Amateurism hacks
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Amateurism hacks

This week The Daily Show mocked the NCAA for ruling a wrestler on a 10% scholarship ineligible for selling rap music. NCAA athletes are not allowed to profit from their own names. It seems crazy because it is crazy. And the NCAA is utterly unsympathetic. If you don’t know why, check out Taylor Branch’s 2011 article in The Atlantic, The Shame of College Sports.

If you think like a security professional, though, the NCAA rule makes perfect sense. Players are not allowed to receive gifts or compensation for playing sports. If they were allowed to be compensated for other endeavors, it would create a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. Top ranked football recruits could just self-publish e-books on Amazon.com with titles like, “Buy This If You Want Me to Attend the University of Alabama” and rake in the dollars. Given a rule that disallows fans from compensating players, lots of other rules follow.

Being in the rules enforcement business is rarely fun. You start out trying to keep people from manufacturing crystal meth, and the next thing you know you have to show your driver’s license at the pharmacy to buy cold medicine.

Understanding offensive football in two paragraphs
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Understanding offensive football in two paragraphs

Let’s say you are a casual football fan who doesn’t really understand how football strategy works. Chris Brown explains the purpose of every offensive scheme in two paragraphs:

With 11 players to each side, every play — but particularly run plays — often comes down to how the offense does or does not account for one or two particular defenders. In the modern NFL, if all of an offense’s players block their counterparts on a running play, the defense will have two defenders unaccounted for: The counterpart for the running back carrying the ball and the counterpart for the quarterback, who most likely has handed the ball off. Good quarterbacks like Peyton Manning seek to control their counterpart by faking a play-action pass, so that a deep safety must stand in the middle of the field.

But the ballcarrier still has a counterpart. NFL offenses work extremely hard to dictate who that guy will be — with motion, different blocking schemes, and even using wide receivers to block interior defenders — but at some point the math is the math. Until the quarterback is a threat, the math will always work against the offense. But spread coaches, without subjecting their quarterbacks to undue brutality, have learned to change the calculus.

That’s from an article on how the New York Jets will use Tim Tebow, but if you understand those two paragraphs, you will understand more about football than most people who watch it all day every Sunday.

The wealth gap and the NBA lockout
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The wealth gap and the NBA lockout

Malcolm Gladwell on the wealth gap:

It is worth noting, though, that in the social and political commentary of the 1950s and 1960s there is scant evidence of wealthy people complaining about their situation. They paid their taxes and went about their business. Perhaps they saw the logic of the government’s policy: There was a huge debt from World War II to be paid off, and interstates, public universities, and other public infrastructure projects to be built for the children of the baby boom. Or perhaps they were simply bashful. Wealth, after all, is as often the gift of good fortune as it is of design. For whatever reason, the wealthy of that era could have pushed for a world that more closely conformed to their self-interest and they chose not to. Today the wealthy have no such qualms. We have moved from a country of relative economic equality to a place where the gap between rich and poor is exceeded by only Singapore and Hong Kong. The rich have gone from being grateful for what they have to pushing for everything they can get. They have mastered the arts of whining and predation, without regard to logic or shame.

From a piece that defies summarization on how a real estate developer purchased the New Jersey Nets NBA team as part of a plan to acquire and develop a coveted piece of prime real estate in Brooklyn. I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing.

March Madness dorkiness
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March Madness dorkiness

As you may or may not know, the NCAA Tournament starts this weekend, and people around you are probably doing their best to predict the winners of all of the games in the tournament. Most years I join one (or more) pools, but I don’t watch enough college basketball to make educated guesses about who will win each game. This year, I wrote a program to do it for me.

I started with Ken Pomeroy’s team ratings. Here’s his explanation for how the system works:

My ratings produce a number that actually means something–it’s the chance of beating an average D-I team on a neutral floor. For instance, Michigan’s current rating of .8006 means that the Wolverines would win 8 out of 10 games against the average D-I team. Every March, I borrow Bill James’ log5 formula to take these ratings and compute probabilities for each team to win its conference tournament.

I’m not sure how the log5 formula got its name, but it’s fairly intuitive. Think of a coin with one side labeled “win” and the other side labeled “loss.” The chance of the coin landing on “win” is the team’s rating. Log5 is derived from the probability that a team’s coin will land on win and its opponent’s coin will land on loss. (If they land on the same side, you re-flip.)

