From Fan to Fortune Teller: The Fine Art of Predicting Sports Results

With a multitude of variables at play, from injuries and team dynamics to weather conditions and psychological factors, predicting the outcome of a match can feel like a Herculean task. While some may get lucky with a few successful bets, the reality is that sports betting is a challenging game that requires a deep understanding of the sport, careful analysis, and a healthy dose of strategy.

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Emotions quickly become red hot on the back of high expectations. They are excessive and not grounded in reality. Social and other media often send up false flags. Many turn out to be unnecessary disappointments. Forecasts fail, including those of recent years.

It was supposed to be beautiful when the Polish team was going to the World Cup [in 2022 - ed]. The pride of the nation was supposed to cover us with glory. To make a historic success. Because of a new selector. Because of secret game concepts. It was different. There was an embarrassment and a shameful exit from the group in the knockout stage. This is not how it was supposed to end.

At the Winter Games in Beijing, the Polish ski jumpers were supposed to confirm their world reputation. The Polish Ski Association (PZN) considered the preparation problems as minor and swept them under the carpet. As a result, the jumpers "blew it" and the mythical powerhouse proved too small for the Games. This is not how it was supposed to be.

The athletes' many successes led the media to refer to them as the 'New Wunderteam', in reference to the phenomenal team of the 1960s. Meanwhile, Poland finished 15th overall at the indoor championships in Istanbul. This, again, is not how it was supposed to be.

The unpredictability of sports has its bright sides too. When Polish tennis star Iga Świątek appeared on the courts, the professionals appreciated her talent, but even they did not predict that the teenager would soon walk the red carpet as a mega-star.

Real or artificial intelligence?

Predicting sports results is a risky and uncertain business. Individuals can play such a game. However, predictive analysis is no longer fun. As a result, sports journalists are professionals who only add fuel to the fire. They should have a rational and factual basis. Otherwise, their columns reek of amateurism.

References to statistics, information from Wikipedia, gossip, anecdotes, or social-media posts are all too flimsy to go on. The number of goals scored in the past, runs won, clubs changed or coaches are irrelevant to an accurate prediction.

Only one thing counts in this competition: comprehensive knowledge of live sport. No digital bookkeeping can replace it. And it can even hinder rational assessments. Statistics are a blind alley. They are closed to all the variables that determine the future.

To be honest, sports can only be predicted in real time. During an event or a specific event. But even then, the chance of an accurate shot depends on the knowledge of the commentator. On whether he or she can read and understand the course of events. The audience can then combine the elements into a coherent forecast.

The form of the day, the manner of movement and its dynamics, the athlete's body language, eyecontact,t and facial expressions all provide vital information. You can read much more from them than from scoreboards or rankings.

Today, there are no problems with this in the journalistic sectors or the stands. An athlete's confidence, determination, or fears can be seen in close-ups from the cameras. Or on TV or big screens. It just needs to be understood and pieced together.

The ability to predict the outcome of sports events requires more than just a basic understanding of the game. A thorough knowledge of the sport is essential to anticipate and project future outcomes with a degree of accuracy. The ability to make sensible and relatively correct projections in real-time and in the long term relies on a sound understanding of the game.

However, this is not to suggest that the rise of data analytics is all bad news. While data and technology have their role in making predictions, humans possess a certain free element of interpretation that can be invaluable. Humans are not algorithms and do not rely solely on the data they are given. They can interpret and process information creatively, allowing for a level of unpredictability that algorithms cannot match.

On the other hand, the increasing use of digital technologies in the sports industry has raised concerns about the potential for an over-reliance on data analytics to identify winners and losers. The fear is that the whole magic of sport will disappear, or rather, its meaning, which is based on the conundrum of who will win and who will lose. Perhaps it's not worth rushing into complete reliance on data analytics just yet.

– Marek Jóźwik

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Roberto Galea
Polish fans at the qualifying match of the European Football Championships Poland-Czech Republic in Prague on 24 March 2023. Photo: PAP/Leszek Szymański
It is worth the effort because sports analytics translate into profits. Not only direct profits resulting from wins but also indirect profits from the sports betting sector, which accounts for 13% of the global gambling industry. That accounts for between $700 billion and $1 trillion.

