific manifestation of recency bias. People tend to place too much weight on the most recent change (e.g. falling from 4th to 6th) and not enough on previous occurrences (the circumstances that led to being ranked 4th). There’s also a failure to account for regression to the mean. When somebody moves from 8th to 6th, the new position is seen as the “true” position rather than a deviation from the true position. Thus it’s presumed the person is more likely to stay at 6th or move higher rather than fall back to 7th or 8th.

But the findings do show that even if pundits don’t have a great grasp of probability, their mental failings are not unique. Everybody seems biased toward thinking that success will lead to more success.

Does any of this matter? When it comes to a football game, the answer is surely no. A team gains no advantage if a string of positive plays (momentum!) makes fans think they’ll win, and so it’s never a good idea to take a sure field goal over a 50% chance of scoring a touchdown.

On the other hand, in elections people like to vote for winners, and so perceived momentum could influence votes. Similarly, if you’re trying to decide whether to go after a likely but small improvement in status or a less-likely but larger improvement, it may be wise to consider the appearance of momentum. For example, imagine you’re deciding between running for Vice President or President of an organization. If you ever plan on running again, the effect of perceived momentum could tilt the decision toward running for VP and taking the sure but smaller status increase.

In general, the study adds to the pile of evidence that shows people are fairly lousy at judging things. The trick is to find ways to take advantage of it. That klezmer band that fell from 2nd to 6th in the latest coolness ratings? Now is the perfect time to book them for your kid’s bar-mitzvah.
Pettit, N.C., Sivanathan, N., Gladstone, E., & Mar, J.C. (2013). Rising Stars and Sinking Ships
Consequences of Status Momentum Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612473120

What Can Psychology Tell Us About Where Dwight Howard Will End Up?

Lakers center Dwight Howard faces the agonizing decision over whom he will grant the honor of paying him more than $85 million to play basketball. Howard’s situation is unique because it’s rare for a young superstar to leave the mega-franchise he seemed destined to stay with forever, but Howard appeared to go through an emotional roller coaster last season, and now he’s seriously considering signing with Houston or Dallas. The decisions of LeBron and possibly Peyton Manning are the only recent free agencies that surpass the intrigue of Howard’s situation.

The situation has left reporters doing everything they can to pump their sources for any morsel of information that might suggest a particular preference. I don’t have an actual source per-se, but I’ve got the next best thing: Psychology literature.

Howard’s decision is complex enough that there’s no single perspective or theory that can fully predict his decision. We can’t know Howard’s exact feelings about the teams, or the broader goal structure in his life. But while there’s no useful answer to the question, “What does Dwight Howard want?”, there are enough broad decision making biases that it’s possible to identify a few marginal influences.

The most conspicuous of these influences is the similarity effect — when adding a third option can lower your opinion of the existing option that’s most similar to it. Or as Christopher Shallow describes it in a paper (pdf) that shows its influence on moral decisions: “Adding a non-dominated option close to one of the alternatives tends to increase the relative share of its competitor.”

For example, imagine you’re deciding between going to a concert, which is fun but expensive, or watching a movie, which is less fun but free. You’re leaning toward the concert, but then a friend calls and asks if you want to go to a football game, another option that’s more fun but also more expensive. Even if you still prefer the concert, the similarity between the concert and the game (both are high cost, high fun) will increase the attractiveness of watching the movie. The new similarity between the concert and the game emphasizes the unique positive characteristic of the movie (it’s cheap) while making the unique positive characteristic of the concert less impressive (there are a lot of high-fun things, which is best?)

Shallow’s experiment used a modified trolley problem in which a train was going to run over and kill five people. Participants could choose to flip a switch and send the train to a track with one person (thereby saving four people but actively killing one), or they could do nothing and let the train kill the five people (letting four more people die, but not actually “doing” any killing.) In addition, two groups of participants were presented with different third options. One group could divert the train to a track with two people, an option similar to diverting the train and killing one person. The other group could redirect the train to a track with four people, an option similar to doing nothing because nearly five people would still die.

