Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas and miscellany

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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 Spieth’s collapse and Willett’s win; Leicester dreaming of the most unlikely title since [insert witty historical reference here].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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Sport Geek #34: Infantino and the popcorn business

Gianni Infantino clearly knows how to get some positive press.

His very first day in the Fifa top job – a job that belonged to yoda’s evil twin Sepp Blatter for the last 382 years – he somehow organises a match with a group of football legends, garnering barely a single critical word.

The independent: Gianni Infantino celebrates Fifa election success with legends football match
The Guardian: Fifa president Gianni Infantino wants to reignite ‘love of the game’

Ah, the love of the game. Friendly rich ex-pros laughing for the cameras. That’s what it’s all about. Putting the fun back into Fifa.

Wrong, wrong, WRONG.

When financier Guy Hands took over Odeon cinemas, he had to stop executives thinking they worked in Hollywood. He reminded everyone that they were in the popcorn business, not the movie business.

Infantino needs to realise he’s not in the football business. Not in the sense of running a club, building dreams, having them shattered and doing it all again next season. He’s in the business of organising events – World Cups, specifically. Who bids for them, how the TV money is distributed, and managing the reserve fund in the intervening years. Nothing else matters.

If he does his job well, no-one should recognise him, care about what he says, or pay him any attention. He needs to create a boring, transparent governing body that gets almost no news coverage. It is based in Switzerland, so that’s a good start. But he should forget the star-studded kickabouts, and get on with the job. (Related: read what’s wrong with sports officials by Simon Kuper)

Anyway, here are six recent stories that you should read: Continue reading

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Sport Geek #33: the underdog media-cycle and Leicester City

Where are we in the Leicester City media cycle? Every underdog story has four stages. They are:

1) Aberration: when things are too early. A team that is top of the league in September? BFD. No story. Won’t last.

2) Disbelief: is when things have gone on too long for it to be ignored, but no-one can take it properly seriously. The wheels are going to fall off at some point, surely? This can’t go on.

3) Over-hype: it could really happen. It might actually happen. It’s going to happen. It would be a fairytale! Dreams come true. One in the eye for all the big money sides. Note: at this point, there are lots of writers who either go into meta-analysis of all this (including this post, of course), or go contrarian and stick to the disbelief narrative. The longer it goes on, the harder it gets to stay immune from the excitement.

4a) Hindsight is at the end of the season when the underdog club don’t win. Of course they were never going to do it. What were we thinking? Dreams don’t come true. Money talks.
4b) Canonisation is the less-likely alternative, and is the reaction to the underdog actually winning. Reams of stuff about how it makes you believe in miracles, the country needed a boost, MBEs all round. Recent scandals (sex tapes, racism?) are conveniently forgotten about.

We have just switched from disbelief to over-hype. It will hit another level if Leicester beat Arsenal this weekend. Brace yourself.

Fewer stories this week, but all highly recommended.  Continue reading

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Sport Geek #32: angry stag, loving Novak, and football Brexit

First – apologies to anyone who got last-week’s newsletter yesterday. I screwed up a Mailchimp setting. It won’t happen again (promise).

Now to the sport. Novak Djokovic’s win in Melbourne gives tennis an all-too familiar and predictable feel. Which is a shame, as he’s clearly doing everything right. The strange thing is, the storyline should get way more interesting at the French – yet it probably won’t. Were he to win, the criticism will be that he is too good, making the game boring, too dominant. Lose, and it’s 2015 all over again. Lose-lose. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will miss him. We just can’t see it yet. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #31: the problem with betting data, x3

The tennis fixing debacle has turned from spreadsheet sleuthing to flawed methodologies. For those who have lost track: The BBC and BuzzFeed ran their investigation, but didn’t name names. Dry hump. So everyone worked them out anyway, and it all went sort-of-public. Except, Lleyton Hewitt was named, and let’s face it, he’s the last person on earth who would fix a match. Cue lots of yes-but analysis of strange betting patterns. The only way this is going to get resolved is when we follow the money. More evidence, please. But the right kind.

So to the must-read stories of the week. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #30: in a fix

It’s usually money that corrupts sport. But in the case of tennis, it’s also technology. As I wrote this week in the FT, there are betting exchanges with a huge range of under-the-radar matches where you can bet on set outcomes. It makes match-fixing look incredibly easy. The hope is that the very technology that allows the match-fixing can also help catch it. Readily available data means anyone with a spreadsheet skills can track what’s going on. Surely, if BuzzFeed and the BBC can do it, tennis can monitor itself properly?

Here are the stories of the week: Continue reading

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