Moneyball and Football

I have been thinking about how Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, might be applied to American football.  On-Base Percentage was found to be the best predictor of success for baseball.  What might work for football?  I tried a variety of statistics and found that a team’s total number of turnovers (interceptions plus fumbles lost) plus punts was highly negatively correlated with the percentage of games won.  Thus, if a team has zero turnovers and zero punts, it is highly likely to win the game.

It struck me, though, that winning may be a secondary goal in football. This is based on another amazing statistic.  In each 60-minute game, the ball is in play, on the average, for 12 minutes, or 20% of the game.  This is the time from when the ball is snapped until the ball is whistled dead.  If we put this in the context of the 180-minute viewing time, whether you are at the stadium or watching television, the ball is in play only 6.7% of the time.

This allows 93.3% of the time for socializing and watching beer and truck commercials.  The game has been optimized as a marketing and sales channel rather than a sport.  It is a game of arbitrary precision.  Often senseless rules, interpreted with great variability by referee judgments, result in precise placement of the ball, and endless opportunities for more advertisements.  American football is a money machine.

For fans of American football, the first priority is an opportunity to socialize with friends.  The next priority is to be entertained by 300-pound men crashing into each other at 30 miles per hour (relative speed).  Finally, there is football as a sport.  In contrast, for rugby and soccer, seemingly older cousins of American football, the sport comes first.

One can view American football as a sport in the same way that the gladiator contests in ancient Rome were sports.  There was (is) lots of blood and gore, or equivalent.  There are also great opportunities to socialize with friends while grazing on snack foods and consuming large quantities of alcoholic beverages.  Football stadiums even tend to look like coliseums.

Another view of American football is as a reality show.  The competitive tension is orchestrated to keep viewer’s attention, with enough rule infractions, network timeouts, and so on to provide ample advertisement opportunities and enormous revenue.  Although, unlike most reality shows, I still believe that the outcomes of football games are not predetermined.  Thus, I remain convinced that the fewer the turnovers and punts, the more likely a team will win.


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