Friday, July 29, 2011

Bundesliga 2011-2012 Season-Long Prediction Contest

The 2011-2012 season-long Bundesliga prediction contest is now open for entries. Get your entries in before the first game next week to participate.

To enter, in the comments below simply rank your prediction for the end-of-season table from 1 through 18.  The tie-breaker will be first selection of champion and then relegation.  I will at a few points through the season provide updates on standings and discuss the competition.

For those of you not fully up to speed on the Bundesliga (shame!), you can get more information here and here and here..

The metric of skill used as the baseline for evaluation in this competition will be the final table from last year (seen to the right, with promoted teams added in).  I have searched and request from several sources, with no luck, data on team salaries and player values.  If I can come across this information, I'll add it in as a second metric of skill (and pointers welcomed in the comments).  For those new here wanting to get up to speed on this notion of "skill" in prediction, please see the posts here and here.

The winner of the competition wins a signed copy of The Climate Fix, paperback edition.  Good luck!

PS. For those looking for the Premier League prediction contest, please tune back in in one week!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bob Bradley Fired as US Soccer Coach

[UPDATE Jul 29: Klinsmann it is.]

US Soccer announced today a parting of the ways with head coach Bob Bradley.  The NYT reports:
Fairly or unfairly, frequent criticisms of Bradley began to resurface: he was too conservative, favored players like his son Michael, did not develop a sufficiently creative attacking style, and coached a team that often fell behind early and had to catch up using fitness and determination rather than technical skill.

Bradley achieved some impressive results while building a 43-25-12 record since 2007, including a defeat of top-ranked Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup, where the Americans finished second to Brazil, and finishing atop group play at the 2010 World Cup. Still, there was a sense of underachievement about the World Cup, given the favorable draw for the United States, which departed with a sense of missed opportunity.
Speculation of course has begun as to his replacement.  At ESPN Jeff Carlisle argues that the recent US team performance, particularly in the recent Gold Cup, was an important factor in the change, but suggests that there is more as well:
But amidst all this there was an even bigger issue, namely Gulati's long-held desire to hire a big name and put his personal stamp on the national team program. It explains his long flirtation with Juergen Klinsmann, who was his first choice in both 2006 and 2010 before finally settling for Bradley. And more than anything it explains Gulati's timing. There is relatively little downside to making a change now. World Cup qualifying doesn't start until next year. There is no Confederations Cup to plan for. And given the USSF's ability to schedule quality friendlies, there would seem to be ample opportunity for a new coach to get up to speed.

That said, there are risks. The fact of the matter is that a new coach can't all of a sudden pick a new squad of players. The ebb in talent that seems to be afflicting the U.S. player pool at the moment isn't going to disappear. And if Gulati does opt for a foreign coach, which seems likely, some cultural assimilation will need to take place, which can be tricky.

So who are the leading candidates? As incredible as it may seem, Klinsmann has to be considered given his familiarity with the soccer culture in this country. Italian World Cup-winning coach Marcelo Lippi is another name that has been bandied about, as has Frank Rijkaard, although given the fact that he just signed on as Saudi Arabia's coach, he would have to be considered a darkhorse candidate.
I for one am pulling for Klinsmann.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Revolution in Global Football?

The Guardian reports that the European Club Association is threatening not to renew its memorandum of understanding with FIFA and UEFA in 2014 when it expires.  That would free up European clubs to create a long-discussed "super league" that would in effect replace today's Champion's League.  The Guardian reports:
The Guardian can reveal the background to Karl-Heinz Rummenigge's comments on Tuesday about a "revolution" for football: a European super league that would see the clubs seize control of their own affairs from the regulators. The European game is currently ordered through a memorandum of understanding between clubs and Uefa that was signed three and a half years ago. It runs until 2014, and when it expires the top European clubs will no longer be legally bound to play in Uefa's Champions League or, crucially, to release their players for international friendlies or tournaments, including the World Cup.

In a reflection of their belief that Fifa lacks legitimacy – especially in the wake of the damaging bribery allegations currently surrounding the organisation – the clubs will not shrink from breaking away if they do not receive sufficient guarantees.

A board member of the European Club Association of which Bayern Munich's Rummenigge is president told the Guardian on Wednesday: "The fact that Bayern Munich, who have always been close to the institutions, are being so vocal and loud about the situation is a clear sign we're very close to breaking point. We have a memorandum of understanding with Uefa that expires in 2014. After that time we can no longer be forced to respect Fifa statutes or Uefa regulations. And we won't be obliged to compete in their competitions."

