How well do Vegas futures predict playoff results in each sport?

Spurs_Tim_Duncan_Heat_LeBron_James_2013

Spurs and Heat… again.

On Friday, I wrote a post for FiveThirtyEight discussing the rampant inequality and predictability found in the NBA. I have a few more thoughts on that subject…

While the NBA has successfully suckered tens of millions of fans into believing the 2014 playoffs have been thrilling and unpredictable, with the LA Times even declaring, “March Madness suddenly seems like such a bore by comparison” (this is a pretty odd comparison considering the Final Four concluded with a No. 7 seed beating a No. 8 for the title), I’ve had a much different opinion, and this year’s predictable results simply fall in line with recent history.

While my original post mostly analyzed the odds distribution in each sport, I didn’t much consider the actual results, and it got me wondering… How well do those futures odds predict what actually happens on the court, as well as in other sports?

To analyze this, I ranked all the teams in each sport according to their preseason championship odds* (i.e. for 2014, Miami is No. 1, Bulls No. 2, etc.) I then plotted this rank against their eventual playoff results (0 = missed playoffs, 1 = lost in first round, 2 = made conference semifinals, 3 = made conference finals, 4 = made finals, 5 = won title) over the last four seasons. For comparison, I also included the NHL, a league that also has an 82-game regular season and four rounds of best-of-seven playoffs:

*Because any betting odds will add up to greater than 100 percent, I simply divided all the futures by the sum of all the teams’ odds to scale them down to 100 percent.

nba presason vs results

nhl presason vs results

The NBA has a clear strong correlation between preseason championship probability rank and playoff results, while the NHL is much weaker. Over the last four years, no NBA team ranked lower than fifth in preseason championship odds has made the finals. Compare that to the NHL, which has had six of eight non-top five finals teams in that time.

Here are the NFL and MLB distributions too:

NFL preseason vs results

(0 = missed playoffs, 1 = lost in wild card round, 2 = lost in divisional round, 3 = lost in conference championship game, 4 = lost Super Bowl, 5 = won Super Bowl)

MLB preseason vs results

(0 = missed playoffs, 1 = lost in Wild Card game, 2 = lost in LDS, 3 = lost in LCS, 4 = lost World Series, 5 = won World Series)

It’s easy to see how these other leagues’ plots differ from the NBA’s. Here are the correlations for each graph:

NBA = .647

NHL = .523

NFL = .440

MLB = .371

Clearly, the preseason favorites go further in the playoffs with a much higher frequency in the NBA than in any other sport.

Dominance of Miami

Much of the predictability in the NBA is due to the havoc the Miami Heat have waged on the wagering markets. To put Miami’s sports book dominance during the LeBron-Wade-Bosh era in perspective, here’s a scatter plot of the all the seasons in the MLB, NHL, NBA, and NFL over the last four seasons, plotting each team’s championship odds at the start of the season against their odds at the start of the playoffs.

AllOdds2

(Sorry, no pretty graphic with this one—just a screenshot of an R plot. Chartbuilder doesn’t take to kindly to doing scatter plots with multiple series.)

Only once in the last four years have the Heat not been favorites to win the title—the start of the 2011 playoffs, following the Big Three’s underwhelming debut regular season. Now, to really see how Miami’s recent run stands out, here are those odds when the four years for each team are averaged together.

AllCombo2

Over the last four seasons, the Heat have averaged 24.6 percent and 28.4 percent chances of winning the title at the start of the regular season and postseason respectively. Compare that to the Sacramento Kings, which have averaged 0.3 percent and 0.0 percent respectively over that time.

Another interesting takeaway from this chart is that the Patriots have often wildly outperformed preseason expectations during the regular season, accruing more than double the title odds by the time the playoffs start. The Lakers, on the other hand, wildly underperform (or are simply very overvalued at the start of the year), nearly slicing their preseason title odds in half over the course of the regular season.

Odds Distributions

Probably the most striking image from my FiveThirtyEight story was this line chart of the distribution of championship odds at the start of the season in each sport.

Pre line chart

When you zoom in on the bottom two thirds of the chart, you can really see the near-zero odds of the barren bottom 50 percent in the NBA.

Pre line zoom

This NBA inequality is still apparent come playoff time. (I separated the MLB data into the years in which there was only one wild card per league and years in which there were two.)

Play line chart

While the NBA may look like it’s made up some ground here equality-wise, it’s important to note that the NFL and MLB have byes and play-in games, a structural advantage that automatically adds greater disparity in championship odds. The average top NBA playoff team, which has to win four rounds for the championship, still has better title odds than the average top MLB and NFL teams, which only have to win three rounds.

