by: Keith Aksel
As sports fans, we cannot escape the prediction. Whether you read ESPN.com, Sports Illustrated, or listen to sports talk radio, every sports news outlet shares a fondness for predicting the minutiae of every athletic event known to man. If you desire, you can know the outcome of the NBA Playoffs, the Heisman Trophy winner, and the order of the NFL Draft months before said events occur. In
many cases, the prediction for a contest comes as the climax of sports pregame shows (lookin’ at you College Gameday). Some publications, such as Athlon Sports, exist almost solely as a prediction making-outlet. Needless to say, sports predictions seem to have taken on a life of their own.
The pervasiveness of the prediction makes me wonder what the prediction actually does for us as everyday fans. When thinking more critically about the concept of the prediction, some patterns become obvious. First, the grand season-long predictions that sports reporters and “experts” offer are almost laughably inaccurate, and have been ever since they emerged. Second, predictions are a seemingly permanent part of sports reporting. Since we can’t avoid hearing and reading others’ predictions, the prediction becomes a part of our viewing experience by changing our conceptions of what will happen in a given contest. We don’t forget what the “experts” have told us about the game’s outcome, and our expectations are partially, if not completely, shaped by those thoughts. In other words, the prediction has slowly come to define the experience of watching sports today in ways that interfere with the contest itself.
Historically, predictions were not emphasized in media as they are today. For example, newspaper reports leading up to the first World Series in 1903 between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Americans made only oblique reference to the anticipated outcomes of the matchup (1). Instead, reporters spent most of their energies dissecting the state of mind of each squad, and seemed to avoid conjecture rather than standing on it.
The most likely culprit for exploding the visibility of predictions was not the news media, but odds making and betting services. The obvious profit to be gained in predicting the outcome of an event correctly gave rise to a lucrative industry of sports betting, and publicly-published odds, pitting a “favorite” against an “underdog.” Thanks to odds making, guessing a winner became not only a way to make money, but also fodder for newspaper reports.
Despite their ubiquity today, journalistic sports predictions are rarely accurate. As a short example of inaccuracy, I’ll use recent Sports Illustrated NCAA men’s basketball championship predictions. SI’s first set of guesses are released in November each year as preseason predictions. The magazine later releases an altered set of guesses in the March Madness preview issue in late March.
From the 2005-06 season through 2014-15, SI’s preseason prediction for the NCAA champion was correct once (they rightly chose North Carolina in 2008-09). The SI reporters were similarly inaccurate in their pre- March Madness predictions. In those ten seasons, SI correctly chose the NCAA champion one time, in 2013 (Louisville) (2). This 10% accuracy rate is on par with local weather forecasts and the overall winning percentage of the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1990s (3). Which is to say, horrible.
But, what about SI’s guesses for champions in other sports? Turns out, the magazine is just as bad predicting those outcomes as well. In 2014 alone, SI missed on its college football champion pick (Florida State), Super Bowl winner (Packers), World Series champ (Nationals), and the World Cup winner (Argentina). Even with such an abysmal record, SI continues publishing its prediction sets every year, unabated. Inaccurate predictions seem to have zero effect on the status of those offering them. No matter the frequency of inaccuracy, staff writers for these outlets remain employed, and continue to make their predictions regularly. It would seem, then, that correct predictions do not matter to the news outlet. The simple act of making a public prediction projects the right engagement with sports that satisfies news outlets. In sum, reporters can be right or wrong in their guesses- but they cannot afford to not guess at all.
One counterargument here would state that SI does sometimes come close to selecting a champion. After all, on the grand scheme, SI’s guessers are no less accurate than those of other outlets like ESPN.com or CBS Sports. However, the essence of “expert” analysis suggests that experts see things in sports normal fans cannot. My own mother correctly predicted more than one champion in the NCAA tournament in the past ten years. To be sure, she is the furthest thing possible from a sports expert. In that sense, predictions seem to be one way in which experts are hurting, not helping, their authority over the sports world. Still, most fans don’t seem to notice, and predictors keep churning out wrong answers.
Although few would argue that predictions make sports less fun, they do affect the way we watch. Just ask yourself the last time you watched a match without reading or hearing someone else talk about their perception of what may happen beforehand. The major way predictions influence our viewing habits is by over-emphasizing the outcome of a contest rather than the meat of the contest itself. If you watch sports to be entertained, predictions push you to look toward to end of the contest, instead of living in the moment. We lose the ability to savor the sport, to be present and appreciate athlete talent and our own passion that drives us to watch in the first place. As soon as the college football national title is won, news outlets spit out a “way too early top 25” for the next season. Fans then begin their own discussions about their team’s chances to repeat. What about living in the glory of that just-won title? “The moment” is, in effect, gone, supplanted by “what’s next” on the sporting calendar. In this way, predictions and their practitioners get in the way of what the true fan experience should be.
On another note, athletes partially internalize predictions and odds like fans do. But, instead of changing the way they watch sports, athletes can internalize predictions to influence their play. The now clichéd phrase “we shocked the world,” supposedly coined by Connecticut’s Khalid el-Amin after winning the 1999 NCAA basketball title, grew out an athlete’s clear grasp of the perceived odds stacked against him and his team by outsiders (4). As any fan or athlete can attest, playing as an underdog relieves pressure on a team, and can motivate them to play better. It was certainly possible that UConn was a better team than Duke that year regardless of the betting line. But, the key point is that UConn’s athletes perceived outside expectations as motivation for their performance.
I’m under no assumptions that fans will stop reading predictions. Fans may like predictions because we are impatient, or perhaps we feel like we can somehow prove our worth as fans if we can accurately predict an outcome. In any case, predictions satisfy a desire to look ahead to our favorite sports events before they happen. Still, I hope fans can start to think about this all-too-common phenomenon more critically- and perhaps demand more from their sports news outlets than just a list of “picks” every week.
 For those interested, I consulted major national historical newspapers for predictions being published in sports (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Chicago Daily Tribune, Washington Post, Boston Globe).
 Consulted various predictions in Sports Illustrated, vol. 103-122, (November 2005-March 2015).
 Not actually true, but close- painfully close.
 The Huskies were 9.5 point underdogs leading up to their title game win over Duke. On another note, I was able to see the phrase “shocked the world” in a sports context written in a 1960s report on Billy Mills, the Olympic runner: “Mills Wins Coast Mile: Olympian Surprises With Time of 4:08.1,” Boston Globe (1960-1983), January 10, 1965.