When asked what that would mean for clubs' finances if they were to withdraw from the Champions League, which generates tens of millions of pounds a year for his organisation's richest and most influential members, the ECA board member responded: "Don't be naive. Don't think there would be no alternative competition."
Who are the ECA?
Although the ECA has a broad constituency, representing 197 European clubs, it is the interests of nine in particular that will drive this agenda. They are Real Madrid, Milan, Liverpool, Internazionale, Manchester United, Barcelona, Arsenal, Chelsea and Rummenigge's Bayern. When the Guardian contacted the four English clubs for their views on the matter, all declined to comment. However, a director at one of the clubs said: "[Financially] there is a lot of unfulfilled potential in football as it stands."
The ECA are in an important position in holding FIFA accountable, based on their ability to change the economics of top-level club competition in Europe.  Upon Sepp Blatter's reelection as FIFA president, Rumminegge issued the following statement via the ECA:
The recent happenings have once more proven that FIFA needs a change in its whole structure. As Chairman of the European Club Association, I request FIFA to immediately introduce democratic and transparent structures and procedures. European clubs will no longer accept that they do not participate in the decision-making when it comes to club-related matters. We will closely follow FIFA's development in this respect in the future and take appropriate measures, if there is no improvement.
The Guardian suggests that the creation of the Premier League provides a precedent:
The English experience of the past 20 years, since a breakaway group of the leading clubs withdrew from the Football League to form the Premier League (albeit under the auspices of the Football Association), has been exceptionally lucrative for the game domestically and the hawks within the ECA are pushing for a replica at European level.
I don't think that the English precedent really fits the present case, as it changed the organization of English football but not its entire governance structure.

Rumminegge has it right, if the ECA were to topple UEFA and FIFA such a change would be a "revolution" and take football into uncharted waters.  Time will tell whether the ECA has adopted a negotiating position or has serious intentions for institutional reform.

What Paul Taught Us About Skill in Prediction

[UPDATE: An earlier version of this post appeared last fall on the occasion of Paul's passing, at my other blog.] 

Paul the Octopus died last October, ending his remarkable career as a football prognosticator. 

For those unaware Paul, who spent his days at the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany, gained fame by correctly picking the winners of all seven of Germany's World Cup matches last summer, as well as the final.  In this post I ask a few questions about the Paul phenomena and then distill some broader lessons for making sense of predictions.

First, did Paul have predictive skill? That is to ask, were his picks better than those that would have been made at the time by a naive forecasting methodology?

The answer is yes. Paul had skill.  The naive forecasting methodology that I employed last summer in my World Cup pool was the estimated market value of each team in the transfer market, under the assumption that the higher-valued squad wins.  For the 8 games that Paul picked in the World Cup the naive forecasting methodology would have gone 5-3, missing out on Germany's wins over Argentina and England, and Serbia's victory over Germany in the Group stage.  Paul's picks easily bested the skill threshold.

What can we learn from the Paul phenomena?

One lesson might be that his results indicate that some octopi have Delphic capabilities and can see the future.  Call me a cephalopod skeptic, but I don't think that Paul could actually pick the winners of World Cup matches.  If so, then skill, by itself, is not a sufficient basis for evaluating a forecast. Rather than being about Paul, his fame and predictive successes say something about us, and how we act in response to forecasts made in many practical venues such as finance and science.

Consider the math of Paul's feat.  If each team has an equal chance of winning a World Cup match, then the odds of picking 8 of 8 winners is 1 in 256 (2^8).  The are long odds to be sure, but not impossibly odd.  Once Paul attracted attention, he had already picked several games correctly, thus increasing the odds that he'd be viewed as an oracle (for instance, if you only heard of Paul before the World Cup final, he then had a 50% chance of "proving" his predictive capabilities to you.)

In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the odds of a Paul -- some predictive oracle -- emerging were in fact 100%.  Wikipedia's recounting illustrates why this is so:
Some other oracles did not fare so well in the World Cup. The animals at the Chemnitz Zoo in Germany were wrong on all of Germany's group-stage games, with Leon the porcupine picking Australia, Petty the pygmy hippopotamus spurning Serbia's apple-topped pile of hay, Jimmy the Peruvian guinea-pig and Anton the tamarin eating a raisin representing Ghana. Mani the Parakeet of Singapore,[55][56] Octopus Pauline of Holland,[57] Octopus Xiaoge of Qingdao China,[58] Chimpanzee Pino and Red River Hog Apelsin in Tallinn zoo Estonia[59] picked the Netherlands to win the final.[60] Crocodile Harry of Australia picked Spain to win.[61]
If the solution space is covered by a range of predictions, then it is a guarantee that one of those predictions (or sets of predictions) will prove correct.  We to selectively forget about the bad predictions (who among us knows of Petty the pygmy hippo?) and focus on the successes. To put a judgment of skill into context, we have to know something about the universe of competing predictions and methods.

This sets up a rather up-is-down situation in which we allow reality to select our oracles, rather than our oracles selecting our futures.  We thus very easily risk being fooled by randomness into thinking that forecasters have enhanced chances for future skill based on past performance, when in fact those success may just be a combination of (a) coverage of the solution space by a range of forecasts, and (b) our selective memories and focus of attention on forecast successes. Many who have invested in last year's hot mutual fund will likely have learned this lesson.

Scholars who study judgment and decision making are well aware of these sorts of cognitive biases.  One is called the "hot hand fallacy" which is based on the assumption that a recent pattern will continue.  For instance, the assumption that because Paul got 8 of 8 right in the World Cup, that he'd have good chances to do well in predicting the next competition.  In my view the "hot hand fallacy" is very poorly named because it is based on studies of basketball players (who in making a streak of baskets show a "hot hand") who actually do have "hot hands" at times. They also get lucky.  So the phenomena actually combines true skill and illusory skill.

