The Freakonomics of Sports


If any of you have ever read Freakonomics, then you know where I’m going with the title of this post.  In that book, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt explore the “hidden side of everything,” showing readers how incentives influence economic and occupational choices and activities.  I don’t know if Tobias Moskowitz or L. Jon Wertheim set out to write the sports version of Freakonomics, but Levitt has praised it as “the closest thing I’ve seen to Freakonomics since the original,” so I’m thinking the comparisons are apt.

Anyway, now to the book.  Sports, like many professions, comes with many nuggets of conventional wisdom: “defense wins championships,” “it’s easier to win at home,” “always ice the kicker before a big kick.”  Some of these adages seem kind of stupid when you think about them for two seconds.  For instance, is a kicker that’s made it all the way to the highest peak in his sport going to fall apart because the opposing coach gives him an extra minute to contemplate the kick he’s about to make?  Well, Moskowitz and Wertheim, like their economic brethren, debunk that myth as well as others with the kind of sophisticated statistical analysis made possible by the era of Big Data.  Their analysis shows that kickers are every bit as likely to make kicks whether they’ve been iced or not, and in some cases, they’re even slightly more likely to make the kick if they’ve been iced.  This holds up in a variety of game situations, no matter how much time is left.

Without giving too much away, some of their juicier bits of analysis involve the home-field advantage, and whether or not the presence of a superstar on a team makes them better.  Home field advantage exists, they say, but not because of crowd support or the rigors of travel for away teams.  Vocal fans do matter, but for different reasons.  Rather than allowing the athletes to draw an extra bit of energy off their support, they put more pressure on referees to make calls that favor the home team.  It’s one of those things that sports fans kind of know on a subconscious level, but it turns out it is borne out by stats.  Moskowitz and Wertheim also find that the presence of a superstar player on a team does indeed make them more likely to win, calling the conventional wisdom about “chemistry over star power” into question.  It shows that failed superstar-gathering experiments like this year’s Los Angeles Lakers are more the exception than the norm.

So, all in all, Scorecasting makes for a fascinating read for any sports junkie.  Though it’s written in a very accessible format, so even the casual sports fan can pick it up and enjoy it.  So I’m going to give this book a buy it rating.  It doesn’t have a lot of “re-readability value,” but I’d buy it to support the authors, and because I’d want to share it with my fellow fans.

Don't ice him, Bears.  It won't make a difference.
Don’t ice him, Bears. It won’t make a difference.


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