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Voodoo Sportonomics

I don’t often write about sports on this blog but I’m a big fan and saw this xkcd comic on a few sites and had to comment.

Some sports commentary is getting better at using stats to improve our understanding of the game. Unlike Bill Simmons, who I always enjoy, I don’t begrudge the move to more statistical analysis. According to the New York Times magazine piece on him this week, “he has been turned off by the fetishization of statistics that now dominates coverage of” baseball. But the above comic hilariously captures the pathetic reality of a great deal of the voodoo sportonomics out there. Check out yesterday’s Fox Sports column on the “2011 NFL organizational rankings.”

I was once challenged by an NFL head coach to “crunch the numbers” on what makes a “great” organization. This is the third year we’ve ranked every team. The New England Patriots, ranked No. 1 in 2009 and 2010, have been knocked off of the top spot.

Remember, this is NOT a power ranking. We grade each team on six vital categories — owner, quarterback, head coach, front office, coaching staff and intangibles, which include facilities, fan support and public relations.

I was surprised by many of the results. And there are way too many “bad teams” in the NFL.

By crunching the numbers I assume Adam Schein means “make up some numbers.” I’m not just a bitter Pats fan upset at their demotion, but all of these numbers seem… randomly generated. My favorite has to be precisely measured “intangibles” category. Isn’t the point of intangibles that they can’t be measured!? The Patriots get a surprisingly specific 8.5 while the “‘Raider Nation’ helps the intangibles” measure in at a 7. Why ridiculous halloween costumed fans wouldn’t contribute to an even lower number for that farcical franchise I’m not sure.

The surprised Schein pads the column with useless graphs to make the pretend statistics seem scientific. Overall I still think sports commentary improved from last year. In 2011 they rate in at 4.5 compared to last year’s even 4.

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Categories: Sports
  1. Dave
    June 2, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Sports stats have been absurdly specific for a long time. “You know, this is only the third time in the past four and a half seasons that a left hander has pitched three hitless innings during the second game of a double header in the National League.” Wow.

    • June 2, 2011 at 12:14 pm

      Those types of stats always amuse me. They also amaze me that someone actually keeps such a stat. You’re right that it’s also a fairly pointless statistic. But it’s not specificity in general that is problematic. At least in the type of case you mention the numbers aren’t entirely made up like in the “intangibles” measurement. In sports we see pointless numbers, made up metrics, and (if we’re lucky) meaningful values.

  2. Dave
    June 2, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    True, the numbers I complain about are “hard” in the way your ludicrous intangibles aren’t, but in a way I think they’re more insidious. These stats are so specific as to be utterly pointless, yet they’re spouted by sports announcers and broadcasters as if they actually matter. And some people actually use this information- like in fantasy league trades and acquisitions, or more worryingly while gambling, or less troubling but more annoyingly in conversation. People might take this silliness even more seriously precisely because it does consist of “real” numbers, even though they’re magnified beyond any possible relevance.

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