The Burden of Information Part 1: Why Some Sports are More Popular than Others

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In the United States, three major sports have long dominated the media: football, basketball, and baseball.  However, there are many other sports with their own stars and fans, and while some such as hockey, soccer, golf, and tennis still frequently make headlines, many others are left in the darkness, without most people knowing much of anything about their existence.  This stark contrast in prominence brings up a big question: why are some sports more popular than others?  Of course, historical longevity plays an important role, as sports which have been played for a hundred years or longer have an obvious advantage over newly-created ones.  Big factors also include being easy to learn, accessible to the average person, and having big name stars which draw attention to the sport.  However, I believe there is another aspect that continues to draw new generations to the same sports: numbers.

Sports and numbers have an interdependence that goes far beyond the tallies on a scoreboard.  Part of the mass appeal of sports is the multitude of ways the actions players perform can be tracked and analyzed, all of which require large volumes of statistics.  Before NFL players enter the league, they attend the Scouting Combine, where they are measured in multiple ways, such as height, weight, hand size, 40-yard dash time, bench press, broad jump, and vertical leap, among other things.  Similarly, players are watched during their Pro Days, with their performance in drills being quantified and compared to other prospects.  All of these numbers, which in reality reflect nothing of their in-game performance, are used to judge the skill of players as well as their potentials, and play a big part in a player’s draft stock.

On the field, an NFL player is evaluated based on a whole different set of position-specific categories.  For example, a quarterback can be judged based on simple metrics like passing yards, touchdowns, and interceptions, but also using more complex formulas such as passer rating and ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (QBR).  There are numbers for almost everything, including how quarterbacks perform under certain game situations such as 3rd downs, in the red zone, or in the 4th quarter, with different offensive personnel, in specific formations, against unique defensive formations, under varying weather conditions, and more.  One thing is clear: in a league where every team is searching through mountains of data to gain a competitive edge, and numerous stats-junkies are doing the same at home, if something can be quantified, it will be.  These examples are just for quarterbacks, one out of 22 players on the field.

The NBA and MLB are no different in their use of both traditional and advanced metrics to evaluate in-game performance.  The NBA is currently using GPS-tracking technology to chart every single movement of a player on the court.  Both the NBA and MLB use heat maps which chart the probabilities of a player making a shot or recording a hit from any spot on the court or in the strike zone.  The MLB in many ways led the advanced sports analytics movement with its use of Sabermetrics, and the Oakland A’s use of Moneyball brought awareness of the tactic to the general public.

Having more numbers available has made these sports far more complex.  Teams can now adopt numerous different strategies specifically tailored for their opponents, while the opposition does the same for them.  From a fan’s perspective, we can discuss these sports in more ways than ever before, only adding to the excitement surrounding them.  This plays an important role in why team sports seem much more popular than individual sports.  Each team has several different positions, each with a different skill set required and thus valuing different statistics.  The idea of assembling a championship team then becomes even more nuanced, as each team develops a different mindset, valuing and prioritizing different abilities.  This becomes especially challenging in the NFL and NBA, which have a salary cap.  Even on a single-game basis, more things are happening at once, creating more action and more things to talk about.  Additionally, in many cases, team sports compete more frequently.  A swimmer or track and field athlete may only compete a few times a year, while a baseball team plays nearly every day for six months.   Not only does this create more opportunities for fans to watch, but also a higher sample size of statistics.

However, not all team sports are as popular in the US, such as lacrosse.  Despite its status as one of the fastest growing sports in America, Major League Lacrosse has failed to become a high-profile league, struggling to maintain its franchises and decreasing in attendance each of the last four seasons.  Lack of exposure and coverage by major sports news networks is one important reason, but the lack of many statistical metrics to analyze the game also contributes.  To the occasional viewer, the game just looks like soccer with sticks.  Sure, those familiar with the sport can watch a game and tell a good defender from a poor one.  But where’s the number to substantiate that?  If the average person can’t tell players apart and determine who is good, the sport will have serious issues in growth.

Football, basketball, and baseball’s dominance of the American sports media can be largely attributed to the numerous metrics used to evaluate players and teams, allowing for analysts and fans alike to have a strong statistical knowledge of the sports.  However, is having such a large pool of data to draw from always a good thing?

Part 2: Issues with Data Overload

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