Sunday, March 29, 2015

Blatter vs. The Cartoonist

It is difficult to be surprised by anything that FIFA does. Via investigative journalist Andrew Jennings comes details of a legal campaign by FIFA to prevent the publication of a book of cartoons about Sepp Blatter and FIFA. An excerpt:
When Blatter learned that Olé's book of cartoons was imminent he responded with typical FIFA transparency. He sent his lawyers to a Zurich court in late 2013 claiming that their client  “has a good reputation and if the cartoons were published he would never be able to repair the damage.”

Stop laughing.
Like most efforts to squelch speech, this one failed too. You can find an English version of the cartoon book here at Amazon.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Congrats to Nick Harris at Sporting Intelligence


Last night Nick Harris, proprietor of Sporting Intelligence, took home the award for top specialist sports website at the annual British Sports Journalists Awards.

Congratulations to Nick and to the contributors to Sporting Intelligence, as well as to all the other award winners.

You can follow Nick on Twitter @sportingintel and regular contributors: @teddycutler @ianherbs

Monday, March 23, 2015

Data Point of the Day: Madness in March

Percentage of NCAA men's basketball players who think that they are somewhat likely to go pro?


Percentage of NCAA men's basketball players who actually make it to the NBA?


Percentage of NCAA men's basketball players who play professionally at any level (e.g., Europe, NBA D League, etc.)?


A Forensic Estimate of Sepp Blatter's Salary

Over at Sporting Intelligence I parse the latest FIFA financials to uncover a few more clues about Sepp Blatter's salary.

Read it here and feel free to come back with any comments.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Research Question: Media Attention to Sports?

I have stumped some of my colleagues who study the media, so I am enlisted the help of the crowd. For my new book, I'd like to report on how much attention (in absolute or relative measures) that the media place on sports.

By "the media" I am referring to online, print, TV, etc. I welcome US-focused data or international. I have come across a 2001 paper from Northwestern University looking at print newspapers. But that was before the big changes in the journalism landscape occurred.

Any pointers or suggestions most welcomed! (email rpielkejr at gmail or comments below).


Thursday, March 12, 2015

ASU's Curtain of Distraction - Second Bite of the Apple

At The New York Times, Justin Wolfers is back with another look at ASU's "curtain of distraction" -- a fun little stage that students use to try to distract opponents when shooting free throws. In my earlier critique I was pretty generous to Justin. This post is less generous. Fool me once ...

In January, I showed that Wolfers' first analysis was spurious and was a good example of torquing data to fit a narrative. Then I wrote:
Sure one can spin a compelling narrative and find some numbers that seem to support that narrative. As the saying goes, numbers which are sufficiently tortured using statistical methods will ultimately confess. As a corollary I might add that pretty much any narrative one cares to spin can be supported by some plausible or plausible-sounding data. But I'm also pretty sure that is not how "data journalism" is supposed to work.

As far as narratives go, the ASU Curtain of Distraction is a great one. Too bad the numbers don't follow along.
I asked Wolfers several times via email and Twitter for his data, and he ignored me. This is pretty common in academia I am afraid, but journals have cracked down in peer reviewed settings. Academics aspiring to be data journalists should continue to meet professional standards, even when publishing in the New York Times, but I digress.

Wolfers is back with a second effort to fit the data to the narrative. In the NYT today he writes of a look across college basketball:
We found that distraction works. On average, college basketball players are about one percentage point less likely to make a free throw when in front of a hostile crowd than when at home. They are not less accurate in neutral arenas, which suggests that what matters is not whether a player is in a familiar arena, or whether they have had to travel, but whether they are trying to shoot in front of an organized student section hellbent on distracting them.
The home court advantage in basketball is very well known, so the overall conclusions of a small home court advantage in free throw percentages confirms that which we already know.

But then Wolfers says this:
Our analysis reveals that there appear to be some fan sections that are particularly effective. The best remain the Arizona State fans, at least since their introduction of the Curtain of Distraction. Teams playing in front of the curtain shoot about nine percentage points worse than they do at home. A handful of other teams, including Northwestern, Baylor, Utah, Nebraska and U.C.L.A., are also blessed with effective fans, costing visitors about one point per game on average.
You may not have noticed what Wolfers has done with some statistical sleight of hand, so let me explain. He looks at data for all teams over 5 years, but ASU over just 2 years. You have to follow a few asterixes to the fine print to discover this - he writes at the bottom: "That said, this [ASU] data sample is significantly smaller than those of other colleges, which grouped five seasons into a single rating." What!?

It is not even worth looking at this analysis unless it compares apples to apples. Either compare all teams over the past 2 years, or all teams over the past 5 years. It is fairly obvious to any quant that a short-term dataset of this type will have much higher variability than a longer-term dataset. Wolfers does present the data for ASU over 5 years, no such relationship exists. He doesn't present the data for all teams for 2 years. I can guess what it might show.

Given than the ASU numbers already been shown to be spurious, mixing them in improperly with another dataset does not alter this fact.  Stuff like this gives data journalism a bad name.

Are We All Complicit in Doping Scandals?

The basic story of doping in sport goes something like this. A superstar athlete is caught doping. There is great outrage expressed among athletes, fans, and the media. The athlete is punished, shamed and sometimes ostracized. Everyone laments doping and lays blame on the bad apple. Then we set things up for the pattern to repeat. And it does.

It doesn't have to be this way of course.

In my latest piece at Sporting Intelligence I discuss some "uncomfortable truths" laid bare by the UCI CIRC report issued earlier this week. Here is how my essay begins:
Sport, it is often said, is a mirror to society. That is no more true than in the revelations found in the report of the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (downloadable as a PDF on this website), which earlier this week released its report on doping in professional cycling. We may not like what we see when we look into that mirror. Here are three uncomfortable truths that The CIRC forces us to confront.
Please head here to read the whole thing. You are welcome to come back and comment if you'd like.