Field Theory by Hadyn Green


A competitive competition

What is the most important thing for you in a sports competition? If you answered "a close competition" then you are in agreement with most sports fans around the world. Even if the tournament itself is dominated by a few teams (like the English Premier League) fans like to see small teams run the big guys close (or even beat them). It makes the TAB interesting too.

You don't tend to see fans streaming out of the stadium when their team is up by less than one score with a few minutes left. In fact fans tend to leave early or lose interest only when the score is a real blow out (for either team).

But you know all this. In fact we discussed this before (you also want afternoon matches you can take the family to).

But how effective are the measures the various unions and league put in place to create competitiveness? The answer is a strong "somewhat"

A paper has been written that looks at just that question: Determining the evenness of domestic sporting competition using a generic rating engine. It'll be available in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports in January.

Paul at Offlode was nice enough to send me an abstract of the paper, but I'm not allowed to give you any excerpts. So I'm afraid you're going to have to put up with my interpretations.

At a very basic level the research team created an "engine" that could determine the evenness of a sports competition. They then correlated those evenness scores with factors the various competitions had brought in to even them up. So in essence the team was able to determine how effective things like salary caps and inverse drafts are at in actual evening things up.

And because you want to know, Major League Baseball is the most competitive competition (this year's World Series was a good example of that), football (soccer) is the most competitive sport and rugby is the least competitive sport.

And if you want to be as competitive as the MLB you don't bring in a salary cap…instead you bring in revenue sharing. Salary caps have been found to be good for stopping wealthy teams from stealing each other's players but not good for smaller teams. In fact the NBA was found to be less competitive after the introduction of the salary cap.

But revenue sharing allows so-called small market teams to compete for star players or to pay for rookies' development. The caveat is that revenue sharing benefits from teams that don't change. So if your tournament has a promotion/relegation system (like the EPL) then it won't really work.

And why is revenue sharing so important right now? Because we are in the middle of the fantastic wee credit crunch. When companies are laying off staff and asking the government for a bail-out suddenly sponsoring a sports team is very low on the priority list.

GM stopped paying Tiger Woods millions of dollars to be a spokesman. Citibank considered going back on its multi-million dollar naming rights for the new Mets Stadium in New York. The Sydney Spirit and the Cairns Taipans would both be dead if it wasn't for a rescue package after their sponsors pulled out (the Brisbane Bullets, the Sydney Kings and the Singapore Slingers are already gone for similar reasons, thankfully the Breakers have Burger King, go get a Whopper).

A year or so back Bay of Plenty had their sponsor, Western Bay Finance, go the way of all the other finance companies and so they were left with no sponsor. Now when the players run onto the field they each have a different sponsors name on the back because they can't find a single one.

Without some kind of revenue sharing we could be seeing a worse competition than just the same two teams winning each year. We could end up with only two teams in the competition.

And while I’m here I may as well mention, I knew I was right about stupid bonus points!

Competition points are awarded in sports tournaments to determine which participants qualify for the playoffs or to identify a champion. We use competition points to measure strength in a prediction model and choose points to maximize prediction accuracy. This allows us to determine the allocation of competition points that most appropriately rewards strong teams.

Our analysis focuses on Super Rugby, as the characteristics of this competition closely match our modelling assumptions.

We find that the current allocation of competition points does not ensure that the strongest teams qualify for the playoffs and suggest an alternative. Our findings have implications for other competitions.
Winchester, Niven (2008) "Shifting the 'Goal Posts': Optimizing the Allocation of Competition Points for Sporting Contests,"

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