Solutions

The day after my FiveThirtyEight story ran, the NY Times published a story that touched on very similar topics. Most interestingly came a quote from former Stanford professor Roger Noll, discussing one of my most despised regulations in sports:

“If you didn’t have an individual cap,” Noll said in a telephone interview, “if LeBron James was in a position to sell himself to the highest bidder, his salary would be much higher and you wouldn’t have a small number of top teams with more than half the superstars in the league.”

“It’s a big mistake, and the N.B.A. hasn’t adjusted. So if you have as many as 25 teams that know before the first game is played that they probably won’t even be in the conference finals, doesn’t that make the regular season seem almost meaningless, more of an exhibition than a pathway to a consequential championship?”

I couldn’t agree more (and plan to write more on this in the NBA off-season).

In previous posts, I’ve argued against the randomness and extreme parity of college basketball, much of which is due to the 68-team single elimination playoff format—a huge contrast to the NBA’s best-of-seven series. If that sounds like the complete opposite of my above criticism of the NBA, then you’re right. The NCAA lies too far toward the extreme randomness/parity end of the spectrum, while the NBA goes too far to the extreme predictability/inequality end.

You don’t want seasons to feel like they’re extremely predictable like the NBA, but at the same time, you want the true best team to win with a relatively high frequency so that it feels like teams are justly rewarded. It’s critical to have a good balance between the two, and finding that equilibrium is something sports leagues have wrestled with—and will continue to wrestle with—for decades.

 

Why an NFL auction would be far superior to a draft—for players, teams, and fans

NFL Draft lioRealistic rating: 8.0

Pretty much every astute fantasy player knows that auctions are far superior to drafts. Here are the three primary reasons:

1. More fair: If there’s a superstar head-and-shoulders above everyone else, then a team with the first pick in a fantasy draft lucks into a huge advantage. Conversely, if the top players are about equal, then the team with the first pick is at a disadvantage, since the teams picking behind him are still getting roughly the same caliber of player in the first round, and then that team has to pick last in the 2nd round. It all comes down to random luck of the distribution of player talent.

This randomness disappears in an auction, where there isn’t any lucky advantage or unlucky disadvantage to be gleaned from having particular picks. Every team has the opportunity to pick every player and to pay exactly how much they believe that player to be worth. Because of this, auctions are much more liquid then drafts, as auction dollars are a much more granular measure of value than draft picks.

2. More research/availability: In drafts, if you have the first pick, you’re pretty much locked into taking Peyton, AP, or one of the other handful of elite RBs. That’s all you really have to think about. On the other end of the spectrum, if you have the last pick, it doesn’t matter what your opinion of AP is. If you think he’s going to have the greatest rushing season in NFL history, you don’t have any opportunity to put your money where your mouth is (unless you trade picks, which seems to be a rare occurrence due to the aforementioned liquidity problem).

3. More strategy: There’s an element of strategy in auctions that isn’t very prevalent in drafts. At any given time, the number of teams that need a particular position and the total money is left across the league has enormous implications on the values of players, causing them to constantly fluctuate—and teams can do things (whether that be nominating specific players or positions or driving up the price on certain auctions) to manipulate those fluctuations to preferred conditions.

Application to the NFL (and NBA/MLB/NHL)

These draft issues are largely prevalent in the NFL too. While many teams do trade picks, the vast majority simply pick from where they’ve been assigned in the draft order, which surely doesn’t fit with their specific values/needs if they had the choice.

For example, only a handful of teams at the top of the draft were really researching the likes Jadeveon Clowney as they were the only teams with the means to select him. Thus, more likely than not, the Texans did not value Clowney more than every one of the other 31 teams, yet they still ended up with him. In fact, it’s highly likely that the vast majority of the 256 players drafted did not go to the NFL franchise which actually valued them the most. Again, the less liquid nature of drafts creates market inefficiencies. Auctions are the opposite. With each bidding party having a very granular amount of funds, they can pick and choose exactly how much they value each player available, and players will go to the teams that value them most the vast majority of the time.

Proposal I: Auction draft

Let’s say each NFL team had an allotted amount of auction “money” (I say “money” because it would be a nominal amount) with the worst team from the previous season having the most money to spend and the Super Bowl winner having the least.

