A Few Stories on a Sunday

Posted on September 6, 2009 by

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Although it may not be obvious, most columns posted here have a coherent theme.  Today, though, I thought I would just comment on a few stories I have seen this past week.

Immigration Policy and Competitive Balance

Chris Cook of Financial Times makes an interesting connection – see Top clubs triumph on an uneven pitch — between immigration policy in Great Britain and competitive balance in the English Premier League.   Specifically, Cook argues that immigration restrictions in England have harmful effects in soccer.  The argument draws upon research we noted in The Wages of Wins. 

The Cook article also mentions the new book by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. The book – Soccernomics – will be released in the U.S. in October.  It’s already a big hit in England (where it was released last month).

Attractive Quarterbacks Again

About a year ago I published a short article in Play Magazine (from the New York Times) detailing how the physical attractiveness of a quarterback was related to his pay.  Research I conducted – with Jennifer VanGilder, Rob Simmons, and Lisle O’Neill – suggested that the symmetry of a quarterback’s face (as noted in our academic paper, we use a measure of attractiveness from Symmeter) has a statistically significant link to a quarterback’s compensation. 

This story has once again been noted in the media.  Reed Albergotti of the Wall Street Journal asked us to update our analysis. These updates are noted in Cute Quarterbacks? There’s a Stat for That, Too. Katie Leslie of Atlanta Journal Constitution also comments on the story (see Matt Ryan: The NFL’s face of ‘perfection’?).

My Childhood with Ernie Harwell

This past week we all learned that Ernie Harwell has incurable cancer.  Harwell was the Tigers announcer for about forty years and his voice is a fond memory from my childhood.  About the first twelve years of my life were spent in Michigan, primarily in the city of Detroit.  When I was four or five years old, the family’s black and white television set broke.  My father decided not to replace the TV, so for the next seven years we had no TV (yes, it was a tragedy).  So as my attention turned to sports, it was via the radio that I primarily followed my favorite teams.  This means that I spent quite a bit of time listening – like “the house by the side of the road” (here is a list of Harwell’s catchphrases) – to Ernie Harwell.  Although I enjoy listening  — via the Internet – to Jim Price and Dan Dickerson today, when I think of the Detroit Tigers on the radio I will always think of Harwell (and of course, Paul Carey).   So I was very sorry to hear about his illness.

Forecasting the Lions

And now for some more sad news (although not nearly as serious).

Next week the Detroit Lions will begin their 46th season with William Clay Ford as sole owner of the team (and 49th since Ford became team president).    Prior to Ford taking over, the Lions won NFL titles in 1935, 1952, 1953, and 1957.  The team came to Detroit in 1934, so in 27 years without Ford involved the Lions won four titles.  With Ford in charge, the team has won only one playoff game and last year finished 0-16.

A new season, though, is upon us and in football, hope springs eternal before the games begin.   In 2007 the Falcons and Dolphins combined to win five games.  Last season these two teams – led by new coaches — each finished with eleven wins and made the playoffs. 

The Lions enter this season with a new coach and coaching staff.  In addition, of the 25 players listed on the team’s offense at the moment, thirteen were not on the team last year (including five new starters). On defense there are even more new faces.  Of the 25 players on defense, sixteen are new to Detroit.   And at least eight of the eleven starters were not with the Lions last year.

Despite all the new faces, forecasts for the Lions seem quite low.  No one seems to think this team has any chance of being good in 2009.  It’s almost as if people think the clothes worn in Detroit lose games.  After all, the coaches have changed.  Many of the players have changed.  One would think, then, that at least some of the forecasts would change also.  But that hasn’t happened.  Every forecast I have seen expects the Lions to be losers in 2009.

At this point I would like to say that there is some statistical model that contradicts the conventional wisdom.  But it doesn’t seem to me that any such model exists.  In basketball we have data on every player that is somewhat consistent from season to season.  Even with such data, surprises still happen.  In football, no such data exists for players.  Consequently, forecasting football seems quite difficult.

Brian Burke – of Advanced NFL Statistics – has recently had some fun with this point.  His Koko Fantasy Ranking highlights how difficult it is to construct a winner in fantasy football.

Phil Taylor at Sports Illustrated also comes clean on this point.  His column in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated captures the truth of NFL Forecasts: Trust Us: We’re Wrong.

The words of Burke and Taylor should give some hope to fans of the Lions.  There is a possibility the Lions will be good this year.  How much of a possibility, though, is unclear to me.  And I suspect, everyone else as well.

– DJ

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