Another implication of the Paul phenomena is that in some instances, it may not be possible to rigorously evaluate a forecast methodology.  With an octopus, it is easy to assert that whatever methods he employed, they probably were not very rigorous.  But what if it had been JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs with the remarkable record based on their lengthy quantitative analyses?  Then it would be more difficult to assess whether their results were the consequence of a true forecasting ability, or just luck.

If you look around, on a daily basis you'll see all sorts of examples of the potential challenges presented by predictions in important settings.  Are the economists who anticipated the financial downturn in the past few years actually smarter than others?  Or were they just the few outliers in a fully covered distribution?  Or both? 

You can see a  discussion of these subjects in a bit more depth in the following articles and book chapters:

Pielke, Jr., R.A. (2009), United States hurricane landfalls and damages: Can one-to five-year predictions beat climatology?. Environmental Hazards 8 187-200, issn: 1747-7891, doi: 10.3763/ehaz.2009.0017

Pielke, R.A. Jr, (2003), The role of models in prediction for decision. Models in Ecosystem Science 111-135, Princeton University Press.

Pielke, Jr., R. A., D. Sarewitz, and R. Byerly, (2000), Decision making and the future of nature: Understanding, using, and producing predictions. Prediction: Decision Making and the Future of Nature 361-387, Island Press (D. Sarewitz, D., R. A. Pielke, Jr., and R. Byerly, editors).

Monday, July 25, 2011

Skill in Prediction

[Note: An earlier version of this post appeared last summer during the World Cup, at my other blog.]

Last summer, I organized a competition for predictions of the outcome of the World Cup, using ESPN's Bracket Predictor. The competition, fun on its own terms, also provides a useful window into the art and science of prediction and how such efforts might be evaluated. This post summarizes some of the relevant lessons.

A key concept to understand in the evaluation of prediction is the concept of skill. A prediction is said to have skill if it improves upon a naive baseline. A naive baseline is the predictive performance that you could achieve without really having any expertise in the subject. For instance, in weather forecasting a naive baseline might just be the climatological weather for a particular day. In the mutual fund industry, it might be the performance of the S&P 500 index (or some other index).

For the World Cup predictions, one naive baseline is the expected outcomes based on the FIFA World rankings. FIFA publishes a widely available ranking of teams, with the expectation that the higher ranked teams are better than lower ranked teams. So even if you know nothing about world football, you could just predict outcomes based on this simple information.

This is exactly what I did in RogersBlogGroup. The naive FIFA World Ranking prediction outperformed 64.8% of the more than one million entries across the ESPN Competition. Only 33 of the 84 entries in RogersBlogGroup outperformed this naive baseline. The majority of predictions thus can be said to "lack skill."

I also created entries for "expert" predictions from financial powerhouses UBS, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, each of which applied their sophisticated analytical techniques to predicting the World Cup. As it turns out, none of the sophisticated approaches demonstrated skill, achieving results in the 35th, 61st and 54th percentiles respectively -- a pretty poor showing giving the obvious time and expense put into developing their forecasts. Imagine that these "experts" were instead predicting stock market behavior, hurricane landfalls or some other variable of interest, and you learn that you could have done better with 10 minutes and Google -- then you probably would not think that you received good value for money!

It gets tricky when naive strategies become a bit more sophisticated. I also created a second naive forecast based on the estimated transfer market value of each team, assuming that higher valued teams will beat lower valued teams. This approach outperformed 90% of the million ESPN entries and all but 11 of the 84 entries in RogersBlogGroup.

It would be fair to say that the TeamWorth approach is not really a naive forecast as it requires some knowledge of the worth of each team and some effort to collect that data. On the other hand, data shows that the market value of players is correlated with their performance on the pitch, and it is pretty simple to fill out a bracket based on football economics. This exact debate has taken place in the context of El Nino predictions, where evidence suggests that simple methods can outperform far more sophisticated approaches. Similar debates take place in the financial services industry, with respect to active management versus market indices.

One dynamic of forecast evaluation is that the notion of the naive forecast can get "defined up" over time as we learn more. If I were to run another world football prediction now, there would be no excuse for any participant to underperform a TeamWorth Index -- excerpt perhaps an effort to outperform the TeamWorth Index. Obviously, matching the index provides no added value to the index. In my one of my own predictions I tried explicitly to out-predict the TeamWorth Index by tweaking just a few selection, and I fell short. Adding value to sophisticated naive strategies is extremely difficult.

There are obviously incentives at play in forecast evaluation. If you are a forecaster, you might prefer a lower rather than higher threshold for skill. Who wants to be told that their efforts add no (or even subtract) value?

The situation gets even more complex when there are many, many predictions being issued for events and the statistics of such situations means that chance alone will mean that some proportion of predictions will demonstrate skill by chance alone. How does one evaluate skill over time while avoid being fooled by randomness?

That is the topic that I'll take up in Part II, where I''l discuss Paul the Octopus.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Commentary on Pay for Play in College Athletics

In today's Boulder Daily Camera I have a commentary on "pay for play" in college athletics.  Despite being a member of the faculty -- who are supposed to be against such things -- I am in favor of giving student athletes a chance to capitalize on their untapped economic potential.  My piece draws on the faculties own experience in this regard to suggest a way forward for college athletics.