Let’s say we use the modified draft pick value chart created by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective. Here, I’ve totaled the values of the seven picks each team is currently allotted based on their draft order. I’ve then multiplied that sum by 10 to have a more granular “dollar” amount. If these draft picks were converted into auction dollars, here’s how each team’s starting funds would look:

NFL Auction Values

As you can see, there’s a steadily declining distribution of funds down the auction chain. But how can this change things in practice? Here are some examples:

Kansas City was assigned the 23rd overall pick in the 2014 draft based on their 2013 record, and they selected a defensive end with that pick—but say they really loved Clowney and were willing to pay much more for him. As draft picks aren’t very liquid, it might be hard to find a trade that’s fair for both sides. In an auction, though, Kansas City can simply decide to allocate as much of its budget as it wants toward Clowney, and if Houston decides to match, then they have greater starting funds with which to outbid them.

Or say Houston, which has many holes to fill, decided not to spend a big portion of their budget on Clowney and take the standard one each of a 1st-, 2nd-, 3rd-, 4th-, 5th-, 6th-, and 7th-round caliber players. They could instead spend their $10,727 on seven 2nd round-caliber players (i.e. the 33-64th best players available; avg cost $1502) allowing them to plug in a very solid player at many different slots.

(In fantasy, this is known as the “stars and scrubs” vs. balanced roster strategies, but these plans have much more adaptability to NFL teams, which must account for their already rostered players when drafting rather than starting from scratch like most fantasy leagues.)

And in terms of strategy, a team highly coveting a WR might decide to nominate stud QBs early, in the hopes of depleting other teams’ funds and driving down the cost of WRs.

The process

The auction would work by rotating which teams could nominate players, with a nomination requiring a minimum starting bid of, say, $10 and a minimum $1 raise. All 32 teams could buzz in, and the auction would end after 20 seconds of no higher bids. (Let’s pretend there’s no high frequency trading “Flash Boys” going on here—although that would definitely be something Bill Belichick would love to explore.) Then the next team would nominate a player, and the process would continue until every team was out of funds.

As far as broadcasting, don’t worry, Mr. $25 billion commissioner, there could still be a Thursday night primetime show in which the best players are selected. According to the Harvard study, the 32nd pick is worth 200.3 points, or $2003 in auction money. For the first night, each team would nominate a player, but the minimum bid on that player would be $1500 so as to ensure it’s all big names coming off the board. (Personally, I’d rather not have this de facto “first round,” since auctions are more fun and strategic when some studs are still lurking on the board late, but it’d obviously be hard for the NFL to pass up a free night of primetime TV rights.)

One of the best things about this is that you could in theory speed up the draft, because trading would be rendered almost entirely irrelevant (i.e. No team no longer has to trade up to get a guy.) This absence of trades would mean that you wouldn’t have to allocate much time between auctions. At the same time, though, there could be many more than 256 players drafted in an auction format.

Some other notes:

  • Compensatory picks could easily still be awarded in this auction, simply by calculating their value and adding them to each team’s total funds.
  • Draft money could easily be traded during the season and might facilitate more trades. Say two teams can’t find even ground. If they each had an auction money allocation, one could easily kick in a bit to smooth out any deal.

Finally, here’s the best reason for an auction: Who wouldn’t want to see Jerry Jones blow half his budget on Day 1 on some pricey college star?

From the players’ point of view

Auctions would be much more fair for the players as well. With the draft, rookie salaries are largely pre-slotted by each draft position, without much regard for discrepancies in actual value.

For example, in 2012, Robert Griffin and Andrew Luck were the consensus top two picks and were huge outliers in terms of talent/value compared to the rest of the draft. Yet, due to the rigid rookie pay scale, they only received a marginal pay upgrade over the No. 3 pick Trent Richardson. In an auction, rookie salaries could be scaled by the amount of auction money spent on them, making it a big more meritocratic. If the next Andrew luck comes along and causes a team to splurge $3,000 auction on him, his rookie salary would be in proportion to that amount.

Proposal II: Free agency

This idea’s a bit more radical: How about no draft or auction whatsoever—and instead players coming out of college are simply free agents who can sign with any team? An obvious objection would be that the best players would simply sign with the best teams, and the bad teams would stay bad in perpetuity, but is that really the case?

Teams that are rebuilding would allocate much more of their salary caps to prospects coming up from college, whereas contenders in “win now” mentality probably wouldn’t want to tie up much of their cap on young prospects who could take years to develop into their prime. Also, thanks to a hard salary cap, no team could horde all the best talent.

