202 words that perfectly summarize ESPN in 2017

Right around the time the ink dried on a $15.2 billion deal to broadcast the NFL, subscribers began fleeing cable television in droves — not because of anything the Worldwide Leader did wrong, but because of secular changes in the way broadcast and video works. Phones, Twitter, and YouTube began instantaneously delivering highlights and entire games to fans, obviating the need for anyone to watch SportsCenter, or any other news shows, to catch up on what happened in sports, or even, in some cases, to watch live games. Terrestrial ad revenue never migrated online, and the revenue to be found there was largely eaten up by Facebook and Google, leaving little to pay those new ESPN.com reporters.

ESPN is still wildly profitable — the operating income of Disney’s media networks (of which ESPN plays the largest role) was $1.36 billion in the 2016 fourth quarter — but it’s less profitable than it used to be, and projects to be far less so in the future. With its latest cuts, ESPN isn’t just trying to stanch the bleeding and/or to be seen by investors as attempting to do so: They’re also laying out what the network will look like over the next five years and beyond.

Deadspin’s Kevin Draper wrote these words after ESPN laid off 100 employees, and they capture the essence of the problems at the Worldwide Leader in Sports.

While I’ve been following the ESPN story since the layoffs, I got re-interested again when I saw Jason Whitlock’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal. He suggested these layoffs represent a victory of Deadspin over ESPN, part of the “politics hurt ESPN” narrative.

As much as I like Deadspin, both as a reader and contributor, the editorial is awful. There’s no data to back up that ESPN’s left leaning politics has hurt the network.

The truth of ESPN is in those 202 words of Draper.

Podcast: Super Bowl Preview of New England vs Atlanta

On this week’s show, I break down the Super Bowl match up between New England and Atlanta. Topics discussed include:

  • How the Super Bowl in 1991 between the Giants and Bills might forecast Bill Belichick’s strategy for this game
  • The success rate of this Atlanta Falcons offense, and how it stacks up against the best NFL offenses of the past 16 years
  • The one statistic, adjusted for strength of schedule, in which neither team excels
  • The relative importance of passing versus rushing for NFL playoff and Super Bowl teams

To listen on iTunes, click here.

To listen here, click on the play button.

2016 MLB ensemble win totals

These ensemble win totals combine the predictions of 5 different quants and the markets (Bookmaker on April 2nd, 2016). The idea is that merging predictions tends to cancel out the errors made by each, leading to more accurate predictions.

1. Chicago Cubs, 95.3
2. Los Angeles Dodgers, 91.1
3. New York Mets, 88.7
4. Washington, 87.9
5. San Francisco, 87.7
6. Houston, 87.3
7. Boston, 87.0
8. Toronto, 86.6
9. Cleveland, 86.2
10. St. Louis, 84.7
11. Pittsburgh, 83.9
12. Seattle, 83.9
13. New York Yankees, 83.8
14. Tampa Bay, 83.2
15. Chicago White Sox, 81.8
16. Texas, 81.2
17. Detroit, 81.1
18. Arizona, 81.0
19. Los Angeles Angels, 80.3
20. Kansas City, 79.9
21. Miami, 79.8
22. Oakland, 78.5
23. Minnesota, 77.9
24. Baltimore, 77.8
25. San Diego, 72.7
26. Colorado, 72.1
27. Milwaukee, 71.3
28. Cincinnati, 70.3
29. Atlanta, 67.6
30. Philadelphia, 65.3

A few thoughts.

Kansas City

What to make of the defending World Series champions?

The markets predict 84 wins, but the Royals do poorly in the computers (70 wins in Davenport, 75 wins for Baseball Prospectus).

The Royals had the best cluster luck in 2015 (+72 runs during the regular season), and it remains to be seen whether their high contact, strong bullpen approach can continue to defy the numbers.


Every predictor had Boston with 86, 87 or 88 wins. Guess it’s certain that this team will bounce back from a disappointing 78 win campaign from last year.