Here is an excerpt:
When Bob Williams, VP of communications for the NCAA, was recent asked by ESPN if college athletes should receive a cut in the sales of jerseys bearing their name he responded, "I think you have to remember whose jersey it really is. The school name, the colors, that`s really the school`s and the institution`s property. It`s hard to say that the student-athlete 'owns` that jersey or it`s his jersey. But that intellectual property is owned by the institution." This is exactly the sort of convoluted argument that led faculty to demand a share in the profits that resulted from their unique contributions to a university. We could test Williams` hypothesis by putting on sale at the Auburn University bookstore jerseys with the name "Bob Williams" on the back and see how sales compare to those with "Cam Newton" on the back.
Have a read and let me know what you think! 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Head Injuries, Football Helmets and Government Oversight

Over at ESPN's Page 2 Gregg Easterbrook discusses recent research on helmet safety, based on new research conducted by Stefan Duma, an engineer at Virginia Tech.  Easterbrook writes:
Researchers at Virginia Tech have produced the first brand-by-brand, model-by-model ranking for the likely concussion resistance of helmets. A star-rating system modeled on crash safety rankings for automobiles, the rankings clearly identify the best and worst helmets. Virginia Tech researchers give high marks to these helmets: the Riddell Speed, Riddell Revolution, Riddell Revolution IQ; the Schutt Ion 4D and Schutt DNA; and the Xenith X1. The Virginia Tech researchers give medium grades to the Schutt Air XP and Schutt Air Advantage. The Virginia Tech rankings warn players not to wear these helmets: the Riddell VSR4 and the Adams A2000.

Now the chilling part: the VSR4 -- Virginia Tech's second-lowest-rated helmet -- was the most common helmet in the NFL last season. The VSR4 is widely worn in college and high school, too. Immediately after the Virginia Tech findings were released, Riddell advised football teams to stop using the VSR4, long the company's best seller.
Here is an image from the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest project showing helmets being tested:
The research on which the ratings system has been developed has been recently published in the peer-reviewed literature.  The acknowledged sponsors are the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Institutes of Health (National Institute for Child Health and Human Development). No statement is made about possible conflicts of interest, which is undoubtedly an issue that this community will have to deal with, especially as conflicts develop between industry and academia.

Easterbrook reports that the national organization with responsibility for overseeing standards for athletic equipment -- the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) -- has in recent years been "AWOL" on this topic:
IN THE 1960S, FOOTBALL HELMETS WERE SHODDY, resulting in deaths from skull fractures. NOCSAE (pronounced "noxey") was founded in response, and pressured helmet manufacturers to improve quality. The initiative was a success: Skull fractures in football are now extremely rare. But though NOCSAE would go on to issue standards as precise as nine pages of guidelines on how to stitch football gloves, decades after its founding, the organization has said almost nothing about the relationship between football helmets and concussions.
As we have seen in other contexts, when a problem becomes perceived to be serious and unaddressed via non-governmental efforts, a common result is the governmental-ization of sports governance. The image belowshows in blue the 44 US states that have enacted legislation targeting youth sports-related concussions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The action by state legislatures is a part of this pattern.

To the extent that universities begin to play a larger in the governance process, it will be in their best interests to follow the best practices of other researchers in the medical sciences who find themselves at the confluence of strong public interest and significant corporate money.  This will mean full transparency in acknowledging funding sources (something that the VT-WF study does not do) and following standard conflict of interest guidelines (also something not done).  By doing so, this community can get out in front of many of the controversies that bedevil experts in controversial subjects.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Commentary in the NYT Room for Debate

I have a commentary up on corruption in international football at the New York Times on their online Room for Debate. The other two commentators are Ronald K. Noble of Interpol and Sharon K.Stoll from the Center for Ethical Theory and Honor in Competition and Sport at the University of Idaho. Here is how my piece starts:
International soccer is being overseen by 20th-century organizations in a 21st-century world. Even before the latest allegations of match-fixing surfaced in the past weeks, this time in Turkey, the Council of Europe had served notice that governments were going to have to play a larger role in protecting against corruption.
 Head over and have a look, and feel free to come back here and tell me what you think!

PS. If you have arrived here for the first time from the NYT, welcome!

Heads Up: EPL and Bundesliga Prediction Contests

Over the next week or so I'll be reposting some of my discussions on skill in prediction from my other blog as a lead in to the 2011-2012 Least Thing Prediction Contests. This year I will run competitions for the regular seasons of the English Premier League and the Bundesliga.  I will propose several baselines for evaluation of forecast skill (suggestions welcomed).  Here is a link to the outcome of last year's EPL context.

