A week or so ago, I wrote an article for Counter Attack that attempted to look at whether we might try to definitively answer a burning question about North London Premier League soccer club Tottenham Hotspur: are they as good a team without their Welsh winger and European star Gareth Bale?
Rather than taking the conventional route of tallying up goals scored or assists completed, I tried to use some rudimentary advanced statistics to look if Spurs (as they’re known) are the same overall team without him.
One of these statistics is Total Shots Ratio (TSR), a simple metric (shots for divided by shots for plus shots against). Apparently, of all the available team stats in soccer, TSR cleaves fairly closely to expected table position. In other words, it’s a pretty good indicator of whether a team is in charge of their competitive destiny.
TSR is not definitive (it doesn’t take into account the hazy mixture of luck and skill that goes into the difficult business of scoring goals), but neither is it a mere statistical bauble. And it tends to gain predictive power after a sample as little as four to six matches.
Anyway, I ran my little group of calculations and discovered two interesting things: 1) In four Premier League games that Tottenham played without Bale, their TSR was just ever so slightly higher; and 2) Tottenham’s shooting percentage — the percentage of shots on target that go in the net — is higher with Bale than without him.
This may be simply a matter of luck—after all, I only had four Bale-less games to choose from, although they were against a good mix of skilled opponents — or it could be an indication of Bale’s value as an efficient striker. At the very least though, we’d come a little closer to the truth: as far as the ability to take more shots than they concede, Spurs were as good without Bale as they were with him.
The first comment on the piece was this:
Call me old fashioned, but this analysis of the beautiful game with fancy new stats is all a bit too anorak for me. Stop with this TSR drivel and your article may be a bit more interesting and engaging to readers …
I couldn’t understand this. I mean at first, I literally couldn’t understand this until I Googled ‘anorak’ and discovered it was a fancy English slang term for ‘inside baseball.’
But I also, you know, didn’t understand this. I’ve been interested in analytics in soccer for the last year or so. This interest didn’t come about following a lifelong affinity for statistical science, and it certainly didn’t come about because of anything Michael Lewis wrote. It came about because my job is to write about football all day, every day, and make it interesting enough for people to want to read.
It turns out there is a lot of interesting football writing already on the internet. Some of it is straight news, a lot of it is news ‘analysis’, some of it is on the ephemera of little-known foreign leagues, some of it is funny, and some of it fuels the delusion of inveterate gamblers convinced they’re in control of their fate.
It also turns out there isn’t much of anything on advanced statistics in soccer, except for some mainstream articles on Manchester City’s head of performance analysis which invariably uses the word ‘Moneyball.’ So here was something new I could write about. Not another canned match report, or atomized and unrevealing news item, or wholly unscientific opinion, or overcooked Grantland Instant Rice prose piece. Something interesting and new.
People are interested in soccer analytics, and a lot aren’t, including the person behind the above comment. But this specific comment got me thinking about the continued popularity of writers who feel nothing about reaching the same hoary conclusions, using the same hoary cliches, and driving the same sports narrative over, all in bland, simplistic prose over and over and over again, usually for big newspapers and mainstream sports news organizations.
No matter what your sport(s), you know who these guys and gals are. They’ve got the head shot on the margins of the sports section — they’re there to make sense of it all, the union writer who’s been in the biz for a long time. They’re hated on Twitter, they’re called out on blogs, and yet they’re read by everyone.
This the part of the piece where you likely expect I’m going to shake my fist at old media and call out a small cadre of hacks, and write what idiots they are, make fun of their sub-mental readership, and subtly infer that I’d rather they be reading my stuff.
But as a believer in the sometimes ugly efficiency of the market, I think it’s worth asking why this kind of sports writing persists without making the kind of broad generalizations that, in a sporting context, would make us wince.
