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.
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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”.