In a Freakonomics for sports, an economist and a sportswriter use the power of data analysis to debunk some of the sports world’s conventional wisdom.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Wertheim’s (Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played, 2010) familiar, straightforward style effectively complements the reams of data provided by Moskowitz (Finance/Univ. of Chicago) in this examination of a series of sports-related issues, including home-field advantage, the effectiveness of minority coaches and the hoary adage that defense wins championships. The conclusions they draw range from startlingly persuasive to shrug-inducing, a combination that results, perhaps, from the overall credibility of their arguments and the recent profusion of similar literature that makes once unthinkably counterintuitive arguments less eye-opening. Perhaps the authors’ most compelling—and pot-stirringly controversial—argument is the contention that home-field advantage, a statistically credible phenomenon in every sport, is almost exclusively a result of referee bias, itself a product of the psychological effect of home fans exhorting officials to make calls that favor their team, a subconscious influence even the best officials cannot overcome. Less convincing is their examination of the efficacy of performance-enhancing drugs. While they show a plausible link between low income and usage—a phenomenon that occurs in multiple countries, a logical result of those with less to lose and more to gain trying to cheat their way to success—they fail to account for players who have used drugs that either cannot be tested for or in such a way that they managed to avoid detection. Also, old-school fans will undoubtedly have trouble embracing concepts like there being no such thing as momentum and the attribution of “hot” and “cold” streaks primarily to random chance.
Hardly groundbreaking, but a well-conceived and -executed addition to the burgeoning movement of stats-based sporting analysis.