Shallow and his team found that the addition of the third option made people rate the dissimilar option in more positive manner. The option of having two people die increased the relative attractiveness of having five people die (compared to having one person die), while the option of having four people die increased the relative attractiveness of having only one person die (compared to having five people die.) Thus, the similarity effect was pronounced even when the choices were about life and death (albeit in a hypothetical situation in a lab.)

How does this relate to Howard’s situation?

The Lakers are his current team. They’re the known quantity. The incumbent. Because of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, they can also offer Howard more money (>$100 million). The media market and personal demands of playing in Los Angeles are unparalleled among his other suitors. Meanwhile, both Houston and Dallas, the other main suitors (sorry Golden State), are teams in Texas, a state with no income tax. Both teams can pay Howard about $88 million.  Both represent relatively low-key, low-pressure options where Howard can start over (or have “anustart,” to use the parlance of our times.) Both Dallas and Houston also have reputations as modern, cutting-edge organizations in a way that the Lakers do not.

These similarities weaken the cases of both Dallas and Houston. If every other factor had literally left Howard indifferent, they could sway the decision. In reality, that’s unlikely to happen, but both Dallas and Houston should know that the emergence of their in-state rivals as a suitor may have hurt their chances.
Shallow, C., Iliev, R., & Medin, D. (2013). Trolley problems in context Judgment and Decision Making

Tversky, A. (1972). Elimination by aspects: A theory of choice. Psychological Review DOI: 10.1037/h0032955

The Year In Sports Research

Think that being an academic is incompatible with being a die-hard sports nut? Think again. The greatest minds of our time are still hard at work figuring out exactly what’s going on with athletes, teams, and fans. Here’s the best of what they uncovered in 2012:

Tax rates matter. A pair of new studies examined how local income tax rates influence a team’s ability to sign free agents. Cornell’s Nolan Kopkin analyzed the NBA free agent market from 2001-2008 and found that an increase in the marginal income tax rates paid by players on a given team leads to a decrease in the average skill of free agents the teams signs. In other words, higher taxes mean worse free agents. Tulane’s James Alm led a similar study that looked at MLB free agents. Alm and his team found that teams in states with higher income tax rates pay higher free agent salaries, and therefore teams in low tax areas have the advantage of being able to pay lower salaries. Don’t be surprised if you see Grover Norquist start taking credit for World Series titles.

It’s good to be a generalist. New research by Long Wang and J. Keith Murningham suggests there is more interest in players with a general skillset even when specialized skills are needed. Not only do fans prefer players with a wide variety of skills, general managers have the same bais. Wang and Murningham analyzed the contract outcomes of free agent guards who they categorized as either two-point specialists or three-point specialists. They found that the salaries of three-point specialists were based on their two-point scoring rather than their three point scoring. Oddly, three-point shooters were evaluated based on their more general, but less apt, two-point scoring ability. No word on whether the sample was weighted toward decisions made by the Wizards, Bobcats, and Kings.

The Wonderlic Test matters for draftees, but only for certain positions. Few tests have received as much attention as the 12 minute “intelligence” evaluation given to potential NFL draftees. While the importance of the test as a predictor for future success has been downplayed in recent years, two Cal State-Fullerton economists found that scores still have an impact on a player’s draft position if they’re a quarterback, tight end, or offensive lineman. The findings mean kickers can continue their tradition of staying up to get drunk the night before the test.

The benefits of national sports fandom are progressive (in Germany). We can’t be sure what a study of Americans would show, but a survey of over 5,000 German residents found that when Germans were victorious, the biggest increases in happiness and pride were among women, individuals with a low educational background, and people with low incomes. So it turns out all those  Ivy League rowers do care about the poor.

