Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Category: newsletter (page 1 of 9)

Sport Geek #79: 9,000 yards, arm wrestling, and an Apple Watch

The US Open is underway, so nothing recommended here other than to stay tuned. FWIW I think it’s been a hugely interesting event, with the women’s draw wide open, and one half of the men’s reading like a minor ATP 250 event. Great story lines: CoCo, Venus, Kanepi, that DelPo match. Tennis has entered a weird period with ageless veterans and a unknown emerging pool.

I’ve not done a round up for a while (summer and all that) so here’s a few things recent and not quite so.

UGLY

Stealing signs in baseball with an Apple Watch? Yup.

The Guardian looks at how Bahrain uses sport to whitewash a legacy of torture and human rights abuses.

TALL TENNIS

Are tall players the future? The NYTimes looks at the height thing. Plus the Economist looks at Zverev, who is both tall and possibly the Next Big Thing (pun intended).

LONG GOLF

Do we really need to lengthen golf courses? Golf Monthly asks the question. Some have already made their minds up – 9,000 yards?

NFL

Top read: Aaron Rodgers, unmasked.

FOOTBALL

Neymar: crunching the finances is Nick Harris in the Mail. Forget the shirt sales argument, for one.

Expected goals starts to move into the mainstream.

How do you quantify finishing skill?

Penalty-takers: pure luck?

ARM WRESTLING

Go on.

ATHLETICS

Usain Bolt in charts.

WOMEN’S SPORT

Can it break through to become self-sufficient?

Cheers

The Olympics needs a new hosting blueprint. Here’s one.

Paris Olympics, earlier

The latest round of Olympic bidding has highlighted what has been known for ages: that hosting the Games is a BAD IDEA.

Paris and LA have been awarded the 2024 and 2028 events. No other cities were in the running, after several, including Rome, Boston and Hamburg dropped out.

The Winter Games bidding for 2022 was a similarly feeble contest, with Almaty and Beijing the last two standing. Beijing – a city with no snow – won.

Why has the Olympics become so toxic?

The main reason is cost. Who can sell the idea of spending anything from $10bn – $50bn to a population that is feeling the pinch? Even populist dictators might baulk at the expense.

But costs are OK if there are benefits. Clearly, the benefits have been exposed as a bit of a con. Soft power? There are cheaper ways. Tourism? It actually drops. Infrastructure boost? Do it anyway, if it’s worth it. Happy population? Not necessarily.

So what would be a better way of hosting the Games? Here are a few ideas that are frequently put forward, and my thoughts on their strengths.

Idea #1: pare it down

The Olympics is too big as it is. If you want to make hosting affordable, get rid of sports that don’t need to be there. Football, tennis, golf – there are bigger prizes in those sports. Politically tricky, but doable.

Problem is, that still leaves a lot of events, and in any case, the main costs always seems to be the centrepiece athletics stadium, the athletes village, and the infrastructure. Cutting out a few events won’t help here.

Idea #2: joint cities

This has a certain appeal. Joint city hosting would spread the cost, surely? Not quite. The only example of joint hosting of a recent major event is the World Cup of 2002 between Korea and Japan. That was not a great success, with both countries building expensive stadiums and infrastructure. Rather than splitting the cost, it merely added to it.

For the Olympics, it would present a tricky branding challenge – every Games is “City year” eg London 2012. I guess you could have Rome-Madrid 2036 or whatever, but it’s less appealing. The city backdrop is part of the experience – think Rio’s beach or Sydney harbour. While the World Cup hops from stadium to stadium, an Olympics has a ‘village’ and a base. Two bases would be odd.

Further, where do you have the opening and closing ceremonies? The 100m final? It would be fine to divvy up some events, but the location of the showpiece athletics would naturally make the Games forever associated with that host, not the other.

Idea #3: spread far and wide

An Olympics with events around the globe sounds inclusive and idealistic, but it would have all the problems of idea #2 and more. One of the main ideas is that spectators can visit the city and see a range of sports, not just one. There would be no cohesive experience which would annoy lots of fans. Broadcasters would hate it – it would be far more expensive and hard to cover.

The experience of the Euro 2020 will be interesting in this regard – it’s taking part in 12 cities. If it somehow works (big if), spreading the Olympics *might* become an idea that takes off. Unlikely.

