Why football doesn’t play moneyball (yet) – Sports, Data, and Journalism conference in Zurich

robby_klein(This is one corner of my poster!)


What’s better than going to Zurich? Going to Zurich for a conference! On the 25th of October, I attended the “Sports, Data, and Journalism” conference at the University of Zurich, hosted by the Center for Research in Sports Administration (CRSA). The conference had a unique makeup of attendees, not only because of the diversity of disciplines represented, ranging from economists to historians, but also because data journalists were invited to present their projects. This meant that one could not only listen to a scientific talk on, say, the impact of data on professional sports, but also learn how newspapers present their sports stories with data. One story for example showcased the career of tennis star Roger Federer, taking his matches apart, from the number of backhand shots to which floor he played on.

I presented a poster on automation in German sports newsrooms, an ongoing project of mine. I was glad that the topic was met with interest, not only from fellow academics, but also from national and international sports organisations. Let’s see whether they will think about introducing automation in their own press offices!

The conference programme was also unique in the way that also workshops on data analysis software could be attended. Thus, I listened to an introduction to Python, and I’m sure I will make use of this coding language a lot more in the future. I would wish for more conferences to offer such an opportunity; it’s an easy way to learn more about what is out there in data analysis, what might be more suitable to the treatment of data than the software we use now in the social sciences.

The keynote was a personal highlight for me, as it was by given by Chris Anderson, author, with Dave Stares, of “The Numbers Game –Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong”. I definitely recommend that book, to football fans as well as people interested in statistics. Where else would someone actually prove why the inferior teams win more often than they should? Chris Anderson told about his personal journey writing the book, and explained what is means to manage a lower league football club with no money. To make a long story short: don’t do it! The explanation lies in the following: football doesn’t play moneyball. What does that mean? Well, reading Michael Lewis‘ “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” is a good start (or the movie of the same name, starring Brad Pitt), as it tells how Billy Beane, a baseball general manager in the US, put together a team based on their individual statistics (and thus strengths) – and won many games with that strategy. That sound like the ultimate dream, but is unlikely to work for football yet; first of all, baseball has many more games in a season and thus many more chances to try things out, and second, there is no ghost of relegation…

All in all, it was a great conference, and I hope that there will be more that mix academia and practice in such an intriguing way.