There’s always been statistics in sports. People have kept records of achievements such as the most goals in a season or home runs in a career for many years. These statistics add extra flavour to the mere winning and losing of games and championships. I’ve no complaint about such descriptive statistics. My objection is to the use of more advanced statistical methods to improve the chances of a team to win games. The book, and later the movie, Moneyball, was about recruiting underrated players and changing the strategy of a baseball team to win more games. The underlying methods are statistical and have been very successful. The ideas have been developed and spread throughout the sporting world. Many regard this as a success story for statistics but I beg to differ.

I understand the attraction. As a graduate student in Berkeley, I came across Bill James’ Baseball Abstract and was fascinated. James was not a professional statistician but he was great at assembling the right data to answer a question and backing up his claims with sensible statistical summaries. This was a model for how applied statistics should be done. Nonetheless, I realised that Baseball would not take much notice of a nerdy guy and so it proved for many years until Moneyball. So I’m not one of those people who object to sports sessions at Statistics conferences because sports is a trivial matter (as they feel) that does not deserve such attention at a serious conference.

We all like to feel that our work is improving the world in some way such as improving medical procedures or building more reliable products. American football coach, Vince Lombardi said “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” so you might think the purpose of professional sports is winning. If statisticians can help teams win, surely that’s a good thing? But for every winner, there is a loser. The statistician can only help one team win at the expense of other teams losing. It’s a zero-sum game.

The true purpose of professional sports is not winning but entertainment. Lombardi had it all wrong. We watch sports because we find it enjoyable. The winning and losing are all part of the enjoyment. Do statisticians improve the enjoyment of sports? At best the answer is neutral and there is some evidence to suggest that they make it less enjoyable. In baseball, statisticians have discovered that players who foul off a lot of balls improve the chances of winning while stealing bases does not. Yet watching balls being fouled off is boring while base stealing is exciting. In football, statistical advice has sometimes led to boring, park-the-bus, defensive play.

It’s probably too late to turn back the clock as sports teams will not forgo the chance to gain an advantage. Nevertheless, statisticians should realise that, while they may derive some satisfaction and employment in applying statistics to sports, the overall effect of statistics on the professional sporting world has been negative.