Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sports Statistics as a Marketing Tool

Politicians discovered the power of numbers long ago. One might say “my administration created one million more jobs than any other in history.” Of course, it only takes a few minutes to pick that apart: How many jobs were lost? What was the net increase? What was the percentage increase? What was the average salary of these created jobs? But by the time his statement gets scrutinized, the politician moves on to the next talking point.

The same thing works in sports. In 2009, when Colt McCoy was a top Heisman Trophy candidate, the media repeated this statement over and over: “McCoy has won more games than any quarterback in college football history.” Wins are powerful, the true currency of sports. The stat spread everywhere and stuck in people’s minds, even though it was not a particular good statistic.

McCoy won more football games partly because he played in so many. Longer seasons and conference title games gave him more opportunity to record victories. Yes, he won the most games of any quarterback, but he was one of 22 starters. And many of those former teammates have joined him in the NFL.

Obviously it took a great quarterback to win that many football games. McCoy had to earn the starting job and keep it four years; no easy feat at a top program. He had a major role in 45 wins. Nonetheless, teams win games, not quarterbacks.

The McCoy stat still got extensive airtime on sports talk radio, highlight shows and game broadcasts. As with a smooth-talking politician, there was little opportunity in those settings to contradict it with objective evidence.

This demonstrates the power of numbers. Since few people effectively use sports statistics as a marketing tool, they present a blank canvas to work with. And the timing couldn’t be better with the rise of social media, when you may only get 140 characters to send a clear powerful message.

If even bad stats have value, can you imagine the impact from innovative statistical content? Finding this isn’t easy – as the best information lies beyond the core stats that dominate the mainstream sports media – but it is well worth the effort.


  1. Ya know, I think about the team portion of football stats from time to time. The stat I think has the least positive correlation to sole performance is the "completion percentage" or "completions in a row." I'm not trying to discount the need for accuracy to a given point on the receiver's body. But if a QB has a pack of stone-handed wide-outs, there will be little to no recognition of the wide-out's faulty finish. There will be, however, a discussion on the poor QB rating that follows.


  2. I agree. It is possible to adjust completion percentage for dropped passes. However, there are other factors, especially the degree of difficulty of each pass. Was the quarterback pressured? How far downfield was the targeted receiver? How much separation did the receiver have from the defender? Almost every core football metric is flawed on some level. So adjusting for other factors becomes necessary.

  3. I think that YPA is the strongest indicator of QB success. It has the strongest correlation to points scored.