Sports: More Than Just a Jock’s Game

Riley Foreman

Here’s a secret: professional sports aren’t all about the athletes anymore.

Those nerds that your high school yearbook named “most likely to succeed” have finally found their niche in the world of sports. They might not be quarterbacks leading their teams to the Superbowl or pitching perfect games like Felix Hernandez, but their latest contributions are just as powerful within sports culture.

There may be no better sport for nerds than than fantasy football. Since it became accessible via the Internet in 1997, private and public fantasy leagues have attracted millions of people to diversify their interests in the NFL. For example, a fantasy team could potentially include New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, Seattle Seahawks’ running back Marshawn Lynch, and the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive. Since a fantasy team’s total points are calculated by the performance of each of these entities, it is crucial that the team’s manager (you) root for more than your hometown team each weekend. You want your fantasy quarterback to pass for over 200 yards and 3 touchdowns, your fantasy running back to rush for 100 yards and score, and your fantasy defensive to force fumbles and catch interceptions.

Seems like a lot to keep track of, right? Now imagine playing fantasy football, fantasy basketball, and fantasy baseball every year. Heck, now that the National Hockey League (NHL) is back, you can probably throw fantasy hockey into the mix too. That’s four different scoring systems, four different teams to manage, and hundreds of players and games to watch.  In other words, major headache material. That’s when the best and the brightest turn to statistics.

Enter Nate Silver, statistician extraordinaire. He recently published his book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail––But Some Don’t. Before that, he gained national attention after correctly predicting 49 states in the 2008 presidential election and all 50 states in 2012. Silver makes use of statistics in several fields, explaining the recession, the election, and, inevitably, sports. In an interview with New York Magazine, he relays his fantasy football strategy: “You kind of figure out which players are overvalued or undervalued, and you take advantage of peoples’ biases in that way.” While Silver is playing by the numbers, the rest of us are playing by a vague, indescribable gut feeling.

Thus, the key to success is to quantify a player’s performance. No one is demanding that you invent a novel model of statistical analysis (leave that to Silver and other nerds). Simply stay informed and quantify. Each week (or day, depending on the sport) take time to check basic statistics, such as a running back’s yards per carry, or a defense’s average points allowed per game. Check the numbers of a free agent, re-evaluate your starting lineup, and don’t allow emotional biases to quantify a gut feeling into a trade or unjustified benching.

Fantasy teams may seem like a jock’s outlet. However, as long as fantasy football remains the NFL’s best marketing tool, statisticians will be equally praised for their predictions concerning an athlete or team’s performance.