Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

Randomness Week


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
Noah Davis is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @noahedavis.

More From Noah Davis

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

Recent Posts

October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.

October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”

October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.

October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.

October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.

October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.

October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.

October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.

October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.

October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.

October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.

October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.

October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.

October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?

October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.

October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.

October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?

October 15 • 10:00 AM

What Big Data Can Tell Us About the Things We Eat

Pizza might be the only thing that can bring men and women together.

October 15 • 9:04 AM

‘Looking’ at Art in the Smartphone Age

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over.

October 15 • 8:00 AM

A Brief History of High Heels

How what was once standard footwear for 16th-century Persian horsemen became “fashion’s most provocative accessory.”

October 15 • 7:22 AM

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don’t always take alerts seriously.

October 15 • 6:00 AM

The Battle Over High School Animal Dissection

Is the biology class tradition a useful rite of passage or a schoolroom relic?

October 15 • 4:00 AM

Green Surroundings Linked to Higher Student Test Scores

New research on Massachusetts schoolchildren finds a tangible benefit to regular exposure to nature.

Follow us

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways

Researchers propose another way to analyze the character and evolution of cities.

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.