An almost infinite number of variables

The science of predicting sports outcomes is not a new concept, but rather an extension of the broader application of mathematical modelling in various industries. Mathematical modelling has been used in the past to predict the strategies and results of political elections. This type of data analysis has now become a crucial part of the sports industry, as teams and businesses seek to gain a competitive edge.

  The sports industry is big business, with billions of dollars at stake. As a result, analytical firms and corporations keep a tight lid on the data they use to predict sports outcomes. This information is kept confidential to maintain a competitive advantage and maximise profits. During the 2008 US elections, accurate data analysis showed how important it is when it correctly predicted the results in most of the states. This proves that data analysis is not just a matter of curiosity but can be a powerful tool for success.

Sports science has emerged as a new discipline that combines mathematics, statistics, and computer science to create mathematical models to predict sporting events' outcomes. These models take into account various data points, such as players' performance history, team composition, and environmental factors. The goal is to generate accurate predictions, which are then used by teams, sportsbook operators, and other stakeholders to make informed decisions. Thanks to the advances in technology and data analytics, the accuracy of sports outcome predictions continues to improve, opening up a whole new world of possibilities in the industry.

However, it does not always work out. Unlike politics, sports predictions are not based on opinion polls or social moods. The number of variables is monstrous. No algorithm can be used to flawlessly design, for example, a soccer season for a team.

Every plan should start with basic data. In the case of football, two major factors are taken into account: the results of the past season, and the team's potential at the beginning of the season. Each match that is played changes the statistics and each match is completely governed by chance.

Players suffer injuries, referees make mistakes, and coaches make tactical errors. In addition, the weather, the atmosphere in the arena, and unfortunately, factors such as doping or corruption, all have a major effect. Both are common occurrences in sports. Each game brings new data without indicating whether it is permanent or temporary.

In such circumstances, a crystal ball is more useful than a mathematician. The situation is no easier in the case of individual sports, either. Even when analyses are carried out in parallel with events. This was the case with Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open.

Before the final, he played 19 matches, of which he won only two. The algorithm gave him only a 4% chance in the match against Daniil Medvedev. But it was the Spaniard who eventually won the tournament. Allegedly, the algorithm performed well because it was based on the data provided to it. Of course, technological advancement is a thing to marvel at, however, it’s not worth believing…

On waves of faith and hope

The business of predicting sports results is very profitable. For this reason, business stimulates the development of digital technologies within the industry. The progress is visible, although it does not offer a 100% guarantee. It narrows the field of unknowns but does not exclude them.

Nor does it eliminate individual attempts to enrich themselves through betting. According to information from the "Graj Legalnie" Association – a Polish cooperative of sports betting agents – the turnover of bookmakers amounted to PLN 6.7 billion in 2019. However, 60% of Polish betting is done on the black market, so it is difficult to estimate profits.

Bookmaker companies care about the customers. Mostly those who bet on football matches. They publish newsletters full of forecasts and charts for bettors. This is done to ensure that as many people as possible bring in their money. And probably take away as little as possible.

Sports fans don't need to be encouraged. They do it for the sport. Passionate fans can't help believing that they know sports best. So they know how things are going to be and they have a sacred belief that this is the way things are supposed to be.

Belief in one's infallibility is the beginning of the end for any forecast. It is only a step from such faith to believe in a miracle. It closes one's eyes to the facts. It cuts off all avenues of competence. We experience this most often in connection with football.

In case anyone has forgotten, let me remind you: “In just four years, Poland will be world champions” and “Poles, nothing has happened”. Both chants from previous World Cup seasons illustrate the intensity of belief and emotion. The scale of detachment from reality. They are not and cannot be the basis of any meaningful forecast.

Sports journalists are in the business of predicting events somewhat out of official duty. In theory, they have more knowledge than readers or viewers. Unfortunately, their newspaper articles and TV and radio commentaries do not reflect that.