The winners of the contests will each receive a paperback copy of The Climate Fix, which is due to be released by the end of this year. Bundesliga fixtures kick off on August 5th and the Premier League on August 13th.  Contest entries will be due the day before the start of each season. So please sharpen your pencils and gaze into your crystal balls, the seasons start soon!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Belize Wins . . . . For Now

Last month I commneted on a conflict between Belize and FIFA over the Belizean government's desire to hold its football federation accountable to national laws related to corruption. At the time I argued that FIFA should not be in a position where it places itself about the enforcement of domestic laws.  Apparently there must be some in FIFA who agree, because FIFA recently temporarily lifted its suspension of the federation, allowing a World Cup qualifying match to take place yesterday against Montserrat, which Belize won 3-1.

A new organization has sprung up in Belize seeking to become recognized as the nation's official football association for purposes of FIFA membership.  The issue is going to court and FIFA is sending a delgation to try to help sort things out.  Here is a local perspective:
On July 7th the Minister of Sports wrote to FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, urging FIFA to “respect the sovereignty of our nation and not impose its will on our people.” This came after FIFA allowed a selection of players to play a game in Trinidad as team Belize even after the government decided not to recognize the organization, FFB, commissioning the athletes. Then again FIFA has decided to allow the team to represent Belize in an upcoming “home game” in Honduras. FIFA’s disregard of the government’s decision is complete disrespect to the country and disregard for its laws. Their decision may be liable in court. However, before the court gets involved, dialogue is often the best solution and FIFA has agreed to dialogue. According to a press release from the National Sports Council, the Ministry of Public Service, Governance Improvement, Elections & Boundaries and Sports received a letter from FIFA dated July 11th, 2011 addressed to the Honorable John Saldivar and signed by Deputy Secretary General, Markus Kattner. The letter stated that “a high ranking FIFA/CONCACAF/UNCAF delegation” will arrive in Belize on July 19th to discuss the current issues at stake with different stakeholders in football.
FIFA's lifting of the suspension of Belize is only until August 15, but nonetheless is a victory for the exercise of national sovereignty in the context of FIFA's tight grip on international foolball. How this situation is resolved will have some important implications for FIFA governance and its relationship to national governments.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Times, They are A-Changing

Last night I watched some of the ESPYs -- ESPN's annual sports award show.  The show was pretty hard to keep interest in and the jokes mostly lame.  But as a touchstone on American sports culture, I did find one aspect of the show interesting, and that was the distribution of plays selected for the category "play of the year."

Here there are, notice anything?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Jennifer Doyle on the History of Women's Football

Jennifer Doyle, whose blog I just added to the roll on your left, has a great essay at Fox Soccer on the history of women's soccer.  Here is a delicious excerpt:
FIFA would like you to think that the first international women’s match was played between France and the Netherlands in 1971, before 1,500 spectators. They’ve produced an article in the April 2011 issue of FIFA World celebrating this “fact.” Sepp Blatter introduces the story for us:

"Although women have been kicking footballs informally for nearly as long as their male counterparts, the women’s game is still relatively young in terms of officially organised international matches. Indeed, as you can read in this issue of FIFA World, this month marks the 40th anniversary of the first-ever official women’s international, played in April 1971 between France and the Netherlands in front of 1,500 curious spectators. Certainly, the sport has enjoyed impressive growth from those humble beginnings to the spectacle that it is today."

The FIFA brochure, however, shows the French national team boarding a plane to Mexico City, to play in the 1971 Not-FIFA World Cup mentioned above.
The actual history begins long before FIFA sanctioned women's football.  Have a look.

Sporting Justice and a Man Who Lives in Giresun

Turkish football is in disarray after a number of arrests for match fixing at the highest levels, based on an investigation that began with an email from "a man who lives in Giresun":
Police were reportedly investigating alleged match-fixing in the Spor Toto Super League, which ended in May with Fenerbahçe's victory, and Bank Asya League 1. UEFA Secretary-General Gianni Infantino has stated that the union is "following developments related to the match-fixing investigation with concern." He said that UEFA had not been informed about the full details of the investigation, but believes that the claims are very serious, as officials from football clubs and footballers have been taken into custody.

“We are following the developments with concern. We will evaluate the situation once we discuss the issue with authorities from the TFF,” he noted.

The European Commission also stated that it will continue to follow the investigation into match-fixing allegations closely. The commission said it holds an “open position” about efforts Turkey should make in its fight against corruption.

Fenerbahçe may be stripped of its championship title and relegated from the Spor Toto Super League (first division) to Bank Asya League 1 (second division) in accordance with the Law on Prevention of Violence and Disorder in Sports Events, sources have claimed. Sivasspor and Eskişehirspor may be punished accordingly.
UEFA's comments via a statement yesterday reflect the governance vacuum that characterizes international football:
Given the information received so far by UEFA there is nothing according to the UEFA statutes or regulations that leads UEFA to refuse entry to any of the clubs currently involved in the investigations in Turkey.

In addition, every club participating in UEFA competition has provided UEFA with a written guarantee that they have not been involved in match-fixing activities.

UEFA requests the Turkish state authorities to pass on any relevant information regarding the ongoing investigations to the TFF as soon as possible, in order that sporting justice can be carried out in the most judicious manner.
I'm not sure what "sporting justice" is, but it sounds like the punishment meted out in the FIFA "family" or in other words, in a system of governance that is expected to somehow lie outside normal regimes of governance. Such a stance is not sustainable. If football does not get its house in order, governments will step in.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Faked Injuries in Men's and Women's International Football

Near the end of yesterday's thrilling US-Brazil match Erika of Brazil collapsed in the penalty box, overcome by an apparent injury. After a few moments she was stretchered off only to hop back to the ground and sprint back onto the field.  The cynical move earned her a yellow card from the referee for time wasting. 