List of 5 analytics predictions for win totals

These sources were consulted for win total predictions.

The top 5 ways numbers go against Carolina, a 2016 Super Bowl preview

I wrote this preview for members of The Power Rank four days before the game. It went public the day after the game.

Predicting Super Bowl 50 is the ultimate battle between eyes and numbers.

By the eye test, Carolina looks like the clear favorite over Denver. The Panthers have a stellar 17-1 record, and they destroyed two of the NFL’s best teams, Seattle and Arizona, to make the Super Bowl.

The eye test also favors Carolina at the quarterback position. Cam Newton has had an Most Valuable Player caliber season, a touchdown machine at the pinnacle of his game.

In contrast, Denver QB Peyton Manning looks old. He missed a multitude of throws against New England in the AFC Championship game. His new label “game manager” shows how fast one of the game’s greats has succumbed to age.

However, a multitude of numbers go against Carolina, a 5.5 point favorite in the markets, in the Super Bowl. Let’s break down the top 5 numbers.

1. Carolina’s Strength of Schedule

The Panthers have a remarkable 17-1 record. However, it’s less impressive once you look at their competition.

They play in a weak NFC South division, which accounts for 6 games. Out of division, they drew the NFC East and the AFC South, two divisions in which the winner had 9 wins. That’s another 8 games.

Below, I’ve listed my NFL team rankings for members which combine a number of metrics based on points and yards per play. The teams in italics played the Panthers.

1. Seattle, 8.77.
2. Arizona, 7.24.
3. Cincinnati, 7.18.
4. Pittsburgh, 7.12.
5. Carolina, 6.90.
6. Denver, 5.84.
7. New England, 5.70.
8. Kansas City, 5.68.
9. Green Bay, 2.37.
10. Minnesota, 1.19.
11. New York Jets, 0.94.
12. Buffalo, -0.00.
13. Baltimore, -0.01.
14. Oakland, -0.22.
15. St. Louis, -0.71.
16. Houston, -0.85.
17. Chicago, -0.96.
18. Detroit, -1.00.
19. Philadelphia, -1.66.
20. Tampa Bay, -2.07.
21. Atlanta, -2.27.
22. San Diego, -2.27.
23. Washington, -2.44.
24. New York Giants, -3.22.
25. Dallas, -3.60.
26. Indianapolis, -3.76.
27. New Orleans, -4.21.
28. Jacksonville, -4.77.
29. Miami, -5.19.
30. San Francisco, -5.68.
31. Cleveland, -6.52.
32. Tennessee, -7.53.

Carolina played 3 above average teams this year. Yes, they just beat the top two teams in these rankings, but they went +8 in turnover margin in those games.

Speaking of which…

2. Turnover margin

Carolina is +20 in turnover margin for the season. As I mentioned in the previous section, +8 of this margin came in the last two games against their strongest competition.

Randomness plays a huge role in turnovers. In my research, I’ve found no variables that correlate with fumble rates in college football.

For NFL quarterbacks, completion percentage seems to predict interception rate. However, this shouldn’t help Carolina, as Cam Newton has a career 59.5% completion percentage, about the NFL average.

The randomness of turnovers implies that the Panthers’ +20 turnover margin this season has little to no ability to predict Carolina’s turnover margin in the Super Bowl against Denver.

3. Carolina’s Strength of Schedule, Part II

In case the previous section didn’t make my point about Carolina’s putrid strength of schedule, let’s look at the pass defenses Cam Newton faced this year. These rankings are based on my yards per pass attempt adjusted for strength of schedule.