A few years ago I came up with a kind of theory for sports writing. The idea was to distinguish between sports journalism and sports writing. The former involves investigatory work — think guys with notepads running around like Woodward and Bernstein trying to nail down trade or team sale details — and the latter involves opinion, analysis, poetry, whatever. In football (soccer), David Conn is primarily a sports journalist and a brilliant one, although sometimes he will write opinion pieces on news he helped break. Brian Phillips — at least when he’s writing about soccer — is a sports writer, and a brilliant one.
My point however was that anyone with an internet connection and a phone could be either. And because quality rises to the top of the Internet, independent writers (i.e. bloggers) should be elated. Credentialism is over! The web is a utopian meritocracy, hooray! Get ready to sell your blog and make millions!
Well, the revolution has yet to take off. Certainly some sports writers once on the independent fringes have joined the mainstream to continue to write good stuff, and some sports journalists writing their own team blogs have broken a few stories here and there.
But those Head Shots on the margins of the newspapers are still there, and they’re still at the centre of their respective sports universes. In Canada for example, Damien Cox’s every word is scrutinized by thousands of sports fans, either out of curiosity, hate, or admiration. You might say it’s because he’s employed by a leading newspaper and appears on a major Canadian sports station, but there are others who enjoy that status who don’t get the attention of Cox. Cox, for better or worse, is Cox.
Does this mean he and others like him who make breezily simplistic conclusions are secretly brilliant? No. Are his readers just idiots, because, you know, there are a lot of idiots in this world? No.
The issue as I see it is this. If you’re the type of person who writes about sports and has a Twitter account dedicated to saying things about sports, over and over again, you love sports. A lot. You read about sports. A lot. You watch sports. A lot. Moreover, you’ve cultivated a universe of like-minded people, people who know all about Corsi stats and the Oakland A’s lead off batter’s slash line and why it’s a near statistical impossibility the Cleveland Browns will win the Super Bowl in the next fifty years.
This is a valuable market. This demographic is why theScore exists. But it’s not The World. It’s not the wider circle of readers who love the Toronto Maple Leafs but can’t name any players in their third and fourth lines. It’s not your granddad who asks you what’s the deal with the Habs this season.
It’s for this generic kinda-sorta sports fan that the Henry Winters’ and Chris Jones’ of the world were made. You’re a normal person who watches the Yankees blow a ninth inning save after bringing out a reliever that’s blown three more saves than any other reliever on the roster. You feel enraged — you’re certain it was the manager’s fault for bringing on this deadbeat. And so you go searching for someone to tell you as much — and there he (invariably, sadly) is: the guy with his head shot in the paper, giving your opinion back to you with the veneer of expertise that comes from his role within the media organization that hired him.
What they’re not going to go looking for is someone to tell them about sample sizes and 162 games.
They don’t want to hear about that stuff not because they’re dumb or lazy, but because it’s sports. In the end, who cares? They’re not reading about it eight hours a day. They’d rather be dead than join a fantasy league. But because sports is so indelibly attractive, they want to follow its narrative contours — they, like all of us, want and need sports to make sense. They don’t want to hear that it’s a weighted random number generator.
That’s why no one gets particularly excited about reading whatever DamoSpin has to say after the latest game in whatever sport he’ll be an expert in that day. But they will search it out and read it, faithfully. Every time. The dots beg to be connected, even if that takes a few empirical shortcuts.
In other words, the value of this kind of sports writer comes from their ability to complete the rest of the obvious narrative picture following a game or series of games. That this narrative is often fictional and rides the path of least resistance doesn’t matter. The most popular writers in this genre are brilliant at holding up a mirror to their readers without their readers knowing it. That is a deceptively difficult thing to do. And that’s why they get paid a lot of money.
Love them or hate them, these writers are extraordinarily good at what they do. We in the sports nerd universe can’t stand them because we think they’re writing for us. They’re not. And for that reason, perhaps it’s time we call a truce, on both sides of the MSM/blogger divide. Two sets of skills, two distinct ends of the audience spectrum. War is over. If you want it.