Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Quick Studies

hockey1

(Photo: SignalPad/Wikimedia Commons)

Can Sports Teams Really Have Momentum?

• February 18, 2014 • 2:46 PM

(Photo: SignalPad/Wikimedia Commons)

Not in collegiate hockey, at least.

ESPN commentators will often insist that such-and-such team has such-and-such “momentum,” so really, there’s not much of a question when it comes to tonight’s game.

Behavioral economists have long attempted to figure out whether this clichéd concept that sports fans have long endeared themselves to can actually, statistically, be a predictor of a team or player’s success. The results have proven inconsistent.

A 2006 review concluded that momentum is more likely to present itself in sports “where there is minimal or non-existent opportunity for opponents to interfere with player performance.”

One study demonstrated that pro golfers can indeed go on “non-random streaks.” Another recent study that looked at in-game momentum in the NFL discovered no evidence of it after turnovers and allowed scores, but did see an advantageous effect after a team successfully converted on a fourth-down. A 2006 review concluded that momentum is more likely to present itself in sports “where there is minimal or non-existent opportunity for opponents to interfere with player performance.”

Kevin M. Kniffin, a researcher at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and his assistant Vince Mihalek, a recent graduate and four-year player on the school’s hockey team, have added yet another entry into the empirical sports momentum literature by analyzing the results of 458 collegiate two-game hockey series (916 games total) played in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). The pair wanted to figure out if performance in the first game would statistically predict the outcome of the second. In the study, which will appear in the March edition of Economics Letters, they contend that this particular data set works perfectly for studying momentum.

Of the six conferences for Division 1 men’s hockey, one of them–the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA)–uniquely schedules series in which a given team will host another team for two consecutive games in the same location with uniform amounts of time (i.e., 1 day) between the games. Given that teams take turns across the course of the season hosting and traveling to compete against other squads, there is also a balance in the scheduling to guard against any effect of home ice advantage. The conditions in the WCHA consequently make it ideal for testing whether momentum exists within series from the outcome of Game 1 in relation to Game 2.

When the researchers controlled for the quality of the team by taking into account end-of-year conference records, they discovered that a win in the first game, no matter how excessive in terms of outscoring, did not predict a triumph in the second. “In fact, our finding that a team that wins the first game by 2 goals is slightly less likely to win Game 2 is affirmative evidence that positive momentum, at least, does not exist in our sample of series,” the researchers conclude. So when it comes to collegiate hockey in the WCHA at least, momentum doesn’t seem to exist. Sorry hockey fans.

Of course, these conclusions aren’t generalizable to other sports, or leagues for that matter. And the findings also support earlier suggestions that momentum’s power doesn’t extend to contests, like hockey, in which an opponent can directly “respond to offensive maneuvers.” Bowlers on a streak needn’t worry—yet.

Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

More From Ryan Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.



October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.


October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.


October 28 • 4:00 AM

The Study of Science Leads to Leftward Leanings

Researchers report the scientific ethos tends to produce a mindset that favors liberal political positions.


October 28 • 2:00 AM

Who Funded That? The Names and Numbers Behind the Research in Our Latest Issue

This list includes studies cited in our pages that received funding from a source other than the researchers’ home institutions. Only principal or corresponding authors are listed.


October 27 • 4:00 PM

School Shootings: What’s Different About Europe?

There may be a lot of issues at play, but it’s undeniable that the ease of access to guns in the United States is a major contributing factor to our ongoing school shooting crisis.


October 27 • 2:00 PM

The Best Investigative Reporting on Campaign Finance Since 2012

From dark money to a mysterious super PAC donor, here are a few of the best investigations of money in politics since the last elections.


October 27 • 12:00 PM

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.