Idea #4: permanent hosts

Some have suggested a single permanent Summer and Winter host. I think that’s a bad idea, for several reasons. One, monotony. Two – it places quite a burden on the host city. Instead, the IOC should pick five cities that rotate the Games. Each would represent their continent, and the IOC would be have the extra incentive to invest some of the broadcast revenue in keeping the infrastructure maintained.

This has a lot of appeal – theoretically no more white elephant stadiums, crumbling facilities or overspending.

There are downsides: with a gap of 20 years, it’s possible that things fall apart anyway. The Olympic roster changes, which means new facilities would always be needed; stadiums will still be unused (or underused) for two decades.

However, picking the right hosts would mitigate those downsides. Cities that are big enough to cope with the set-aside of facilities could easily be found – London, Tokyo, LA would be great candidates.

The downside is regional jealousy. China would want to be a permanent host, for sure. As would the US. That might annoy Canada or Japan. But given that there is a dearth of cities with the current system, it might be a better plan.

The other positives to a permanent city plan is that it would kill off the expensive bidding process, which also would stop the bribery and backhanders. The IOC would have to reform from a princely tour of spoilt delegates to a proper administrative commission – a far better outcome. Cities would have far longer to plan, meaning cost overruns should be a thing of the past, or at least less likely. Hosts wouldn’t have to cut corners to get the Games ready. In any case, it would be a question of upgrading facilities, not a rush job of building from scratch in 7 years.

The benefit of putting on an Olympics is pretty small. Tourism suffers, rather than getting a boost. Countries that want to boost their profile have any other number of ways to do it – host a world championships, finance a Grand Prix, host an expo or something. The Olympics is too big to be used as a political tool anyway.

The other upside of permanent hosts is that it is also closer to the original Olympic ethos, which was to have the Games in the same location each time. Evolving that into five Olympic hosts – one for each of the rings, which could be a nice marketing touch – makes sense.

Anyway. Don’t hold your breath.

 

Sport Geek #78: worst 20s, Venus rising, a breakdown breakdown

WIMBLEDON

It’s on, Murray is out, and there’s lots to talk about. What can we do about retirements? Here’s a good run down of all the options – and which might be least bad. Of all the 30-year-olds still at the top, the resurgence of Venus Williams is perhaps the most remarkable.

During the Nadal-Muller match, my wife remarked that it was surely a big advantage for Muller to be serving first in that marathon 5th set. So is it? Apparently not. Although that analysis is a few years old, it won’t have changed much. And lastly, does the Wimbledon seeding system work?

FOOTBALL

So how does a football transfer really work? Key feature: WhatsApp.

The worst 20 seconds of football ever? As several people pointed out, it’s hard to tell who’s actually attacking…

RUGBY

A fantastic anatomy of a rugby turnover – if you will, the breakdown of a breakdown – all the bits that lead up to it. The English isn’t perfect, but stick with it.

OLYMPICS

Why any city wants to host the Games is beyond me. Of course, dictators are usually up for it, but Paris and LA? They hardly need the exposure. Here we go again. This sums up many feelings.

BASEBALL

People really care how far home runs go. I don’t get why – it’s a home run, just enjoy it. Anyway, the stadium kinda gets in the way, leading to lots of clever maths.

CRICKET

T20 and data. T20 and data! Nerd heaven. And lastly, why are there so many South African cricketers in England?

Sport Geek #77: 15 from 1, 700th in the world, and nothingness

Good afternoon sports fans.

RUGBY / LIONS

As the Lions prepare for the second test, the greatest challenge in world rugby since last week, here are two questions to ponder. One, should the Lions pick 15 players from one team (via Economist)? In terms of results, it might be better; in terms of ethos, I say – what’s the point? The other is why the All Blacks are so good. The FT has a stab at answering.

GENDER TENNIS

Was McEnroe right to say that Serena would only be around 700 in the world on the men’s tour? To my mind, it’s a non-starter. Comparing across the sexes is pointless, and only gets people unnecessarily annoyed. Anyway, Vox has a good explainer here.

NFL ECONOMICS

How much is a quarterback really worth? Nobody actually knows, even with Derek Carr’s contract. Here’s a great rundown via the Ringer.

