This past Sunday night, the New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts in The Superbowl, which is the annual championship game of the National Football League. The final score was 31-17. Year to year, The Superbowl commands one of the largest television audiences (one hundred seven million people watched the whole game, and another estimated fifty million people watched a part of the game.) Likewise, The Superbowl brings out the better (as in placing a wager) in millions of people. For some people, the Superbowl is the only bet they engage in all year.
In American culture, “Superbowl Sunday” has become somewhat of an unofficial holiday celebration. People gather, parties are thrown, lots of food and drink is consumed, and almost everyone has an opinion on the outcome of the game. It’s fun to make your best guess, and then see how close you came to being correct.
But how does an average person’s casual guess stack up to the predictions of “professionals”? How do our guesses compare to the people who immerse themselves in professional football every day? If you are going to place a bet, are you better off following the advice of insightful professionals, or rank amateurs with merely a passing interest?
I came across this blog post from ESPN (Entertainment Sports Network) which is the largest sports television network in the United States. Thirty seven ESPN on-air personalities made their Superbowl predictions of the winning team and the final score. Twenty five of them chose the Colts and twelve chose the Saints, which is a 32.4% accuracy rate. None of those twelve predicted the final score correctly – the closest prediction was Saints 31-24.
Thirty seven professionals is a pretty good sampling from the football coverage community. So by comparison, I wanted to see how thirty seven non-professionals would pick the game. Sunday morning, I posted this on my Facebook page:
“I need your Super Bowl predictions by 6pmEST tonight. Please predict the winning team and final score. Also, ranking on a scale of 1 to 10, please state how sure you are of your prediction. Lastly, please predict something that will wind up being unique to tonight’s SB game compared to SB’s of the past. (Examples, predict the first ever SB drop-kick attempt, or predict the longest pass for a touchdown in a SB.)”
From all the respondents to my Facebook post and from those that sent me personal messages on Facebook, I was able to extract seventeen predictions. I had to scramble Sunday afternoon to come up with twenty more respondents in the form of extended family members, friends via telephone and email, and co-workers replying to my text messages. Once I received the thirty-seventh prediction, I compared the data.
Twenty of my thirty seven respondents chose the Saints, and seventeen chose the Colts. That’s a 54% accuracy rate. None of the twenty predicted the final score correctly, although one person guessed 37-24 (a 13-point margin, so I consider it the closest guess.)
While there is no appeal to the paranormal on the part of the ESPN analysts, there does tend to be an appeal to authority when it comes to people taking advice on how to best craft a guess. If you are going to place a bet, then it would seem logical that you would want to seek the advice of the people who understand the nuances, idiosyncrasies, and understanding of the finer points of the game and the teams involved.
This is the reason I asked everyone to tell me how confident they were in their picks. Although the professionals did not express a confidence level in their predictions, I think it is safe to assume that they would all be relatively high. I set the pro’s confidence bar at 7.5-out-of-10. By comparison, my thirty seven respondents’ average expression of confidence was 6.5-out-of-10 (only 27 out of 37 gave a confidence rating.)
Not unlike the stories about the monkeys who make stock market picks that wind up outperforming the picks of stock market professionals, the same seems to hold true when it comes to guessing football outcomes. The bottom line is that professional prognosticators, armed with knowledge, experience, and confidence in their areas of specialty, perform statistically the same as non-professionals when it comes to predicting the future.
As an aside, none of the unique perditions made by the respondents came to pass. I added that layer of data to see how creative my Facebook respondents could get. There were several unique occurrences in this year’s Superbowl, including the only non fourth quarter on-sides kick in Superbowl history, the most pass completions combined for the starting quarterbacks, and the first place-kicker to make three field goals from distances of forty yards or more.