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Sports examples in class

Karl Broman writes:

I [Karl] personally would avoid sports entirely, as I view the subject to be insufficiently serious. . . . Certainly lots of statisticians are interested in sports. . . . And I’m not completely uninterested in sports: I like to watch football, particularly Nebraska, Green Bay, and Baltimore, and to see Notre Dame or any team from Florida or Texas lose.

But statistics about sports? Yawn.

As a person who loves sports, statistics, and sports statistics, I have a few thoughts:

1. Not everyone likes sports, and even fewer are interested in any particular sport. It’s ok to use sports examples, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that everyone in the class cares about it.

2. Don’t forget foreign students. A lot of them don’t even know the rules of kickball, fer chrissake!

3. Of the students who care about a sport, there will be a minority who really care. We had some serious basketball fans in our class last year.

4. I think the best solution is to cover examples in all sorts of topics, including but not limited to sports. I’ve been trying to work in more examples from areas such as cooking, sewing, and shopping.

5. In my experience, students looove education examples, stories about grades, studying, and so forth. But maybe that’s just at the sorts of colleges where I’ve taught: Columbia, Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago. Perhaps students at less elite institutions are less interested in grades.

6. Getting back to Karl’s point about sports being unimportant: Yeah, I pretty much agree with him on that one. Psychologists and economists who study sports will make the claim that the research has larger value, for example in studying decision making or in isolating some cognitive process (as in the justly-celebrated “hot-hand” study), but ultimately I think sports are valuable for their own sake. Sports are a form of art, it’s not a topic such as medicine or education that has much interest beyond itself. That’s ok, though, as long as we’re honest about it, and as long as we also include examples that interest other students in the class.

7. Whenever you teach an applied example well, you induce some subject-matter learning. When I teach sex ratios of births, I give the probability as 0.485, not 0.5, and students learn a little bit of biology. When I teach a sports example, students learn a bit about sports and psychology (for example, the hot hand). The one thing I never never like to do is use complicated gambling examples. I have no interest in teaching students the rules of craps or the probability of getting three of a kind in a poker hand. There are lots of probability examples out there that have the same level of complexity but apply to real-world situations.


  1. Millsy says:

    As someone who researches sport, I have to somewhat disagree with the idea that this sort of research cannot have larger value. Certainly there is plenty of sports research (namely purely statistical sports research like much of sabermetrics or what we see in JQAS) that has little value beyond itself. With respect to the examples used in an introductory statistics class, these also tend to be relatively myopic, but can help to get the point across to certain students (not all, of course).

    But I find the idea that the lessons derived from papers using sports data have zero to little value beyond the sport industry itself to be total nonsense. Certainly my biased viewpoint, and certainly does not apply to all research on sport and its functioning in different scenarios.

    Research on antitrust in sport, the labor market in sports, understanding of the impact of labor union strikes, evaluations of the prevalence of discrimination and bias even under monitoring, industrial organizational lessons from organizations that act as cartels in many respects, managerial functioning, the role of sport in higher education, the role of sport in health and physical activity, and so on have plenty of economic and managerial applications beyond the industry itself and toward many things that a large number of people care about. The wealth of data that are just plain unavailable in other industries allow evaluation of economic theories and even important econometric lessons.

    Perhaps there are missed opportunities for these lessons due to a lot of noise in sports research (yes, there is a LOT of just plain crappy sports research out there, and yes likely much higher noise ratio than most if not all other fields with the exception of those hoping to prove paranormal activities).

    In the end–again, as someone involved in sports economics and management research–I’m not going to delude myself into thinking that this stuff is going to cure cancer or have anything to say about the federal budget deficit. But saying there is little value beyond itself is like saying that comparatively studying a topic within almost any industry is not useful beyond itself.

    • Andrew says:


      Yes, good point. For example, the famous “hot hand” study has improved our understanding of psychology (or, as it is called these days, “economics”) as well as our understanding of basketball.

    • Phil says:

      Millsy says “Research on antitrust in sport, the labor market in sports, understanding of the impact of labor union strikes, evaluations of the prevalence of discrimination and bias even under monitoring, industrial organizational lessons from organizations that act as cartels in many respects, managerial functioning, the role of sport in higher education, the role of sport in health and physical activity, and so on have plenty of economic and managerial applications beyond the industry itself and toward many things that a large number of people care about.”

      I think that’s true, but with the possible exception of the role of sport in health none of those are about sport. Right now Olympus is going through an accounting scandal, but I think it would be a stretch…actually beyond a stretch to just plain being untrue…to say that if you discuss the Olympus accounting scandal you are talking about photography. If you study the economics or legal issues of the National Football League you are not studying sports, you’re studying economics or law!

      That said, I also think Millsy is correct that there are lessons learned from studying sports — and I really do mean sports — that apply elsewhere too. To give an example so popular it is already a cliche, Moneyball was (supposedly) a popular book among company executives for a reason: they saw the possibility of applying some of the ideas it promulgated.

  2. kjetil halvorsen says:

    But if you use sports examples, you should know about this one:…/v11/olympic_partone.pdf

    Nils Lid Hjort actually presented this analysis for the international olympic comitee,
    with the result
    that the olympic rules was changed!

  3. ralmond says:

    Like Andrew I tend to mix things up. I stopped avoiding sports when I realized I had a large number of sports management and sports psychology students in my class.

