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Bucking Conventional Sports Wisdom



Sports, like anything, really, has its conventional wisdom. If you spend more on your team, they'll win more games. If you had a dismal season last year, this year you're probably not going to the playoffs. So on and so forth.

NPR's Mike Pesca says not so. He joins us now to explain what on Earth he means. Hey, Mike.


MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Wait a minute. You set up a scenario whereby you question what on Earth I mean. But you're the one asking that, so yeah.

MARTIN: But rare. It's so rare.

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: What's going on?

PESCA: Yes. Yes. Well, let's say baseball. For the - we normally assume that the big-spending teams will win, they have the resources. Baseball is the only league without a salary cap. But for the first time since the era of free agency, it is - there is the lowest correlation between teams spending money and teams winning games. In fact, before the Dodgers went on a hot streak as of late, there was actually a negative correlation for some points this season. In other words, the more you spent, the worse you did.


PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, what's the reason for that?

PESCA: OK. Well, there are a few reasons. One is that the teams that don't spend a lot - like the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Kansas City Royals - have been so awful for so long that they've stockpiled talent. Another is that the teams that can spend money sometimes get tripped up by long-term contracts. The L.A. Angels signed Josh Hamilton, he's been terrible. Or the Yankees, look at A-Rod, he's still on their books.

But there are teams that do well with a huge payroll, like Red Sox this year are doing well, and the Dodgers. And there are teams with a small payroll that are doing rather poorly, like the Houston Astros. But in general, money and wins are just not really correlated in baseball.

MARTIN: OK. And you see something similar in football?

PESCA: Well, yeah. We think oh, the Patriots, they're always really good and the Packers of late have been always good. Yeah, but there is a lot of variation maybe right under that top tier. As a matter of fact, here's a great stat. In the last 10 years, one of the last place teams in all the divisions, the next year they become the first place teams. So we've gone a worst to first for 10 straight years in every division.

MARTIN: That seems satisfying, just as an audience member. I mean, you like to root for the underdog and if they have a chance of actually winning, then that bodes well.

PESCA: That's true. So there are two things going on. You know, is it good or bad? Well, it's good because of what you said, in terms of excitement. It might be bad in that teams that build themselves up, they don't get good draft picks, they lose their good players to free agency, you know, they're like the first day of the Republicans National Convention - we built this.


PESCA: But the teams that are doing poorly, they have some advantages. And as human beings, we hate stasis. It might not be logical. It probably goes back to our days in savannah when, you know, if things were too calm we got a little...


MARTIN: As most things do.

PESCA: Right, we got a little nervous. It's why I say, in the college rankings there's always this variation. Oh, what? You think that all of a sudden Stanford is better than Yale one year and Princeton is better than, you know, the University of Puget Sound one year?


PESCA: There can't be that much variation. It's just that when they put out there lists, to interest consumers, you have to change up the order. And so, the leagues get that either by design - a little bit by design, some by luck - and the changing of the order does hook us in terms of interest.

MARTIN: All right, hook me in terms of a curve ball.

PESCA: Sure. Disney researchers, yes, those guys, the Mouse House, they're funding all sorts of research in things like - I swear to God - puppet technology. But they're also doing sports research, and they had a really good finding. Disney research used - they looked at 380 different soccer games, every second of every soccer game, and they found a weakness in coaching strategy. And they found that the teams that are on the road hold the ball in their own half of the pitch more often than teams at home.

So it used to be like, oh, the referee screwed us up on the road, we're at a disadvantage. No, it's there - what these researchers have done with, you know, huge amounts of data show that teams on the road are a bit more cautious, they pass the ball to each other too much in their own zone. They should be more aggressive and press like the teams at home do.

MARTIN: Got it. NPR's Mike Pesca, sorting through the data. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You are welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.