Currently the top story on Nate Silver’s relaunched media venture fivethirtyeight.com suggests that the odds of entering a perfect March Madness bracket are much much better than many people think. The problem is that the headline is misleading at best. Does that statement remind you of anything? Old media perhaps?
For the unitiated, the March Madness bracket is made up of 63 college basketball matches which will be played to decide the best college basketball team in the US. The aim is to predict the winners of each match correctly before a single match has been played.
Whilst the approximately one in 7.5 billion chance quoted in the headline is correct – although it wasn’t initially when the incorrect match-ups were present – it refers to the chance that all 63 favourites will win their matches. This number is therefore just as misleading as the one in 9.2 quintillion chance that can be calculated by assuming – clearly wrongly – that each match is a coin toss between the two teams. Given that Silver and his team have built a statistical model to assess the chances for each match-up, the chance of a perfect bracket can genuinely be calculated from history to provide a much smaller range. What was the chance in each of the last 10 years for example? More useful but still rather dull in my opinion.
The other misleading thing here is that backing each favourite is something which many many many people will do and therefore, in the highly unlikely case – one in 7.5 billion of course – that all 63 favourites won, Warren Buffet’s billion dollars would therefore be split multiple ways. The return of investment would be even worse than the approximately 14 cents on the dollar that it is for a single winner. To put this into perspective, players have around a one in 14 million chance of winning the UK Lottery but if you pick numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, you will be one of around 10,000 people doing so. Therefore, even with a 14 million pound jackpot, you will win just £1400. This is admittedly explained in the article at fivethirtyeight.com but much much further down.
There is a great story to be told here but fivethirtyeight.com has just chosen not to tell it, namely WHY is it so hard to enter a correct bracket? Put simply, the reason is that we know that there will almost certainly be surprise results but we don’t know how many there will be or which matches will provide those shocks. Using the FA Cup as an analogy for this for my European readers, it is highly unlikely that there will be no surprise results in the 64 matches which take place in the third round of the competition. If it were possible to select the matches in which those surprises would happen correctly and backing the favourites in the others to go through, getting rich quickly would be a cinch.
The known – that there will almost certainly be shocks – and two unknowns – that we don’t know how many or which matches – are what make prediction so incredibly hard. If people were aware of this simple fact, they might think more about what they are doing when gambling. As one of my twitter followers said yesterday, ‘if people understood probability, Las Vegas would be a crossroads in the desert’. Isn’t this a role that 538.com could play when it comes to its sports section?
Media stands at a crossroads as old media business models don’t work anymore and both new and old media are still searching for feasible business models. Nate Silver has been offered a huge opportunity by ESPN to develop something which could be part of the future of media but this current ‘big’ story just seems to me to be old media dressed up as new. I believe in data journalism but I believe in making it accessible without dumbing it down too much. There are plenty of numbers in this article but not enough story. The story is always what matters the most.