How Data Continues to Revolutionize the Way We Understand Sport

Following the successful publication and summary cinematization of Moneyball, a large swath of readers and viewers were introduced to the notion that standard actions within games are predictable using statistics. Of course, this has always been true, long known to students of game theory. But the general population continued to see sport as a series of random events, commanded by a handful of larger than life superstars. Statistics has shown us that this conception of events on a field or pitch are largely illusory, with games actually existing in the netherworld where random events, general likelihood, and human error/excellence intertwine.

Statistics don’t dictate what happens in a game. They simply describe what is likely to happen, based on what has always happened. And this is what continues to make football so exciting to watch. While not as easy to break down numerically as baseball, with it’s resolute positions and tendencies, football is nonetheless a product of players engaging in series of behavioral probabilities. The ways in which each player succeeds or fails to pursue a desirable outcome in any of a near-unlimited series of game decisions will determine who carries the day. And with so many events playing out each second on a field of two dozen or more players, the variables are near infinite. It is said that in the game of chess, there are as many possible moves as there are atoms in the observable universe. And chess is limited to the actions of 48 chessman acting on a 12×12 grid. Football is endlessly more variable, and the possibilities that may occur within a single game approach the vertical horizon of the asymptote.

Still, this endless variability must be contained and expressed within a simple scoring system. And this is what makes it possible to wager on the outcome of a single match. Each match resolves, and there is a clear outcome. In this way, people hoping to anticipate the outcome of a single match may do so with no more forethought than the flip of a coin. But, as expected, these individuals often have a success rate of roughly 50%. Those who would make their career in the wagering of football outcomes must do a little better than that, or hedge their winnings when they get it right.

People without a mastery of statistical analysis who would better their odds of successfully anticipating the resolution of games like football would do best to avail themselves of the skill sets of people who do know statistics. There are many companies who provide such insight, so-called football picks against the spread. A subscription to these services can be a primer to the conclusions of minds steeped in game theory and statistical analysis. Basically, in a single match, there are billions of possibilities, and a smaller subset of events that are likely to happen, out of near infinite possibilities. By having someone narrow down what’s likely to happen, these individuals can give you sense of what the outcome of any given match is likely to be. While there is still lots of human error, using this method can help you, basically, beat the curve.


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