My script takes the source from Pomeroy’s ratings page and reads in all of the teams and their ratings, and then picks a random winner for each game based on the log5 comparison of Pomeroy’s ratings. Here’s the output for a hypothetical Final Four the script generated:

FINAL FOUR
Maryland has a 45% chance of beating Syracuse
Winner: Syracuse

Kentucky has a 56% chance of beating Baylor
Winner: Kentucky

NATIONAL CHAMPION
Syracuse has a 51% chance of beating Kentucky
Winner: Kentucky

The script has no way of knowing which teams will upset higher seeded opponents, other than by giving teams that Pomeroy’s system likes a better chance of winning, but it should pick roughly the right number of upsets based on the odds.

I’ve uploaded the script to a repository named bracketologist on GitHub if you want to play with it. It’s written in Ruby.

How video games train football players
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How video games train football players

Chris Suellentrop has a fun article in Wired about how playing video games is creating a superior generation of football players. I think football players can learn more from simulations than most other athletes because football players have to think so much, and because they play fewer games. A lot of playing football is looking at how the other team has lined up and figuring out what they’re going to do. You can learn a lot about that by playing a realistic simulation. Sports like basketball and baseball are more about physical reactions, less about planning on the fly, so I’d expect that players of those sports benefit less.

Commodifying Moneyball
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Commodifying Moneyball

The challenge for Bloomberg is to create software that is better, faster and more visually useful than what rivals offer to help develop players and predict their performances. A demonstration of Bloomberg’s software showed dazzlingly colorful graphics and an easy way to plot statistics and compare players in complex combinations.

The developers say that after studying rival software makers, they can do more and do it better.

From an article in the New York Times, Bloomberg Technology Embraces Baseball. Moneyball was really a book about identifying and exploiting undervalued assets. The main thing that has changed since the book was published is that players are valued much more accurately than they were when the A’s were beating teams with higher payrolls.

How World Cup seeding works
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How World Cup seeding works

The system by which World Cup qualifying teams are seeded and assigned to groups is more interesting than you might think. Nate Silver explains how the system works and which teams are winners and losers going into the drawing this weekend.

Over the years I’ve seen lots of complaining about the group assignments various teams have gotten, but never an explanation of how they work. The ways FIFA intentionally sets things up to benefit the host country are particularly interesting.

Which analysis is worth paying for?
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Which analysis is worth paying for?

Last night offered a perfect illustration of one of the many reasons newspaper journalism is in trouble. In last night’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots, the Patriots, up 6 points, went for it on fourth and 2 with 2:08 left in the game. They failed to make the first down, and Peyton Manning took the Colts in for the score, winning the game 35-34.

Let’s look at the analysis offered by a major metropolitan daily, the Houston Chronicle.

Here’s their NFL reporter, John McClain:

I still can’t believe what I just witnessed. Belichick is getting ripped because of his clock management and his unbelievable decision to go for a first down when he should have punted. They didn’t make it, and they gave Peyton Manning the ball at their 29 trailing by six.

And here’s Jerome Solomon:

There won’t be a much more exciting finish than this year’s Colts-Patriots. Of course, there won’t be a much more idiotic call than Bill Belichick electing to go for a fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line despite his team holding a six-point lead. There is no legitimate excuse for such a move. It wasn’t gutsy, and even if it had worked, it just wasn’t smart. Is the pressure of not winning a Super Bowl in five years starting to wear on the Hooded One?

So, according to them, Belichick is “idiotic” and his decision was “unbelievable,” but neither of those adjectives are accompanied by any analysis whatsoever. On the other hand, here’s some quick postgame analysis from a couple of blogs. First, Smart Football, which analyzed the decision without crunching the numbers:

The goal is, obviously, to maximize your chance of winning. If you punt, your chances of winning are your odds of stopping a streaking Manning who has just torched your defense the whole fourth quarter. He will have to drive about 70 yards. Because of his excellence in clock management, the two-minute warning, and their timeout, time was not really a factor. (The analysis would be much different if there was only, say, a minute left.)

If you go for it, your chance of winning hinges on two outcomes: (a) if you get the first down, you win the game; and (b) if you don’t get it, you still have a chance to stop Manning. So your chance of winning if you go for it is the sum of (a) your chance of converting; and (b) your chance of stopping Manning from the 30 yard line.

Here’s Advanced NFL Stats with the numbers:

Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount. However, these numbers are baselines for the league as a whole. You’d have to expect the Colts had a better than a 30% chance of scoring from their 34, and an accordingly higher chance to score from the Pats’ 28. But any adjustment in their likelihood of scoring from either field position increases the advantage of going for it. You can play with the numbers any way you like, but it’s pretty hard to come up with a realistic combination of numbers that make punting the better option. At best, you could make it a wash.

Are we really going to miss those guys I quoted at the top?