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

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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