Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Randomness Week

steven-gerrard

Steven Gerrard. (Photo: Associated Press)

Why Sports Need Randomness

• August 26, 2014 • 12:00 PM

Steven Gerrard. (Photo: Associated Press)

Noah Davis talks to David Sally, one of the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, about how uncertainty affects and enhances the games we watch.

In sports, the best team doesn’t always win. Why? Well, sometimes weird stuff happens, things you wouldn’t expect and couldn’t explain. This randomness, as the saying goes, is why they play the games. According to David Sally and Chris Anderson, authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, the world’s most popular sport is also the most random. Roughly 50 percent of any given contest’s outcome is dictated by randomness. We talked to Sally about what this means for fans, why “coincidence is logical,” and a certain league-altering slip.

What is randomness in sports?

There are a number of ways to define randomness, but the simplest way is to think about doing a statistical prediction of a sporting event or an action within sports. I can take a number of factors that I can count, and I can do a regression, and what’s left over is randomness or noise. They are the things we can’t really predict.

Take goals in soccer. I can explain a lot of goals with statistics and numbers of shots. I won’t have much noise. But if I’m trying to predict whether a given shot goes in or how many shots a team generates in a given match, that gets very noisy very quickly. That becomes a very difficult thing to predict on a match-to-match basis. That’s a very statistical way to think about randomness.

“When you think about fans, I don’t know if I want to rationalize it. You kind of want the tragedy and the comedy that’s provided by randomness. You kind of want to tear your hair out when that defender trips over his foot in a random incident.”

From a sports fan’s perspective, there are events that can happen that you have never seen before. That’s one of my favorite experiences. It’s not that there is zero probability of that event happening; it’s that you don’t even place a probability on it happening because you never thought that thing could happen. The shot going in off the beach ball in the Liverpool match. Who would have ever guessed? It can be bad luck, too, like Paul George getting his foot stuck on the stanchion and breaking his leg.

How much of the statistical side of randomness is not having the tools to measure events? Have we reached maximum knowable information in sports?

We know from dynamic systems and Chaos Theory that there are some things that aren’t predictable. There’s the famous example of a butterfly flapping his wings and creating a hurricane. In a complex, dynamic system that can happen. That’s fundamentally not predictable with our current level of science and mathematics.

However, in sports, and especially in soccer, we are very far from that threshold. When it comes to soccer, there are many things that we don’t have the inputs for. We know we can do a lot better in terms of what’s possible to feed into the equation. Think of a sport like baseball. Now that we have more of the location data, it has more and more inputs even on the defensive side. They are able to improve their predictive ability. But even in baseball, they are still pretty far from the threshold.

Does randomness make sports fun to watch? A lot of the great upsets happen because of what might be conceived of as a series of random occurrences.

I think it’s critical to sports. It’s essential to the actual consumption. If you knew 100 percent that the Spurs were going to beat the Heat, would it still be worth watching? You want to say that it’s a beautiful performance, that I want to watch the Spurs run their offense even though I know the outcome. There’s something to the consumption of seeing a talented team play that well. In technical terms, is randomness necessary and sufficient? I think it’s actually neither. It’s not entertaining to watch somebody roll dice, which is utterly unpredictable.

But I think randomness is an important element. I think there are deep roots in human nature after the consumption, after watching the match, to try to create a narrative around the uncertainty. We have a deep-seated need to create narratives for things that aren’t really explainable. Why did lightning strike that guy? That’s a completely probabilistic, random event. But we have a need to create narrative. We have a need to sit in the pub after and figure out why it was a “just result,” why “the right team won” and why was that. It’s not an interesting narrative to say, “Well, it’s just random,” so we discount that.

Not knowing the outcome is a big part of watching sports.

How should fans deal with randomness in sports?

In our book, we quote Johan Cruyff who said “toeval is logisch,” which translates to “coincidence is logical.” That quote represented his ability as a player to accept the fact that as great as he was and as great as Ajax was, things were going go happen that they couldn’t control, like losing to an inferior opponent. At the same time, he could compartmentalize it in some ways. He wasn’t going to be tortured by it. It was logical when a random event happened.

On the other hand, when you think about fans, I don’t know if I want to rationalize it. You kind of want the tragedy and the comedy that’s provided by randomness. You kind of want to tear your hair out when that defender trips over his foot in a random incident. I don’t know if we as fans would want to compartmentalize it as clearly as Cruyff does.

I don’t think the Liverpool fans who watched Steven Gerrard slip would agree with you, but I see your overall point.

Well, they might want to do away with it. But that’s the thing with randomness: you get the negative with the positive.

Can teams take advantage of randomness?

There are some basic principles. If you’re the inferior team, you want to get to penalty kicks. You want games and seasons shorter. Under Tony Pulis, Stoke City matches had the ball in play for the shortest amount of time, something like 57 minutes out of the 90 total. They were far better off with less action, less events, less moments for skill. If you’re the better team, you want to reduced the amount of noise and luck involved.

In European football, where they play an entire season and don’t have playoffs, the best team usually wins. In March Madness, where it’s one loss and you’re out, the best team frequently doesn’t win.

Soccer’s the most random sport but what should fans watch if they don’t want randomness?

Triathlons. Long ones, like the Ironman.

Noah Davis

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

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

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.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


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.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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