1. Denver, 5.13.
2. Carolina, 5.49.
3. Seattle, 5.51.
4. Kansas City, 5.59.
5. Cincinnati, 5.60.
6. Houston, 5.78.
7. Green Bay, 5.89.
8. New England, 5.96.
9. Oakland, 6.01.
10. St. Louis, 6.06.
11. New York Jets, 6.06.
12. Minnesota, 6.10.
13. Pittsburgh, 6.15.
14. Philadelphia, 6.23.
15. Arizona, 6.26.
16. Baltimore, 6.28.
17. Buffalo, 6.56.
18. Chicago, 6.58.
19. Tampa Bay, 6.60.
20. Indianapolis, 6.68.
21. Detroit, 6.69.
22. Dallas, 6.72.
23. Washington, 6.84.
24. Atlanta, 6.85.
25. Tennessee, 6.85.
26. Jacksonville, 6.91.
27. San Francisco, 6.97.
28. San Diego, 7.02.
29. Miami, 7.15.
30. New York Giants, 7.24.
31. Cleveland, 7.26.
32. New Orleans, 7.88.

Carolina has faced 3 good pass defenses this year. Three!

I should note that Arizona’s pass defense would have made a fourth good pass defense before Carolina racked up 11.2 yards per attempt against them in the NFC championship game.

Carolina has thrown for almost 7 yards per attempt, 5th best in the NFL this season. However, strength of schedule adjustments drop Carolina to 11th in my pass offense rankings.

Carolina’s pass offense seems potent partially because of highlights. I’ve seen a multitude of picture perfect Cam Newton throws for touchdowns this year on ESPN.

These highlights represent a small sample size of throws. In the bigger picture, Newton’s numbers don’t look so good by a powerful efficiency metric: yards per pass attempt.

4. Match ups in passing

The pass defense rankings also suggest Carolina’s pass offense faces an uphill battle in the Super Bowl. Denver has the top ranked pass defense by my numbers, as corners Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib lead an elite secondary.

The below visual shows the match ups for the game by yards per pass attempt adjusted for schedule. (You can access the interactive version of these visuals by clicking here.) Better pass defenses appear further to the right, which facilitates comparisons. The offense or defense further to the right is predicted to have the advantage.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 5.00.11 PM

The visual shows that both defenses have a large advantage. Carolina also has a good secondary, as Josh Norman has blossomed into a shut down corner this season.

Because of these numbers (the rushing numbers also favor the defenses), the market total of 44 makes no sense to me. The NFL has averaged 45.5 points per game this year. With two tremendous defenses, you expect a lower total.

Part of this total comes from the eye test: Carolina has looked dominant the past two games against very good defenses. Still, the season long numbers suggest a low scoring game.

5. Cam Newton’s completion percentage

Cam Newton isn’t an accurate passer by NFL standards. He has completed 59.7% of his passes this season, right near his career average.

Even in his best game of the year against Arizona, Newton missed his fair share of throws. For example, he threw behind Corey Brown in the 2nd quarter. However, his receiver made a great adjustment, then beat the Arizona safety for a touchdown.

Ok, fine, I realize that Newton threw that pass a long way, and he should get a little slack for that. Still, he’s no where near Peyton Manning pre-2015 in accuracy.

Newton does present a significant threat with his legs. Carolina runs the zone read, which makes the defense defend against both the QB and RB in the running game. Denver must defend these plays well.


Eyes versus numbers.

I’ll admit it, the eye test makes me a bit queasy about taking Denver +5.5 over Carolina. My numbers predict a 1 point win for Carolina because of the weakness in the Denver offense.

And Carolina has looked damn good the last two weeks.

But numbers reveal the true picture of a team. Carolina has a stellar defense leading an average passer at quarterback. The offense should regress from their performance last week against Arizona, just like Iowa and Michigan State learned hard lessons in their bowl games this year.

It doesn’t always work to trust the numbers. There’s at least a 40% chance Carolina covers the 5.5 points. Numbers kept saying Kansas City would lose their next series in the MLB playoffs this fall. It never happened.

Nevertheless, numbers make a convincing argument against Carolina. The under looks particularly juicy.

Bowl predictions by win probability for 2015

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