Another thing to consider is that teams are in a constant state of roster turnover. As great as the Broncos and Seahawks are today, every one of the players on their roster will have become a free agent in the next five years. Because the NFL isn’t anywhere near as star-driven as the NBA, and the best players aren’t global icons that want to gravitate toward NYC, LA, and other “prestige” cities, complete free agency isn’t something out of the realm of possibility in terms of competitive balance.

And from the players’ point of view, it’s probably the most fair of all, as they aren’t locked into playing for a particular team or for a particular salary. (Of course, since college players don’t have a seat at the bargaining table when it comes to negotiating the NFL CBA, they receive the extremely raw end of the deal and will continue to as long as current NFL players are the only players with a voice.)

The death blow to this free agency plan, though, is that it would remove a big prime time ratings event from the NFL’s annual TV calendar, which Commissioner 18 Games probably wouldn’t be too happy about.

Bottom line: In a vacuum, complete free agency seems like the way to go. An auction is pretty close, though, and certainly a lot more entertaining. Not only would a auction make draft night more fun and fair for fans, it’d also help during the season in facilitating more trades. And on top of all that, it’s more fair for the players too. Seems like a win-win-win.

NHL Playoffs Statistical Preview

The stats love the Kings.

The stats love the Kings.

(Note: From time to time, I’ll take a break from proposing new sports ideas. This is one of those times.)

While the hockey stats revolution is still about a decade or so behind baseball, there are still some pretty telling stats in our toolbox today. My favorites are Corsi, Fenwick, and PDO.

Here’s a description of each from the awesome Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com:

  • Fenwick = Shots + Missed Shots
  • FF% = Fenwick For% = Fenwick For / (Fenwick For + Fenwick Against)
  • Corsi = Shot Attempts = Shots + Missed Shots + Blocked Shots
  • CF% = Corsi For% = Corsi For / (Corsi For + Corsi Against)
  • PDO = Shooting Percentage + Save Percentage while on the ice

There’s obviously a lot of overlap, but we’ll just ignore that for now. The main takeaway is that possession and shots are extremely important.

I compiled the FF%, CF%, and PDO on all 30 NHL teams from the 2013-14 regular season and standardized them into a z-score. For Fenwick and Corsi, a higher z-score is good. For PDO, a lower z-score is good.

I averaged these figures up in the “Total” column ((FF + CF – PDO) /3) and sorted them by that metric. To compared them to the actual regular season results, I also added the regular season standings points and goal differential.

Team FF% FFZ CF% CFZ PDO PDOZ Total Points Goal Dif
Los Angeles 56.1 1.83 56.8 2.01 1000 0.00 1.28 100 32
New Jersey 53.6 1.07 54.4 1.29 985 -1.33 1.23 88 -11
Chicago 55.4 1.62 55.5 1.62 999 -0.09 1.11 107 47
San Jose 54.6 1.38 53.7 1.09 998 -0.18 0.88 111 49
Florida 50.8 0.23 51 0.28 980 -1.77 0.76 66 -72
NY Rangers 52.6 0.77 52.4 0.70 997 -0.27 0.58 96 25
St. Louis 53.7 1.10 53.1 0.91 1007 0.62 0.46 111 57
Vancouver 51.6 0.47 51.3 0.37 995 -0.44 0.43 83 -27
Ottawa 51 0.29 52.4 0.70 997 -0.27 0.42 88 -29
NY Islanders 49.1 -0.28 49.4 -0.19 984 -1.42 0.32 79 -42
Detroit 51.5 0.44 51.5 0.43 1000 0.00 0.29 93 -8
Winnipeg 50.5 0.14 50.1 0.02 994 -0.53 0.23 84 -10
Carolina 49.6 -0.13 50.3 0.08 994 -0.53 0.16 83 -23
Nashville 49.4 -0.19 48.5 -0.46 989 -0.97 0.11 88 -26
Dallas 50.9 0.26 50.5 0.14 1002 0.18 0.07 91 7
Tampa Bay 51.3 0.38 51 0.28 1007 0.62 0.02 101 25
Boston 53.4 1.01 53.9 1.15 1025 2.21 -0.02 117 84
Phoenix 50 -0.01 50.5 0.14 1003 0.27 -0.05 89 -15
Philadelphia 49.2 -0.25 50 -0.01 1003 0.27 -0.18 94 1
Pittsburgh 49.2 -0.25 48.7 -0.40 1001 0.09 -0.24 109 42
Calgary 47.7 -0.70 46.3 -1.11 988 -1.06 -0.25 77 -32
Columbus 49.8 -0.07 49.9 -0.04 1008 0.71 -0.27 93 15
Minnesota 48.8 -0.37 48.6 -0.43 1010 0.89 -0.56 98 1
Washington 47.1 -0.88 47.7 -0.69 1002 0.18 -0.58 90 -5
Montreal 47.9 -0.64 46.7 -0.99 1005 0.44 -0.69 100 11
Anaheim 50.1 0.02 49.8 -0.07 1024 2.13 -0.72 116 57
Edmonton 44.1 -1.78 44.3 -1.70 990 -0.89 -0.87 67 -67
Buffalo 42.8 -2.17 43 -2.09 982 -1.59 -0.89 52 -91
Colorado 46.7 -1.00 47 -0.90 1018 1.59 -1.17 112 30
Toronto 42.3 -2.32 42.9 -2.12 1013 1.15 -1.86 84 -25

