Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas and miscellany

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Sport Geek #43: chops, meteors, and brawls

Welcome. Let’s get on with it, shall we?


Why are there no English batsmen with over 10,000 Test runs (Cook’s impending milestone excepted)? Because England we’re shit in the 90s. (Me / FT).

Stuff you learn: chop. As in, why is Chris Gayle such a chop? (Guardian)


How it all went wrong for Louis van Gaal. (BBC). How one tackle by a bouffant Arsenal defender changed football forever (Vice). How Newcastle‘s theory of ‘winning’ totally screwed up (theallrounder). And how West Ham’s stadium defence is “bullshit” (Vice again).

Brilliant: measuring the cliche of tough places to go… (S Chicken) and talking of cliches, don’t abuse Michael Owen. (Vice) Continue reading

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Sport Geek #42: cheap sumo, the rain in Spain, and Pop’s pops

No grand thoughts this week – just 10 bits of quality writing to make you feel smarter.

“People are celebrating Olympic champion winners, but we are sitting crazy and replacing their urine.” Amazing quote in a NYTimes story of how dozens of Olympians could be barred from Rio after 2008 blood samples have been retested. And there’s more to come.

NFL careers are short. No wonder many are preparing for a life after football at business school. (FT, free)

A wonderful interview with Ben Stokes, England’s most explosive cricketer. (Guardian)

STATS! An interesting look at how run rates change across a T20 innings. (DW)

Controversial cheap moves in sumo and hundreds of years of greatness compared – it can only by FiveThirtyEight.

If you thought Sir Alex Ferguson was tough on the media, check out the NBA’s Gregg Popovich. The problem is, he isn’t just slapping down journalists. He is doing the fans – the ultimate paymasters – a disservice. (The big lead) Continue reading

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Sport Geek #41: What Trump and Leicester City have in common


Perhaps we should all just go and re-read the Black Swan.

Leicester City’s Premier League triumph and Donald Trump’s road to the GOP nomination may seem like strange things to compare, but they are probably the two most unlikely major things that have happened this year.

These were not simply one-off unlikely single events. They are long-run wins, persistently written off by the media until they were a near certainty. Now both events are seen as game-changing: Trump has “already changed US and world politics… Themes and ideas that were on the fringes have now entered the political mainstream, and they will not disappear if and when Mr Trump loses”, according to the FT’s Gideon Rachman. Leicester have shown how “every club in the league now has the financial capacity to compete” according to the Telegraph.

The odds were both ridiculous for a limited field. There are 20 Premier League teams: for one to be 5000-1 to win the title is extreme, as was Trump’s 2 per cent chance given by FiveThirtyEight.

What comes next? Here the contrast is stark. Most neutrals hope that Leicester can have a decent-to-good run next season, while hoping that Trump’s campaign at best stalls, or preferably implodes. The tragic outcome would be the reverse.

And so to the matters of the week. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #40: replays, Rio, and Ranieri

A shorter newsletter this week because, you know.

You might be rather full of how-amazing-greatest-sporting-upset-ever-what-were-the-odds-5000-to-1 Leicester by now, but it still is a brilliant thing.

A few parting thoughts.

The Premier League is set up to keep the rich clubs on top. In the US the big main sports have three levellers: the draft, salary caps, and a knock-out playoff format which makes the winner more of a lottery. In the UK, a 38-game league format plus performance-related cash means the whole system is stacked to maintain the status quo. Previously, only oligarch money has broken the stranglehold at the top.

So do Leicester represent something new? Perhaps: Tottenham look good for another title run, and teams such as Southampton showed in the last few years that it is possible to challenge – for a while. West Ham look promising too.

The counter is that it is a fluke, a one-off, and nothing like it will happen again. Either way, this is a season to savour.


There have been sooooo many articles, it’s hard to choose. First, there’s the deep dive: the Guardian has the inside story of an extraordinary season. It’s a good read. What convinced Leicester to appoint Claudio Ranieri? Why are injured players pitchside at training on exercise bikes? And what have been the keys to a remarkable Premier League success?

Next, let’s go econ. Gavyn Davies does a great job on the odds and economics of football.

Lastly, the Economist on sporting upsets.

That should do it. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #39: Brexitball, negative splits and the 92 club

Justice – at last.

Let’s get on with the sports stories of the week


Although Rafa Nadal is damn well trying. I’ve heard Nadal drugs rumours for years, but he’s going all out to show his innocence. The problem is that, as ever, you can’t prove you haven’t ever taken something. The doubters will never be convinced. So we end up in game theory – would someone go so far releasing documents etc if they were guilty of drug taking? Or is that the double-bluff they want you to believe? (FWIW, I’m a believer in Nadal.) Continue reading

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Sport Geek #38: bye bye Kobe, curses, and Messi’s 500

Here’s a quick quiz, which will tell you everything you need to know about stats and context. And the long ball.

Q1: Which English football club is top of the Premier League right now?
Q2: Which club is 18th in the League and facing possible relegation?
Q3: Which two clubs play the long ball most often in the League?

If you answered ‘Leicester’ and ‘Sunderland’ to Q1 and Q2 respectively, you would be right. If you answered ‘Leicester and Sunderland’ to Q3, you would also be right.

According to the CIES Football Observatory, Leicester play 6.9 per cent of passes long, and Sunderland 6.7 per cent, the two highest-ranked Premier League teams, and 3rd and 4th in Europe’s big five leagues. For comparison, Tottenham in second place play 3.1 per cent long ball, and Newcastle, just behind Sunderland in the League, play 5.4 per cent.