Such simulated injuries ("simulation") in professional and international soccer are a frustrating part of the game.  Anyone who watched the first leg of the Barcelona-Real Madrid Champion;s league semi-final this past spring will have seen what simulation does to the beautiful game.

In a paper just out Daryl Rosenbaum and colleagues provide the first scholarly attempt to quantify simulation in the women's game, looking at the 2003 and 2007 Women's World Cups, and offer a comparison to their male counterparts based on research published last year.  Here is what they found:
The results did not support the notion that injury simulation is used as a time-wasting tactic by teams leading at the end of a match, as a greater number of questionable injuries in this situation were actually by the team behind (23 vs. 17). Referees were fairly accurate in allotting an appropriate amount of extra time to matches on average, so it is not certain this tactic would have the desired effect even if undertaken. A lack of association between questionable injuries and the second half or the latter third of each half argues against female players employing injury simulation as a means to rest and recover. This was more definitive than the mixed evidence from the men’s game, which showed an association with the final third of the second half (Rosenbaum et al., 2010).

Players may have success using this behavior to influence referees, as there was an association between questionable injuries and fouls. Situations involving contact and being tackled may be seen as prime opportunities to influence the referee to sanction the opposing player, as evidenced by the higher likelihood of questionable injuries. There was no association with yellow/red card cautions given to opponents, however. Looking at the relative stakes of a match yielded a mixed picture as well; questionable injury rates were higher for knock-out versus group stage games but also for teams playing games that had no bearing on ability to advance. Finally, even if injury simulation is employed with the intent of gaining a tactical advantage, it may not be worthwhile, as there was no link between questionable injuries and markers of team success such as winning the match or advancing out of the group stage.

There does appear to be less overall injury incidents and less injury simulation in women’s international football compared with the men’s game. The apparent injury rate of 5.74 is nearly half the 11.26 rate found in a similar study of 4 major men’s international tournaments (Rosenbaum et al.,
While the authors admit to a number of important caveats, it appears that women simulate less than men, but that rate is closing.  It does not appear that simulation gains any tactical advantage but it does detract from the game.  FIFA would do well to hold players accountable for simulation, perhaps providing severe sanctions in the most unambiguous cases based on post-game analyses.  As we have seen, accountability works.

Reference: Daryl A. Rosenbaum, Ravi R. Sanghani, Travis Woolen & Stephen W. Davis. Estimation of Injury Simulation in International Women's Football. Research in Sports Medicine, Volume 19, Issue 3, 2011 DOI: 10.1080/15438627.2011.556523

Saturday, July 9, 2011

How Bad is England at the Penalty Shootout?

Today the English woman's team fell short against France in a penalty shootout 4-3 after a hard fought and highly entertaining match. The loss immediately brought comparisons to the dismal record of the men's team in penalty shootouts. For instance, here is what The Guardian had to say:
It was a case of history repeating itself in the beautiful game as another penalty shootout ruined England's dream of World Cup glory – but this time in the women's tournament.

The national team went crashing out of the Women's World Cup in spectacular fashion at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, after squandering a one-goal lead before missing two penalties in the quarter-final to send France through to the last four.

Football fans had hoped the curse of penalties, which has long plagued the men's game, would not extend to Hope Powell's squad as England looked to advance into the semi-finals. But like the 1998 men's World Cup, when Paul Ince and David Batty missed their chances against Argentina, the women's team were also defeated 4-3 on spot kicks.
But is the men's team actually cursed?   Let's look at the numbers:

In Why England Lose & Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski take a look at the English teams performance over time, and find that it has won just about half of its games:
England's win sequence over the 400 games [since 1980] is indistinguishable from a random series of coin tosses. (p. 48)
So let's assume a probability of winning a match for England of 0.50, just like a fair coin.  Then let's ask, what are the odds of experiencing a 1-5 (or worse) record in penalty shootouts over 6 shootout opportunities?

The answer is about 11%. Not great odds, but not very close to conventional thresholds for statistical significance either. Think of it another way, had just 2 of those 5 losses instead been wins then England would be 3-3 and the national infatuation with the penalty shootout would not have happened.

Academics have even tried to explain England's poor shootout performance via some complicated (and I'd say rather implausible) theorizing.  I've got a better explanation -- bad luck. It could be worse of course -- think of Holland. Sometimes the ball doesn't go into the net. It didn't today for England. Better luck next time.

Here is the whole penalty shootout from earlier today:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bias and Accountability in the Context of Evaluation: Pitchers, Umpires and Race

A fascinating study has been published in the American Economic Review (PDF) which looks at bias in umpire decision making on balls and strikes in baseball. The study, led by Daniel Hamermesh of the University of Texas, is a perfect example of why sport provides such a powerful laboratory for investigating social science research questions with applicability that goes well beyond the games themselves.