    I’ve got a lot of international students, so I tend to avoid the big American sports (although being at FSU, it is hard for the students to be completely unaware of American football) in favor of the kinds of things that appear in the Olympics.

    One of my favorite examples is a sports example. Consider the following 5 times (in seconds) for a swimmer in the 100m freestyle:
    69 72 64 1.08 65
    Now, calculate a mean, SD, c.i (or any other stat you like).

    In the discussion afterward I point out how the 1.08 is a nonsensical time; the swimmer could hardly jump in the pool. It is likely a data entry error, maybe entering 1 min 8 sec as a decimal. Its a great exercise for getting students to stop and think before applying the formulae.

    The fact that 1.08 is readily identifiable as an outlier with only minimal experience in the sport is necessary.

    You can use sports examples in class with international students, you just need to spend time explaining what a “free throw” is so everybody is on the same page.

  4. MAYO says:

    My own reaction (to sports illustrations) is to feel it’s one more way of slanting things toward “boy talk”, but my situation may be highly atypical, both in my attitude towards sports discussions, and the ways such examples have tended to arise in philosophy.

    • Jordan says:

      I’m with MAYO here. There are so many cultural signals saying “this math class is for men” already that I’m disinclined to add one more by using examples from sports — which is too bad, because I really like those examples. Andrew’s suggestion of using education statistics sounds great, and I plan to use it.

      • Nick Cox says:

        I think there is something in MAYO’s line, but even more in the line that using sports examples is often just a way to reach out to students not especially interested in the ideas, and to show the students that the teacher is a regular guy [sic], really.

        Still, using examples that students find interesting and intelligible beats the opposite, so long as that’s true.

        One way to turn this into something different would be to get the students to measure interest in sport and knowledge about the sport in the class, and then use the data. The students might learn about each other too, not only the existence of some fraction of students who don’t care but usually keep quiet about it, but also oddities such as a cluster of people who aren’t interested but are not completely ignorant because they just remember what is in the news.

        • Sappho says:

          Not including Sports examples discriminates against Lesbians who love sports. I hope Mayo isn’t this heternormative in her own classes.

          I have a dream that one day Statistics classes will be taught in a way that is perfectly just and fair to absolutely every individual on the planet. That way absolutely everybody and learn and master the discipline. There’s no telling how many budding Einsteins are out there whose genius went to waste because of poorly chosen statistics examples.

          Words, however innocent, have consequences. Just imagine the frustration of making it through all the trials and tribulations of life, just to have your super genius stopped cold because there were no in-class statistics examples involving female tennis, soccer, volley ball or track ‘n field.

          • K? O'Rourke says:

            Your comment lead me to this

            R. A. Fisher posed the following problem:

            The agricultural land of a pre-dynastic Egyptian village is of unequal fertility. Give the height to which the Nile will rise, the fertility of every portion of it is known with exactitude, but the height of the flood affects different parts of the territory unequally. It is required to divide the area, between the several households of the village, so that the yields of the lots assigned to each shall be in pre-determined proportion, whatever may be the height to which the river rises.
            Fisher added, “If this problem is capable of a general solution, then … one of the primary problems of uncertain inference will have reached its complete solution.”

          • Andrew says:


            I take your comment to be a sarcastic remark that this topic (the choice of topics for statistics examples) is unimportant. I agree that this is far less important than world peace, fighting hunger and disease, etc. Nonetheless I don’t think it’s a topic of zero importance. As a teacher, I do think it’s a good idea to use examples that get students interested and involved in the topic.

  5. zbicyclist says:

    For real irrelevance we have those probability problems that concern various numbers of white balls and black balls in urns.

    Solution #4 is the best (variety of examples).

  6. Steve Sailer says:

    We presently have a movie about sports statistics that stars Brad Pitt, made $75 million in the box office, got a Best Picture nomination, and goes far more into the stats and more accurately than seems sane, but actually works. In other words, if not now for sports stats, when?

  7. jrkrideau says:

    Okay, I’ll bite: What is kickball? (I’m from Canada.)

    I probably would not appreciate sports examples in a stats class as most sports with ‘stats’ leave me unmoved.

    On the other hand I’ve always liked the idea of using chocolate chip cookies since I read Herbie Lee’s American Statistician article a few years ago.

    It’s an example you can really get your teeth into. (Sorry).

    Chocolate Chip Cookies as a Teaching Aid (The American Statistician 2007, Volume 61, Issue 4, pp. 351-355)

    • Pretty sure that Kickball is a children’s game which is a variation of american baseball but in which the ball is a sort of basketball/soccer ball sized thing made of inflated rubber, and the “pitcher” rolls it to the “kicker” who kicks the ball instead of hitting it with a baseball bat, everything else is more or less the same as baseball.

      • Andrew says:

        Also you can throw out a baserunner by hitting him with a thrown ball. You’re not allowed to do that in baseball. And you forgot the all-important detail that the “kickball” is red and really bouncy.

        • jrkrideau says:

          Thanks to Danial and Andrew.

          After reading the wiki entry I’ve decided that understanding cricket may be easier than mastering kickball.

          I’ve asked a couple of people around here and they had heard of it so apparently it is not unknown in Canada, just unknown to me.

  8. Eli says:

    As one of your current survey students, I’d really appreciate more sports examples as spring training commences. I have a fantasy baseball draft in a serious keeper league coming up at the end of March and so of course I’m looking for any edge I can get.