Many journalists try to tune into the images of sports as seen through the eyes of the fans. They broadcast on waves of faith and hope with no connection to common sense. On this ground, 'our team' will always prevail, even though it is impossible, because, in sports, there is never an “always”.

The anticipation of victory and the fear of defeat are the driving forces that fuel the competitive nature of sports. In the sports world, the question of who will win and who will lose is one that is constantly on the minds of athletes, coaches, and fans alike. However, life in general also presents its own unique set of challenges, albeit in a more chaotic and unpredictable manner. While the rules, players, and timing of a sporting event may seem to simplify the task of predicting the outcome, it is far from a straightforward process. Even with a comprehensive understanding of the game, there are countless variables that can impact the final result, from injuries to weather conditions, making it impossible to accurately predict the outcome. Nevertheless, the excitement and suspense of not knowing the final outcome is what makes sports so captivating and keeps us coming back for more.

Just a little information has very little connection with the end result. On the other hand, unforeseen details have an immense influence on the outcome. Fortunetellers and clairvoyants have been consulted for centuries, although in the realm of sports, even they do not help much.

However, there is no shortage of ambitious punters who try to control the element of sports roulette. And journalists and fans are primarily responsible for this. In this group, there are also undoubtedly betting enthusiasts, who do it to make money.

Some make piles of cash in this very unpredictable sector. Others dig themselves into a financial pit and eventually go bankrupt. As we all know, all gambling is addictive. It makes people lose focus, and gamblers lose their shirts, while bookmakers make a fortune.

However, this does not settle the most basic of questions: is it possible to predict the outcome of sports, or not? If yes, to what extent? On what – or on whom – should meaningful predictions be based? On intuition or science? Or on one's own knowledge, honed over years of constant and reliable learning?

A technological arms race

The subject of predictability in sports has long been a topic of interest among fans, often leading to passionate debates over a few drinks. But the issue is also important within the sports industry itself, especially among business managers who stand to gain from accurate predictions. The greater the number of correct forecasts, the bigger the financial windfall. As a result, a global race for dominance in digital technologies has emerged within the industry.

The majority of these technologies are founded on mathematics, widely regarded as the foundation of all sciences. Mathematics has the power to control the variability of vast amounts of data points, making it the ideal tool for sports forecasting. As a result, a new branch of science has emerged: Sport Science. Experts in this field work tirelessly to identify the most significant data points and develop innovative mathematical models to harness them effectively. These cutting-edge technologies are at the forefront of modern sports management, driving the industry forward and revolutionizing the way we view and predict sports events.

The US is leading in this field, starting with baseball and moving softly into other disciplines with an emphasis on basketball. The motivation for these efforts is obvious. Annual sports revenues in the US are roughly $100 billion, so it is worth paying attention.

I apologise in advance for the topics that may seem too inaccessible to many people. But it is impossible to skip concepts from the world of science when it comes to scientific issues and statistical processes.

Sport Science is an interdisciplinary subject focused, among other issues, on subjects such as the physiology and biomechanics of the athlete's body or the psychology of analyzing the role of the mind in performance (or in simpler terms: the range of mental abilities of the player).

The revenue of the NBA is $5 billion per year. Statistics tools use artificial intelligence through SQL databases, R and Python programming languages, and data visualisation tools such as Shiny and Tableau. So, it's a piece of cake.

Each game provides a set of analytical data thanks to six cameras capturing 25 frames per second. Most of the time, these numbers are used to figure out defensive and offensive strategies, the make-up of the team, and any needed position changes.

Predictive analysis, on the other hand, allows for estimating the probability of winning and building a game plan based on a statistical model for the player who can contribute the most to victory.

Similar technologies are also being used in football, such as in the Italian Serie A league. Valuable solutions include data visualisation in graphic format. With the help of charts, coaches can more easily identify specific problems.

Sports suffer from many variables that introduce errors and are impossible to control. Player analysis, game analysis, and even fan management affect this margin of error.

Main photo: Polish betting shop, 2013. Photo: Adam Dauksza / Forum
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