Why Rory Smith Hates Numbers Wizards, or How Can We Quantify Fun?

Let me preface this post by saying that I understand this type of question is exactly why pundits mock analytics. The idea of assigning a number to how fun a match was to watch seems silly and to be quite the opposite of fun. But I’m writing it anyway because I have a very different definition of fun than normal people do, or because I think this actually serves a real purpose that real people actually care about.

Imagine you’re in charge of sports programming at a major TV network, and your network just bought the rights to a new foreign soccer league or competition. For bonus points, imagine this is in a country without a big history with the sport (like America), and it’s your job to develop this contract into a major money maker for the network. How are you going to do that?

NBC does a great job with soccer here in America: they broadcast all EPL games either on one of their networks or on their live streaming app, which is far better than any other sport in America and from what I understand is better than what my English followers get.  If you want to watch a game, you can do it. But my only issue with their coverage 1 is the over-focus on a few teams. If Chelsea or Manchester United are playing, you can guarantee NBC will broadcast their games regardless of what else is going on, or if there are better games to watch. But there has to be a better way!2

So that leads me to the research design I’m going to propose here: the correlates of fun. Today’s Everton v. Tottenham Hotspur game was a lot of fun, especially the last 15-20 minutes or so where it was a seemingly never-ending series of counterattacks leading to goal-scoring opportunities. Even the commentators were visibly disappointed when it ended, hoping for just one more minute. The only reason this game aired on TV was because it had no competition in the 12:30 (Eastern Time) slot, and we could have easily missed it. Could NBC have predicted this, or more importantly, could an appropriately air-conditioned analyst have predicted it and advised executives to show this game over some other choices if it had competition?

I’m going to propose a series of measures that I know are available to folks with premium data subscriptions that I think correlate with what people think a “good” game is. This might not be exhaustive, and I’m open to disagreement, but I mean this more as a research design than a finalized answer to the question.

  1. Goals
    • More goals isn’t always a good thing, but on average a 2-1 game is going to be more interesting than a 0-0 draw.
  2. A competitive game
    • A close final score is more compelling because any moment could change the outcome of the game, and because it correlates with any number of other things that are interesting (a team with a 3-0 lead is probably more interested in killing off the game than scoring a 4th goal). Plus there’s the dramatic element of not knowing what the outcome will be.
  3. Fast average player speed
    • I saw this on the Valencia/Madrid game – they had real-time data on how fast each player ran during the game. A series of sprints probably means the end-to-end type of action that people like rather than aimless passing around the midfield.
  4. Large average distances run by players
    • This may be less direct than the previous one, but it seems like if players are covering more distance that means the ball is moving around more, which probably means there’s more action.
  5. Low numbers of fouls
    • Fouls can act as a heat check on a good game, slowing it down, ending interesting passages of play. Even free kicks from dangerous areas are unlikely to go in, but take seemingly forever to set up before someone kicks it over the goal and into the 20th row.

All of these things can be modeled/predicted ahead of time (there’s no reason one couldn’t apply @DoctorFootie’s method to these questions), and then use the model to pick which game is featured on television so fans have the best chance of an optimal viewing experience, increasing the likelihood of fans returning next week for another exciting game.

A second, probably more scientific (but more difficult) option would be to do a survey. There are a couple of options here. The first is that you could sit people down in a room, have them watch a game, and ask them to watch a game and then rate the game on an entertainment scale of 1-10. Then you mine stats from the games, correlate them with ratings, and figure out what people are looking for. In a big enough sample, you should find some key aspects of games that people find entertaining and use that to predict which game will be the best.

The second option along these lines would be like political focus groups do and dial-test things. Give people the dial where they turn it to the right if they see something they enjoy, left if they see something they don’t enjoy. That would increase your effective sample size because you’d have a large number of events in a given game rather than a single game as your level of analysis, and would also give you more precision in understanding exactly what sorts of things people like in games. More granular data is better in this case, and they already do this for new shows so why not for soccer? Then you’d find the events people enjoyed in individual games, and show games that are likely to have more of those types of events.

I’d like to see more games like Everton v. Spurs today, and fewer games where Man United drags the game to a crawl with a series of sideways and backwards passes and presumably the networks would want to show more games like that too. Better use of data could help networks make better decisions, both helping the on-air product and the league. This may not be as important for the EPL where ratings are high and NBC offers real-time access to all 380 individual games, but I can picture this being even more important for a league like MLS with a smaller fanbase, no real “big clubs”, and a need to improve the perception of the product. Data helps you make better decisions, and anything you can observe can be quantified as long as you look in the right places.

  1. I actually don’t like their “Breakaway” days where they switch from match to match whenever a team makes a good attacking move, but everyone else seems to like it and I’ll just switch to my Roku to pick my favorite game that day
  2. Obviously there are commercial appeals at play here: I know Man United has a huge fanbase here in America, and I’m assuming Chelsea must too because NBC has kept showing their games long after they stopped being competitive for the title. There are also “big game” considerations which I’m going to ignore for the purposes of this post. The Manchester Derby earlier this season was a colossal bore, but I get that it’s a game between two title contenders and a huge rivalry. That sort of thing trumps “fun” soccer for me and I’m willing to accept arguments that these types of big games need to be the main option regardless of how boring they often are, at least in the EPL.

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