The study uses a large database of pitches in all baseball games from 2004-2008 to compare umpire judgment function of the “race” (white, black, Hispanic, Asian) of the umpire and the pitcher. The study finds a small but real bias against pitchers when the umpire and picture are of different races. Interestingly, the study also finds that in such circumstances pitchers adopt strategies that allow umpires less discretion, such as by avoiding throwing pitches that “paint the edges” of home plate.  The authors argue that such strategies have economic consequences and also make bias harder to detect.

The fact that there is a bias detected as it has something to do with race is interesting but not the most significant conclusion of the study. I would guess that if the authors had looked for other sources of bias – such as whether tall umpires favor tall pitchers, or mustachioed umps favor pitchers with facial hair – they would have found it. Bias is a part of human judgment, and if anything, the very small degree of racial bias is itself noteworthy even if troubling by its nature.

The most important finding of the study is that when umpire performance is evaluated against an external standard -- in this case the now-defunct QuesTec umpire evaluation system used by MLB through 2008 -- the bias goes away. The bias also goes away when the game is played before a large crowd or when the pitch matters in the sense that it could be the last of an at-bat. Older, more senior umpires also express little bias, perhaps the authors suggest reflective of a winnowing process in umpiring ranks. Evaluation and accountability are thus shown to be key factors in eliminating bias in subjective judgment.

Here is a key excerpt from the paper:
Our first observation is that pitchers who match the race/ethnicity of the homeplate umpire appear to receive slightly favorable treatment, as indicated by a higher probability that a pitch is called a strike, compared to players who do not match. Although this confers an advantage to some players at the expense of others, the effect we document here is small, on average affecting less than a pitch per game. Much more interesting are situations when and where the effects are strongest. Roughly one-third of the ballparks we study contained a system of computerized cameras (QuesTec) used to evaluate the umpires, comparing their ball/strike calls to a less subjective standard. Umpires have strong incentives to suppress any bias in such situations, as the QuesTec evaluations are important for their own career outcomes. With such explicit monitoring, evidence of any race or ethnicity preference vanishes entirely.

We find similar effects with implicit monitoring; when a game is well attended (and presumably more closely scrutinized), or when the pitch is pivotal for an at-bat, race/ethnicity matching again plays no role in the umpire’s evaluation. In situations where the umpire is neither explicitly nor implicitly monitored, the effect of the bias is considerable. As an example, a Hispanic pitcher facing a Hispanic umpire in a low-scrutiny setting (e.g., no cameras, poorly attended) receives strikes on 32.5 percent of called pitches, which drops to 30.0 percent if a black umpire is behind the plate.
A study such as this is only possible because of the magnitude of quality data that is available to the researchers:
There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball, with each team playing 162 games in each regular season. During a typical game each team’s pitchers throw about 150 pitches, so that approximately 700,000 pitches are thrown each season. We collect pitch-by-pitch data from for every regular-season MLB game from 2004–2008.4 Our final dataset consists of 3,524,624 total pitches.
The authors suggest that any problem of bias that they document in the recent historical data may now be solved:
[T]hese findings imply that the particular impacts of racial/ethnic match preferences in baseball may now have been vitiated, since beginning in 2009 all ballparks are equipped with QuesTec or similar technologies.
QuesTec is no longer used. Instead MLB relies on Zone Evaluation, a technology which was developed by Major League Baseball Advanced Media and Sportvision.

The significance of this paper however goes well beyond balls and strikes.  The paper suggests that if you want to address systematic bias in subjective decision making, then pay close attention to decisions, use evaluations against an external metric to assess the decision maker performance with respect to performance objectives and ensure that decision makers are aware of the evaluation criteria.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Olympic Effect

The Guardian reports on a study in The Economic Journal of the effects of "mega-events" (such as the Olympic games) on a country's trade by Andrew Rose (UC-Berkeley) and Mark Spiegel (Federal Reserve bank of SF):
[A] report in this month's Economic Journal looks encouraging: professors Andrew Rose and Mark Spiegel say analysis of past history reveals that hosting the Olympics delivers an increase in exports of an extraordinary 20%, a result that is, they say, "statistically robust, permanent and large". But there's a catch: they find that the effect is just as large for countries that have put in a bid to host the Games and failed.

Rose, from the University of California, Berkeley, and Spiegel, of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, argue that a push to try to host the Games – or other sporting "mega-events" as they call them, such as football World Cups, often goes alongside a conscious decision by a country to tear down trade barriers and play a larger role in the world economy.

They point out that China's negotiations with the World Trade Organisation were completed in 2001, shortly after Beijing won the right to host the 2008 Games; Rome won the 1960 Games in 1955, as Italy joined the UN and began the negotiations that led two years later to the Treaty of Rome.

For Tokyo, Spain and Korea, too, hosting the games went alongside becoming a fully fledged member of the global elite.
They find that the trade benefits accrue to both those countries that win the games and those whose bids lose out.

