14 July 2010

Sport as Academic Laboratory

My latest column for Bridges is out, and in it I discuss how sport can serve as a useful laboratory for examining questions related to decision making, ethics, politics, prediction and more. I even discuss the outcome of the recent World Cup prediction competition that I ran here over the past month. Here is an excerpt from my essay:
Sports provide a valuable context for evaluating expertise, and not just among athletes but among those who purport to understand the dynamics of sporting events. For instance, ESPN, the US-based sports media enterprise, hosted a competition for predictions of the outcomes of the 2010 World Cup. Of the more than 1,000,000 entries submitted, only 10 percent would have improved on naïve predictions based on the transfer market-value of each team, i.e., assuming that the higher valued team would win each game. In fact, the "expert" predictions offered by the financial services firms Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and UBS fell only at the 61st, 67th, and 35th percentiles in the ESPN competition, respectively, all behind a naïve forecast based on FIFA World Rankings, which scored at the 70th percentile. What might this say about these firms' ability to predict market outcomes?
Have a look, I welcome your comments. You can also hear the column as an mp3.

And as usual, please peruse the entire issue.


  1. As someone who has spent many years investigating prediction models for sports results, I was amazed at the ad hoc efforts of the bank teams regarding the World Cup.

    It simply doesn't work to assume that a factor (say, FIFA rankings, or transfer values) has contribution to make to a prediction.

    The way to do it is to include a whole range of probable, possible and even unlikely factors, and then run them through an AI engine (genetic algorithms are especially good at this) to see which factors play a part, and to specifically what degree.

    No doubt they are more careful with their market forecasts.....

  2. I like the putting for par v putting for birdie.

  3. Typo alert. In the piece, JP Morgan should be 61% percentile and the FIFA World Ranking 65th.

    Thanks to DB.

  4. I wrote a waffly post last week because I thought the results had a lot of randomness, but didn't want to say so because it may have sounded like sour grapes.

    The world cup has moved closer to the Olympics where no one cares who is the highest jumper, fastest sailor or best fighter apart from three weeks every four years. International football teams don't play each other because it interferes with leagues and is often boring, so it's hard to judge who is best.

    "England's loss to Germany over the weekend reflects Thatcherism's demoralising effects on the English proletariat. "

    Completely mad, yes. British football was very deliberately transformed (sanitised) by the lure of the money being made by American sports. Like the USA, the working classes were evicted from their own hobby. The play analyses (dribbles etc.), seen in the broadsheet papers are complete anathema to the spirit of the game, but very American.

    My first and last (!) Celtic vs Rangers game (I was a kid), had 135,000 baying customers. A level of noise, passion (intense hatred) and violence, on and off the field that is beyond description. There were a large number of injured bodies stretched out in front of me.

    A different world from Holland vs Spain. Actually perhaps it wasn't so different when one thinks of the Dutch tackles !

    I include this because it has one of the most famous goals in history. Sir Alex Ferguson was thrown out of Rangers for failing to mark at the first goal (he is no 9, head in hands)

    Scottish Cup Final 1969


  5. These are all relevant to football forecasting. I have zero interest in football conspiracies, but saw the BBC article and was aware of the general picture.

    Thousands in Asia held over football bets (today)

    More than 5,000 people have been arrested in Asia during the World Cup in an operation against illegal gambling, police say.
    Almost $10m was seized during the crackdown in China, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, the international police force Interpol said.


    Fifa was warned before this year's World Cup of fears that Nigeria's team could be vulnerable to match-fixing, the BBC has learned.

    An investigator for Uefa raised concerns, including suspicions over betting patterns. Nigeria went out of the tournament in the first round, losing to Greece.


    International soccer match-fixing probe expands

    "What the Germans have uncovered is . . . the Asian gambling market, which is absolutely gigantic, is coming into Europe and North America," he told CTV News Channel. "Because of the size of the gambling market there (in Asia), it's corrupted much of the Asian sports leagues, and now it's starting to corrupt these leagues around the world.


    Match fixing allegations hit Fifa World Cup in South Africa - American journalist/author



    Fifa investigating Lord Triesman's allegations of bribery against Spain and Russia

    Jerome Valcke, the Fifa general secretary, has described the timing of Lord Triesman's allegations of a Russian-Spanish bribery plot at next month's World Cup as "regrettable and sad" but disclosed on Thursday that the world governing body was working with Interpol to investigate the claims.


    2002 - didn't even watch this, but it was blidingly obvious that something happened.

    The mystery of Paris that refuses to go away

    When Brazil's star striker fell ill just before the last World Cup final it set off a trail of questions and allegations that has yet to run its course