 
It’s not hard to see why Toronto and their notoriously anti-analytics front office fell off the rails, but how did Colorado manage to achieve a No. 1 seed in the West? (Answer: Unsustainably over-achieving goaltending from Semyon Varlamov.)

For the sake of comparing these stats to regular season results, here’s how Total looks plotted against goal differential:

playoff data 2

(Sorry some of those are cut off. The far left is Toronto, and the far right are Los Angeles and New Jersey.)

The correlation is only .1845, which suggests that these metrics should probably only be used as a guideline in telling us what teams may have over- and under-achieved this season relative to their actual performance.

First round match-ups

Ok, so how do these teams’ stats compare for the first round match-ups?

Home Ice Total Road Ice Total Difference
Colorado -1.171 Minnesota -0.512 -0.66
St. Louis 0.106 Chicago 0.905 -0.80
Anaheim -0.575 Dallas 0.289 -0.86
San Jose 0.926 Los Angeles 1.233 -0.31
Boston 0.101 Detroit 0.356 -0.25
Tampa Bay 0.018 Montreal -0.377 0.40
Pittsburgh -0.200 Columbus -0.483 0.28
NY Rangers 0.753 Philadelphia -0.244 1.00

 
In the West, every matchup’s lower seed has a higher total, which suggests that upsets could be rampant. Most notably, Minnesota and Dallas have a considerable edge over the two No. 1 seeds. And whoever emerges from the San Jose vs. Los Angeles showdown (two of the three highest Totals in the playoffs) should be a serious contender to make the Stanley Cup Finals.

In the East, it’s a bit more chalk, but again, a No. 1 seed (Boston) has a lower total than its opponent (Detroit).

Does this mean all the No. 1 seeds are going down? No, probably not. But it does indicate they’re very susceptible to being upset—not just in the first round, but in every round of the playoffs.

Vegas odds

Finally, let’s take a look at how these Total figures for each team compare to Vegas. My (extremely unscientific and non-statistically sound) formula for a stat I call “BetFigure” is:

BetFigure = [(Total Differential + 2.5) * 0.2] / Vegas Win Percentage

From my (again, unscientific) experience, anything over 1.50 is generally a profitable bet.

Team Line Win Pct Total Opponent Total Total Diff BetFigure
Detroit 235 29.9% 0.356 Boston 0.101 0.25 1.85
Dallas 165 37.7% 0.289 Anaheim -0.575 0.86 1.78
Columbus 210 32.3% -0.483 Pittsburgh -0.200 -0.28 1.37
Minnesota 115 46.5% -0.512 Colorado -1.171 0.66 1.36
Chicago -105 51.2% 0.905 St. Louis 0.106 0.80 1.29
Los Angeles 125 44.4% 1.233 San Jose 0.926 0.31 1.26
NY Rangers -150 60.0% 0.753 Philadelphia -0.244 1.00 1.17
Tampa Bay -117 53.9% 0.018 Montreal -0.377 0.40 1.07
Montreal -103 50.7% -0.377 Tampa Bay 0.018 -0.40 0.83
Pittsburgh -250 71.4% -0.200 Columbus -0.483 0.28 0.78
San Jose -145 59.2% 0.926 Los Angeles 1.233 -0.31 0.74
Philadelphia 130 43.5% -0.244 NY Rangers 0.753 -1.00 0.69
Colorado -135 57.4% -1.171 Minnesota -0.512 -0.66 0.64
St. Louis -115 53.5% 0.106 Chicago 0.905 -0.80 0.64
Boston -280 73.7% 0.101 Detroit 0.356 -0.25 0.61
Anaheim -190 65.5% -0.575 Dallas 0.289 -0.86 0.50

 
So there you have it, Detroit and Dallas. Take it to the bank. Guaranteed*

*Maybe

 

Restructuring the March Madness bracket

NewBracket1
Realistic rating: 5.5

With a No. 7 and No. 8 seed qualifying for the Final Four, this year’s tourney again highlights some of the same issues that have always plagued college basketball—the extreme unpredictability of the postseason. While most fans probably love this aspect of the sport, it brings up a number of problems with the college basketball season as a whole, namely: the meaningfulness of the regular season and the frequency with which the best team actually wins the championship.