Writing for the IMF last year, the authors admit that there is more to the story when it comes to mature economies that are already well integrated into the global economy:
If countries use a bid for a mega event as a signal that they’re opening up to the world, why should anyone want to bid repeatedly for such events? Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Games and London will host the 2012 Summer Games. Why should liberal economies ever bid for a mega event? What could the United States have possibly gained from its failed bid for Chicago to host the eighth American Olympiad? Clearly, something else motivates multiple bids from liberalized economies, although the basic argument here could easily be expanded to incorporate multiple bids in an environment where reputation depreciates over time and needs to be reinforced with repeated signaling. In addition, other paths can be used to signal international liberalization. What’s so great about hosting a sporting mega event? There’s clearly more to the story, and much room for future research. Still, our argument seems intuitive, especially when applied to emerging economies on the verge of establishing themselves as international players. Sochi, Russia, is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics; the 2010 World Cup is being held in South Africa. For such countries, and perhaps for Brazil, hosting a mega event amounts to a clear declaration that the country is becoming a committed member of the international community. The associated benefits may more than offset the staggering costs of hosting the games.
The IMF survey contains several pieces which together explain that there are better and worse outcomes associated with hosting the Olympics. London 2012 seems to appreciate many of these lessons, so much so in fact, that organizations are fighting over what to do with the infrastructure after the games are over.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

David Millar on Doping in Biking

This weekend's FT has a prodigious lunch with reformed-doping-cyclist David Millar (emphasis added):
To the casual observer, fighting drug abuse in cycling might seem a lost cause. This year’s Tour starts amid yet more scandals. Lance Armstrong, a seven-time Tour winner and still the world’s most famous cyclist, is facing a doping investigation by the US Food and Drug Administration, and has been denounced by several former teammates. Meanwhile Alberto Contador, winner of last year’s Tour and favourite for this year’s, is the subject of a legal battle over a positive drug test.

Perhaps it’s inevitable in a sport that demands such super-human efforts that there will always be temptation. Speaking of which, would he like a pudding? Some dessert wine? Yes and yes – gooseberry crème brûlée and a glass of Sauternes for him, Eton Mess and Muscat for me. The car arrives to pick him up – it is 3.30pm – but he shoos it away, saying we need more time.

So is there any hope? What Millar says next is perhaps the most shocking thing about the entire story: “Today ours is the cleanest of all the endurance sports.” I almost choke on my meringue. Really? “You can go into the sport now as a young rider and never encounter doping, never see a syringe ... Of course we still have the anomalous cheaters you get in any walk of life but they are a minority – for a long time they were the majority.”

How has this come about? Is it the result of technological advances in testing or various campaigns by the World Anti-Doping Agency, on whose committee Millar sits? “To be brutally honest, it’s simple economics. If they want to come into cycling, sponsors need to know the team they are funding is clean, otherwise the risk is just too great.” For years, sponsors would come in for a few years, get burnt by a scandal and pull out. Today, at least three teams – Garmin Slipstream (which Millar played a key role in setting up), Sky and HTC Highroad – make being clean a key part of their image. They ensure their riders deliver on that promise by constant blood-profiling and by providing support for young riders.
If cycling is the most clean (oh really?), does that tell us how dirty the other endurance sports actually are?

In other news, the Biotechnology Industry Organization has encouraged its members to collaborate with WADA to develop doping tests for relevant drugs as those drugs are being developed. This would seem to be a prerequisite to any effective doping regime, else the testers will forever be steps behind the dopers.

GlaxoSmithKline has already announced that it will participate in the initiative:
GSK’s commitment to give Wada confidential information on medicines in early development is unusual in an industry that traditionally keeps its pipeline of future products as secret as regulations permit.

Pauline Williams, who is managing GSK’s anti-doping initiative, told the Bio meeting: “What a great opportunity this is for pharma to do something pro-active on a voluntary basis – recognising a risk and doing something about it, rather than waiting for regulations.”

Respiratory medicine is one area of expertise within GSK likely to be of interest to Wada. Sports cheats are interested in inhaled drugs and greater lung function.

A specific GSK compound in development – a potential treatment for anaemia associated with chronic kidney disease and arterial disease – may be a tempting target for dopers. This “prolyl hydroxylase inhibitor” mimics body responses to low levels of oxygen and stimulates red blood cell production. The drug’s effects are similar to those of erythropoietin or EPO, which has presented great problems for Wada.

The industry’s decision to move against doping does not just reflect corporate altruism. Drugs’ reputation can be undermined by negative coverage if their abuse is frequently in the news, said Olivier Rabin, science director of Wada. “Some patients are concerned about taking EPOs because of the bad publicity.”

Mr Rabin said that, while “eradication of doping in sport remains a distant dream”, he was becoming more optimistic. “Many athletes are telling us their sport is cleaner than ever,” he told the FT. “Now that the industry is joining us, we have a better chance.” Steve Elliott, science director of Amgen, the US biotech company, argued industry attitudes still need to change. “Sports doping is such an alien concept in the industry,” he said. “The attitude is it is not on our radar and we don’t have to think about it.”

For all the moral pressure to keep clean and avoid doping, the biggest disincentive against cheating is fear of getting caught – and that means developing a way for authorities to detect a drug in samples before it becomes available illegally to athletes. “An effective test does more than anything else to stop abuse,” said Dr Elliott.
As the arms race continues, does governance stand a chance?