Clearly long balls can be effective, or useless. Or maybe nothing comes from them whether you hit them 7 per cent of the time or 3 per cent. In other words: statistics can be revealing, or they can confuse, or they can be simply the starting point for more digging. Something to bear in mind.

And so to the week’s matters arising. Go on, treat yourself. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #37: party pooping, Hellas Leicester, and the back 9

What to make of sport this week? There’s been no major scandal, no offices raided, no drug busts of note. Instead, it’s back to the drama. Spieth’s collapse and Willett’s win; Leicester dreaming of the most unlikely title since [insert witty historical reference here].

But I don’t want you to be simply entertained. I want you to feel smarter. So here are 12 stories that you should know about, or think about reading when you have the time that clearly you won’t have unless you stop reading this long paragraph and get on with properly procrastinating with some top quality sports writing and I’ll stop there thank you very much.


I actually fell asleep as Jordan Spieth went five shots clear at the Masters with the last 9 holes to go. But given that I had written a rather good analysis of the cliche that the back 9 at Augusta is where it is won or lost, I should have known better.  As the Cauldron points out, it’s the greatest theatre in sports.

The question now is: what happens to Spieth? Continue reading

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Sport Geek #36: the greatest 14 ever, startup soccer, and losing Curry

After a couple of weeks out, the newsletter is back. Too much to summarise, so let’s get on with it.

Have you noticed the Huawei ads featuring Flo Jo as an inspirational figure? I say this is the worst sporting figure you could choose and the most cringeworthy campaign possible.


A few football pieces worth reading. As PSG and Man City face off in the Champions League, the Guardian has a great recap on how both teams were built by rival Gulf money. Meanwhile, Arsenal have been left behind. Once the stadium development was seen as crucial to the club’s future, but now it’s just a small part of club finance. Continue reading

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Who didn’t get the memo about Flo Jo?

Uncanny timing laced with irony. A few weeks ago, as Maria Sharapova was ditched by various sponsors for taking a banned performance-enhancing drug, various adverts appeared from Chinese electronics giant Huawei featuring no less than Florence Griffith Joiner.

Yes, Flo Jo. Still the women’s 100m and 200m record holder, who died nearly 20 years ago, and for whom drug taking was never proven, but is widely accepted. The ads are still running in places such as the FT,  Wall St Journal, CNN and the Economist.

There’s some very tenuous blurb to draw a link between Flo Jo’s running philosophy and Huawei. Here’s how it goes:

Florence Griffith Joyner – smiling as she crosses the finish line. She set the women’s world record for the fastest 100-meter dash nearly thirty years ago, a record that hasn’t been broken since. The 100-meter dash only lasts for about 10 seconds. Joyner once said that runners mentally split each second into 100 units, exerting a massive amount of effort to increase their speed by one tiny unit at a time. An improvement of 0.01, although seemingly small, is a huge accomplishment.Huawei’s people have persevered through decades of hard work, relentlessly pursuing the technological breakthroughs that will usher in our future information society.

Combined with this useless copy is possibly the weirdest picture of Flo Jo that you could create. It looks like a 6-year-old was given free rein with Microsoft Paint, rather than anything a professional designer could come up with.

Flo Jo, in a picture that never happened.

While the Chinese have a history of drug-taking athletes, especially in swimming, one of their biggest companies can’t actually want to be associated with this kind of reputation, can it? Flo Jo is one of the stupidest choices you can imagine. There are plenty of clean athletes that Huawei could have picked. Flo Jo is still the record holder, but that’s NOT a good recommendation. Most of the women’s world records from 1988 – the year before out of competition testing started – are tainted.

Wasn’t there a meeting? Didn’t someone do a quick Google search and point out the rumours? Didn’t someone say “drugs”?

You might think so, given that in on version of the campaign, readers can leave comments. Aside from some racist crap, one commenter said:

FGJ is not such a good icon for your campaign, she was not making her world record on bread and peanutbutter alone….

Another put it more succinctly:

Didn’t. Flo jo die at 38 after a lifetime abusing performance enhancing drugs?

Quite. This is possibly the worst campaign you could come up with. Every element is bad. Perhaps Maria Sharapova should give Huawei a call.

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Sport Geek #35: Maria!

There’s only one story in sport this week: Maria Sharapova.

While we should have no tolerance of drug cheats, there are lots of questions that don’t seem to me to  answered yet. Such as:

– surely Sharapova has a team of people (dietitians, trainers) – why did none of them stop this?
– why does Wada email these changes? Who clicks on links in emails about drugs?
– why was Sharapova taking a drug that is meant to be taken for 4 to 6 weeks for 10 years?

Forget the sponsors stuff for a minute – and the irony of VW (Porsche) dropping her given their interesting history with gaming the system. This should once and for all put to rest the ridiculous idea that tennis is too skilled a sport for drugs to make a difference.

Sharapova might be the biggest fish in the women’s game, but I suspect in time even bigger names will get caught, and for more clear-cut drug use. The match-fixing scandal will look like a minor blip in comparison.


Andrew Hill in the FT: The deciding point for Sharapova could be that tennis and its backers can do without her.

Marina Hyde writes that Sharapova’s single error excuse is a suspension of disbelief too far: Maria Sharapova claims she made a huge mistake but it looks less like a misjudgment and more like a flaw that echoes other famous downfalls.

As the NYTimes points out, it is not as if tennis does not know how to march on without Maria Sharapova. She has missed extended periods of play because of major shoulder surgery and other ailments during the past nine years. Continue reading

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