Perhaps the most fundamental concept every sport must confront is how to balance fairness vs. excitement—or in other words, how often should the best team win? There are some sports that probably have too high a percentage (e.g. sprinting, NBA) at the expense of excitement/unpredictability, while others have far too low a frequency of the best winning but enjoy a very high level of excitement/unpredictability (e.g. MLB).

College basketball falls about as far on the excitement end of the spectrum as any sport. This makes the postseason extremely fun and unpredictable, but the regular season, well, is just about meaningless. Plus, the “champion” is rarely the best team.

This is due to the postseason’s structure—a 68-team single elimination tournament in which every team, with the exception of the eight involved in play-in games (no, I’m not calling those “round one”), has ostensibly the exact same starting position, requiring the six victories to win the championship (i.e. there’s not much reward for regular season performance other than a higher seed, which in many cases is actually a negative.) Thus, as much as ESPN likes to hype a regular season game such as No. 1 Syracuse vs. No. 5 Duke last month, it really doesn’t matter who wins, as there’s not much reward for the victor.

A couple of weeks ago on Deadspin, I wrote a piece discussing some of these issues with this format and proposed a few alternatives, such as a World Cup style, a bye tiered bracket, and a standard bracket with randomized lower seeds. (The heavy math for these proposals is there.) While these were all certainly improvements on the current format, they were, as Mike Ehrmantraut would say, a “half measure.”

Expanding (Yes, Expanding) the Bracket

Considering there are 351 Division I basketball teams, allowing 68 (19.4%) into the postseason a good figure if you must have a single-elimination, limited-tier (by “tier” I mean giving certain teams byes or other hard advantages other than playing a weaker first round opponent). However, contrary to what most hardcore fans may believe, making the postseason more exclusive will only make the regular season more meaningful for roughly the top 25% of teams. With fewer teams in the tourney, the regular season would be far less meaningful for the bottom 75%, because for the vast majority of teams in smaller conferences, their season is entirely meaningless only a dozen games into the season. (Note: Yes, there are incredibly dumb conference tournaments that render single-bid conference regular seasons meaningless, but we’ll just ignore that for now.)

But how can you make the regular season more meaningful for all 351 teams without making the postseason even more of a crapshoot? Here are a couple of straightforward solutions, which could really be applied to all sports:

1. Simply have best-of-three series at certain rounds of the tourney. This would be highly impractical for a number of obvious reasons, though, so let’s assume we have to stick to single elimination. Also, while decreasing the randomness, best-of-three series still wouldn’t make regular season success more meaningful.

2. Have a dramatically bye-tiered bracket. The example for this kind of setup in the Deadspin piece only had three bye tiers: #1-4 seeds on bye to the round of 32, #5-8 at the normal starting position, and #9-16 with a play-in game to the first round. This still didn’t result in quite as much significance for regular season success as I would have liked, though, but how about some of these?

NewBracket1

Or

NewBracket2

In each of these brackets, there’s now a much greater reward for landing a higher seed, which would make the regular season far much more meaningful while also giving much higher likelihood to the chances of the best teams being there the final weekend. I’m a huge proponent of tiered bracket systems in which higher seeds get greater rewards (in the form of byes or otherwise) and wish more leagues other than the NFL would adopt such measures. (More on this in future posts to be sure.)

I’m not sure if I’ll be rooting for UConn or Kentucky this weekend. Should either win, it will be a glaring mark on the legitimacy of the NCAA champion title, but at the same time, it might garner further exposure for the sham the current format really is.

Bottom line: These proposals really don’t shake up things all that much (i.e. still single-elimination bracket, still four regions, etc.), but with the NCAA making a boatload of money as is, the probably won’t want to change much. Still, with even the highest regular season game (a 5000+ game sample size) rating falling well below almost all of the 68 tournament games, there’s certainly a missed revenue stream opportunity.

Why doesn’t the NFL stagger games every hour on Sundays like March Madness?

There's a better way to do this.

There’s a better way to do this.