BASEBALL AND THE ABSENCE OF ACTION

What happens to a sport when nothing happens? Sports Illustrated gets existential.

BOXING

Remember when Mike Tyson took a chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s ear? the Guardian goes back in time.

Cheers

Sport Geek #76: meta-doc; clay GOATS; and living Gods

RUGBY (LIONS! LIONS!)

Not every sport makes a great documentary. Not every documentary is SO good that it is the subject of its own documentary. Living with Lions is that documentary.

NFL

The league just isn’t set up to cope with tanking. But that’s what’s going on. (BBC)

BOXING

I have yet to see an article that thinks the McGregor-Mayweather fight is a good idea. Here are two very different styles on saying why it’s very bad: dogshit (Deadspin) or idiocy (The Guardian).

NBA

How the Warriors duped the NBA (FiveThirtyEight). Or, put another way (via the Economist) how they have broken basketball.

Also: the truth about the hot hand. (ESPN)

TENNIS

The greatest clay-courter ever? A great piece comparing the achievements of Evert and Nadal on the red stuff. (Tennis.com)

BASEBALL

What does it feel like to get hit by a pitch? (ESPN)

FOOTBALL

How Iran’s success reflects the failures of Asian football. (Economist)

ICYMI

The Age of the Living God: Superstars are staying superstars for longer than ever. (The Ringer)

Sport Geek #75: the case for legalising drugs in sport

This week, a polemic. I’ve been thinking about Maria Sharapova’s return to the circuit, the plan to wipe world records in athletics, and drugs generally in sports. The truth is, I can’t see a way out, and I don’t think I’m alone. The road goes nowhere. So the conclusion I keep coming to is: make performance enhancing drugs legal.

This is clearly not a popular view. But let’s try it out for a moment. I’m going to look at the main objections and try and unpack this. Bear with me.

Testing doesn’t work

Of course testing works on a basic level, but the big picture is testing clearly doesn’t work. We have a situation where retrospective testing has caught a whole bunch of athletes from London 2012 and Beijing 2008 years later. Is that good? Not really. The clean athletes have missed their moment of glory, the public has moved on, and the history books just look messy.

Also, as pointed out elsewhere, most major drug scandals are due to whistleblowers, not testing: Russia, Lance Armstrong, Balco. Even Ben Jonson was (probably) set up (he got busted on a drug he wasn’t taking, apparently).

Added to that, testing catches about 1 per cent of athletes. Whereas most estimates put non-approved drug use at around 30 to 40 per cent. It’s woeful. Even if we got to catching a third of athletes, there are generations that got away with it. The war was lost a long time ago. And in the future? Continue reading

Sport Geek #74: the (nearly) two-hour marathon

Marathon world record, from Sports Geek (published 2016)

In my book, Sports Geek, I bravely (stupidly?) suggested that the two hour marathon was way out of reach. The reasoning was: we’re getting excited by current times, not looking at context. Also, we are not looking at the half marathon as proxy. As I put it:

… we aren’t learning from the past. If we extrapolated the marathon records set in the 1960s, we would have expected the two-hour mark to be broken back in 1977. Clearly, extrapolation isn’t everything.

I then looked at the half marathon as a proxy – the ratio should be around 2.1, and the half marathon world record is nowhere near 57 minutes.

A look at the half marathon record progression shows a more consistent pace of improvement. It also shows that to get to 57 minutes, we are looking at many decades, if ever.

This might simply tell us that runners don’t take the half marathon as seriously. Or, it might give us a warning sign not to expect the 2-hour marathon for many years to come.

So to the recent assault on the two-hour mark. Man, that was close. You can call it either way – as Quartz put it, even in a rigged race they failed. Or, it was a fantastic attempt to show what can be done. Regardless, it has put up for discussion the whole limits of performance issue, and may change running for ever.

THREE THINGS FROM ELSEWHERE

Is LeBron James better in the playoffs? No, he’s always this good.

Swearing makes you stronger. Fucking brilliant.

Women coaching men.  Tough gig.

Sport Geek #73: wipe clean, F=ma, and Sochi success

Unquestionably, the most interesting story from a sports stats perspective this week is the proposal to erase lots of athletics world records. This has been an idea that has been kicked around for a while, but not taken that seriously, until now.

