Photo by Pat Radigan
Column by Pat Radigan
It’s easier to ignore it by staying busy at home games, but I can’t help but be exposed to the football “experts” whenever I take in away game from the comfort of my desk.
It’s brutal. It’s more up and down than that thing ESPN pretends is a ‘win chance chart.’
But after a game like Saturday’s, what’s most obvious is not that Nebraska has a long way to go on the offensive line, or any other on field headline: It’s that you might want to check the credentials on your “experts”.
I’m not here to pick apart the analysis point-by-point, either. The sports media world already has enough pot-and-kettle situations. Rather, Nebraska’s win over Purdue was further proof of a much more profound point that seems to elude many college football diehards: Experts, power indexes, hot takes and even the nuances of the rule book are just as gullible as the men who put stock in them.
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Let’s start here.
ESPN's "Win Probability" from last night's Nebraska-Purdue game. pic.twitter.com/pxhrH7JmH6
— Huskers Gameday (@HuskersGameday) October 29, 2017
I take pride in considering myself a math nerd, but even I have a love hate relationship with statistics. Even in more traditional situations, I’ve always taken issue with putting too much stock in inexact sciences, but this is on another level.
And don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal. It’s 2017, so I understand that misleading stat plots can do anything from mislead sports fans to winning the presidency, but logically it’s hard to take this metric serious. On further investigation, Nebraska’s “least likely” chance at winning the game came when the Boilermakers were forced to take a timeout and punt with 1:29 left on the clock.
That’s right, it wasn’t when Purdue got a first down and sat 10 yards from icing the game. It wasn’t when the Boilermakers went up by two touchdowns on a team that was yet to make it into the end zone over 45 minutes plus of game action. It was as soon as the Huskers got the ball back with 70 yards to go?
Have they never heard of Jordan Westerkamp before?
But witty jokes aside, there’s something here. By the approximation of the ESPN win predictor, only 2 out of every 25 teams that trail by a touchdown in the final two minutes go on to win. And while I’m sure you could find a set of numbers that proves the machines right, my point is this: How many times in this exact situation do the announcers talk about “too much time” left on the clock?
It’s another golden means fallacy wrapped up as good television.
“In the world of sports media, it appears that lurid curiosity is how ‘reporters’ lure readers in.
There’s a willing ignorance to the truth, so long as it sells subscriptions.”
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the one network who has the most to gain from compelling competition has developed a metric to make comebacks seem more improbable. Nor do I think it’s an accident that all the columnists and talking heads who build their brands on ‘breaking down the game’ are quick to tweet about insurmountable odds when things go against the Huskers.
It’s like they’ve learned that Twitter still gives you attention, and algorithmic bonus points, for being a pompous asshole. Or like they know that callers are more likely to call in and tell you what an idiot you are, rather than actually value your opinion…
And that’s the problem with this sports media model.
If they put the game on BTN, Husker fans will tune in regardless of how many Matt Millens are on the broadcast. If a volleyball match is on ESPNU, Nebraska fans will flood the airwaves to get a glimpse of their Huskers, regardless of the broadcast quality. If you Bill Moos on the radio, everyone will call in because they want to Make Runzas Great Again.
However, just because there is an audience doesn’t always mean it’s in demand.
Included in the Society for Professional Journalists code of ethics is a statement I’ve come to cling to, “Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.” But in the world of sports media, it appears that lurid curiosity is how ‘reporters’ lure readers in. There’s a willing ignorance to the truth, so long as it sells subscriptions.
And it’s a lot easier to sell stories of a comeback when you’ve already convinced them the game is over.