Realistic rating: 8.0

After being transfixed by the first two days of the NCAA tournament, in which games are starting/ending every hour all day (a scheduling format that somehow wasn’t implemented until only a few years ago), my first thought was, “Hmm, what other sports league has 16 games to broadcast each week, pretty much all on the same day…”

I’ve long had many issues with the NFL’s weekly schedule. I’ve never understood why every Sunday the league always dumps a whopping 8-10 games at 1 p.m. and only three at 4 p.m. (four if we’re lucky). After 10-game chaos during the early slate, which makes it impossible to keep track of everything around the league, RedZone abruptly screeches to a halt around 4:15. Plus, there’s a giant vortex of nothing from 7:30-8:30 between the late games and Sunday Night Football (not to mention the vortexes at 2:30 and 5:30 when each slate of games’ halftimes align).

The NFL could certainly stand to spread out its games a bit more. Now ideally, this would include Fridays and Saturdays, but because of an anti-trust agreement, the NFL isn’t allowed to broadcast games those days, a measure in place to prevent the pro ranks’ cannibalization of high school and college football. (This rule seems pretty dumb. The NFL is only one of thousands of entertainment options that compete with high school and college football viewership. It’s not like they prohibit movies from being shown on Saturday afternoons. Imagine how much NBC’s already low ratings would plummet if they prevented The Voice from airing on certain nights to protect other shows. But I digress…)

However, if we must operate under the (dumb) limit of only having NFL games on Thursdays, Sundays, and Mondays, here’s how each week could be scheduled…

(All times EST)

Thursday

Game 1: 8:00 p.m.

Sunday

Game 2: 11:00 a.m.

Game 3: 12:00 p.m.

Game 4: 1:00 p.m.

Game 5: 2: 00 p.m.

Game 6: 3:00 p.m.

Game 7: 4: 00 p.m.

Game 8: 5:00 p.m.

Game 9: 6:00 p.m.

Game 10: 7:00 p.m.

Game 11: 8:00 p.m.

Game 12: 9:00 p.m.

Game 13: 10:00 p.m.

Monday

Game 14: 7:00 p.m.

Game 15: 8:00 p.m.

Game 16: 9:00 p.m.

That’s right, a MNF triple header! And this is only for the eight weeks in which all 32 teams are playing. For bye weeks, you could easily take out the 8 p.m. MNF game, the late 10 p.m. Sunday, and/or the early 11 a.m. Sunday games.

Now, this might seem so obvious that there surely has to be a reason the NFL hasn’t done it already, right? One reason might be that the primetime deals with NBC, ESPN, and now CBS are far more lucrative when they’re stand-alone games, but surely the price the NFL charges for these rights wouldn’t be cut by more than half if it came with the caveat that there was another game at that time on a different channel. Plus, as the NFL learned from some unspeakably dreadful MNF match-ups this season—and even one SNF one despite flex scheduling (Giants-Redskins), it’s probably a good idea to have some backup in case there are some clunkers.

I suppose the FOX and CBS might also want a designated time to synchronously broadcast halftime shows, but are Jimmy, Terry, Howie, and the gang really so invaluable to prevent implementation of PERPETUAL Sunday football?

And sure, the NFL likes its “Game of the Week” at 4 p.m., but it already has a Thursday, Sunday, and Monday national game (and under my proposal, would have multiple Monday night games). Plus, it’s not like the NFL can’t designate the 4 p.m. game as the “Game of the Week” and nationally broadcast it for all the markets who don’t have a local game at that time.

And while a staggered slate might be more difficult for CBS/FOX to schedule for a national audience, I figure each local area will still get its local game at its designated time, with CBS/FOX filling in the rest of the time as they so choose in each market.

Bottom line: Even if the league did want stand-alone primetime games, there’s no reason the afternoon slate couldn’t be staggered. And the best part? They can still run RedZone, only now all day!
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The mind-blowingly obvious solution to “instant” replay

Scott Green, instant replay

Why must this charade continue?

Realistic rating: 9.5

There was much consternation last season about the inability to review penalty and missed penalty calls. Rightfully so. There were tons of critical penalties that were called or not called, many of which likely decided key games (e.g. Panthers-Patriots defensive holding no-call, Saints-49ers roughing the passer call, etc.)