NCAA basketball officials want to appear fair. Fans like to comfort themselves by saying that calls will even out in the end, but when it comes to NCAA basketball that might actually be true. In 2009 Kyle Anderson and David Pierce found evidence that college basketball officials tend to even up foul counts, and a new study by Cecilia Noecker and Paul Roback both confirms and extends those results. Their study examined Big Ten, Big East, and ACC games from the 2004-05 and 2009-10 seasons. They found that every increase in the foul differential between home and visiting teams increased the chances a foul would be called on the home team. In addition, they found that offensive foul calls, which tend to be more subjective, are more likely to be influenced by the foul differential between the two teams than the rate at which other fouls are called during the game (with no bias, the latter metric would be a better predictor.) Evening up foul counts may seem unfair, but remember that these are student athletes, and thus we need to protect them from the cruel reality of an objective world.

Teams might actually get caught “looking ahead.” Northwestern’s Jennifer Brown and Cal’s Dylan B. Minor examined the relationship between the strength of future opponents and player performance in tennis tournaments. They found that strong players were more likely to win when their expected opponent in the next stage of the tournament was weaker. Because opponent strength is all relative, you could spin the result around and say that players are less likely to win when their expected future opponent is stronger. In other words, it’s better for a looming opponent to be weak than strong. Does that mean postgame analysis from talking heads about “looking ahead” deserves a shred of legitimacy? Meh.

Better to host a soccer tournament than the Olympics.  People are growing more skeptical about the economic effects of hosting a sporting event, and this study in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics will only add fuel to the fire. The study looked at the impact of event hosting on “foreign direct investment” (FDI). The researchers found middling effects, although the more-detailed version of their analysis suggests that countries hosting the World Cup or UEFA Euro Championship saw more FDI than those hosting the Olympics. A muli-level regression also found that hosting non-Olympic tournaments allows you to create less-idiotic mascots.
Kopkin, N. (2011). Tax Avoidance: How Income Tax Rates Affect the Labor Migration Decisions of NBA Free Agents Journal of Sports Economics, 13 (6), 571-602 DOI: 10.1177/1527002511412194

Wang, L., & Keith Murnighan, J. (2013). The generalist bias Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 120 (1), 47-61 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.09.001

Hallmann, K., Breuer, C., & Kühnreich, B. (2012). Happiness, pride and elite sporting success: What population segments gain most from national athletic achievements? Sport Management Review DOI: 10.1016/j.smr.2012.07.001

NFL Teams Should Play Their 11 Fastest Players on Desperation Plays

Last night the Pittsburgh Steelers faced a situation that often afflicts NFL teams. With 12 seconds remaining they had the ball down by three, on their own 28-yard-line, and possessed no timeouts. Needing a miracle on what was likely to be the last play of the game, they resorted to the standard strategy of throwing a short pass and attempting to score a touchdown through a series of laterals. As invariably happens, the ball eventually ended up in the hands of a slow-footed, stone-handed offensive lineman, effectively ending the game.

So here’s my question: Why do teams play offensive lineman in these situations? Offensive teams are required to line up five players who are not eligible receivers, but there is no requirement that those players weigh 300 pounds. In desperation situations requiring 70+ yards there’s no real need for pass blocking because defenses concede the short pass. So why not put your 11 fastest players on the field? Find some combination of receivers, running backs, and tight ends, line five of them up as lineman, and then let them join the lateraling fun once the pass is thrown. The upside is that every player who might touch the ball is hard to tackle and has good hands. The downside is…well, there is none. Except that you’d have to do things differently than they’ve always been done by every team. I suppose it’s possible that defenses will adjust by rushing the passer and defending short routes more aggressively, but given the increased risk that seems unlikely. I assume that once one team stops playing linemen all the other teams will follow suit, and playing lineman on the final play will disappear faster than straight-ahead kicking.

To make a crazy leap and apply this to public policy, one reason I’m a policy optimist is that when it comes to health care, education, and energy there are bound to be easy improvements we’ve never considered because the old way of doing things is so institutionalized. As technology makes it easier for people’s voices to be heard, I think we’ll begin to uncover theses inefficiencies at a faster rate.