Of course, under any set of reset rules, someone will lose out. Currently Paula Radcliffe is making a lot of noise, and you might see her point. However, I think it’s a great idea, and here’s why.

First, the current marquee records of the women’s 100m, 200m and 400m are a total sham. They were set in the drug-fuelled years before serious testing took place – pre 1989. Everyone knows they are a joke, and the inability of women to challenge them since should be seen as a sign of strength in drug testing, not weakness. That means though, that the true world record holders, whoever they are, are being denied glory and financial reward. I looked into this for my book, Sports Geek. The problem can be summed up as: Flo-Jo.

Second, athletes should remember that records are temporary, medals are permanent. Lots of runners have been delighted to set world records, but know that someday it goes. (I suspect Radcliffe’s determination to hold on to her marathon record is in part due to her inability to win Olympic gold. The title of her website is “Paula Radcliffe – Marathon world record holder”). The point is: it’s a privilege, not a right, to be the holder of a world record.

Lastly, if a couple of legit records get wiped, maybe that’s acceptable collateral damage. Fans and commentators will know the true mark, as will competitors. Just as sprinters know that the women’s current records are a sham. Wouldn’t it be better to inject some honesty into the game, for fans and competitors alike?

Read more: Sean Ingle in the Guardian.

FOOTBALL

Manchester United are unlucky – FiveThirtyEight crunch the numbers to show how.

F1

When your biggest star dies, someone or something has to take the blame. Vice looks at Senna, 20 years on.

NFL

“[American] Football as we know it is done, because the lawyers are here.” SBNation looks at a sport in turmoil, the equation that can’t be beaten (F=ma if you must know), and what the future might hold.

BASEBALL

It’s taken more than a century but Major League Baseball finally has its first African player. Quartz explains.

TENNIS

Welcome back, Maria? SportingIntelligence looks at the doping dilemma, and also Pep Guardiola (who failed tests for nandrolone, which I didn’t know before)

BOXING

Anthony Joshua: he the man. The Economist asks if boxing’s heavyweight division will get a revival?

OLYMPICS

Where’s the tumbleweed disaster? City Journal looks at Sochi, the Olympics that didn’t turn to dust.

That is all.

Sport Geek #72: Qi/Za, the quadruple, and switching places

A brief break – hols and all that – so here are a few things from April to get your chops around.

FOOTBALL

Champions-strugglers-champions (elect) vs Strugglers-champions-strugglers: the Economist looks at how Chelsea and Leicester keep swapping places.  Plus the Guardian shows how British managers are overrated by English clubs – and the stats back it up.

SCRABBLE

Yup, Scrabble. A FiveThirtyEight dive into how Qi and Za have changed the game.

RUGBY

The Guardian on why the Lions selection process is almost as tough as the tour.

SKATING

Quartz on the physics behind figure skating’s most difficult jump – the quadruple.

NFL

The Ringer on how to draft a quarterback.

TENNIS

ESPN on how the Roger Federer revival couldn’t have come at a better time.

Sport Geek #71: Raiders move, Wembley at 10, and Partridge F1

Let’s crack on, shall we?

RAIDERS ON THE MOVE

You might have heard that the Oakland Raiders are going to become the Las Vegas Raiders. This might seem strange after a great season with a great new quarterback (Derek Carr), but there’s a few reasons why. Number one, as ever: money. Forbes does the numbers. Here’s the four key things you need to know.

ALAN AND F1

I love this. The headline says it all: ​”A worryingly deep dive into Alan Partridge’s enduring love affair with Formula 1“.

WEMBLEY AT 10

Of course it’s not good value. Then again, the Raiders new stadium will be 20,000 fewer seats for $1.9bn…

FOOTBALL

José Mourinho thinks it’s getting harder to buy success. Is he right?

Syria: Football on the frontline. A great piece from the BBC.

How to save a penalty: the truth about football’s toughest shot.

GLOBAL!

Forget the NFL, the 39th game and all that – Rugby league’s Toronto Wolfpack are the first transatlantic sports team.

TENNIS

Australian bad boys – unlike Tomic, at least there’s hope for Kyrgios.

That will be all.

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