The classification of what’s reviewable certainly does seem arbitrary, and the “challenge anything” movement appears to be building momentum. Sadly, though, a solution doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. Here are Tuesday’s comments from St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, a member of the NFL’s competition committee:

“We discuss replay every year,” Fisher said. “I think we go back to the foundation of the replay system, it was designed to overturn an obvious error. We knew it was not going to be a perfect system, just from a time standpoint and a number of challenges standpoint. I think that will be discussed but I think it’s unlikely we move in the direction of penalties. That’s a hard thing to do. The only penalty that’s actually reviewable on the field is too many men on the field. I think once we look at penalties you’re asking for problems.”

Fisher’s first sentence immediately sets off my “but this is the way we’ve always done it!!!” dumb argument siren. Secondly, the “solution” for time concerns doesn’t make much sense. Rather than arbitrarily deciding what kinds of calls can and cannot be challenged, if one really wanted to limit replay time, it seems much more reasonable to simply limit the number of reviews. (For example, the vast majority of touchdowns and turnovers are pretty obvious, so it’s odd that the NFL has decided to automatically booth review all of these.)

The bigger thing, though, is that these time concerns are only an issue because of the current review system, in which a referee must trot over to a tiny monitor tent and manually replay the video for a seemingly endless amount of time.  Why is it called “instant replay” when the process is anything but “instant”? We currently live in a sporting world in which the millions of fans watching at home know the correct call long before the only guys who actually have the authority to make a decision. How absurd is that? How many times have you been sitting at home watching a game, watched a play live, seen a replay five seconds later that immediately clarifies what the correct call should be, and then…. Have to wait five minutes and a full commercial break while a ref to trots over to some cramped replay booth to look at the play on some tiny screen.

There’s such an obvious solution to assuage just about any concerns about accuracy and speed that it’s really quite shocking that no major sports league has implemented this idea yet:

Have the refs make all the calls. Have them all wear earpieces connected to a centralized review station. Have the review station—which watches the games on crystal clear HD monitors with slow motion replay—instantly radio in any wrong calls, and have the refs at the stadium quickly and seamlessly correct them as needed.

For example, if a ref throws a flag for holding, the the review booth immediately sees upon (actual) instant replay that there shouldn’t have been any call, they can instantly radio down to the crew chief to pick up the flag. Ditto for a player stepping out of bounds, a pass interference no-call, or just about any ruling.

This is of course assuming leagues are unwilling to install cheap and 100 percent accurate lasers or RFID tag technology that could (even more) instantly determine a large majority of calls. If we must accept that human eyes must determine all calls (for those who prefer on human eyes to machines, I hope you’re not an airline pilot, brain surgeon, or election ballot counter), then this replay format seems like a no-brainer.

Bottom line: The “instantly radio down any corrections” solution seems incredibly easy to implement. Hopefully, some day soon, a league will adopt it. (Or, you know, lasers.)

Update: After publishing this, I noticed that Brian Billick made a similar argument two years ago. Brian Billick! Who knew? Sadly, if this idea has been out there for two years with no progress, it’s not looking too great in the short-term…

Time to take judging out of ski jump

Carina deserves better.

Carina deserves better.

Realistic rating: 9.0

I tuned into some sweet ski jumping action last week and quickly realized it had to be the most boring sport I’d ever seen. Made-for-TV packaging doesn’t help either: The qualifying rounds, a condensed broadcast that just rapid-fired through all the action, still bores you after no more than a few jumps. Four-hour Tour de France stages are more interesting. Even the women’s final, which should have been an incredibly awesome finish (the last jumper, German Carina Vogt, took gold on her final leap), lacked any drama. So why does ski jumping fail so spectacularly as a spectator sport?

Answer: The lack of instantly identifiable exciting moments due to the fact that we have to wait for judges to assign “style points.”

The only noticeable cheers all week were when a German guy completely ate it on his landing and quickly popped up. So no, not a long jump, great landing, or anything else drew a really loud cheer—just the assurance that one of the competitors hadn’t become an insta-quadriplegic. Exciting stuff!

In a piece in The Atlantic this week, I wrote about why judging in ski jump should be eliminated and how this change could be implemented.

Now, I’ll concede that if there were ever an pure distance/height event that had some kind of landing component, this would probably be it. Admittedly, it does make some sense that a jumper who belly flops like a rag doll should be penalized a bit versus someone who sticks the landing, but those should really be the only two delineations: landing on your skis or not. (I’m trying to view this sport as it would be applied in real-life conditions. If you’re a CIA spy fleeing Soviets in Siberia, who cares if you don’t have a flawless landing when you ski over that cliff? If you crash and burn, though, then sure, that’s probably an issue.)

Read the full story here.

Bonus: I also offer my unequivocal endorsement for this addendum: