Menus Subscribe Search

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

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

Recent Posts

September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?

September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.

September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.

September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.

September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.

September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.

September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.

September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.

September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.

September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.

September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.

September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.

September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.

September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.

September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.

September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.

September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.

September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.

September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.

Follow us

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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