Thursday, June 22, 2006


Before I get into the heart of this post, let me first recommend Bill Simmons column on the delicate social dynamic between Shaq and Dwayne Wade. It is an interesting case study in the importance of social relationships for productivity. The subtext of the story is that it is unlikely that the Heat (or the late 80s Kareem-Magic Lakers) would have been as successful had the players involved not had the right social skills.

Anyway, in the later part of Simmons column today and in much of his column on Tuesday, he joins a large number of people bemoaning the quality of the officiating in the NBA. This is something he frequently comments on. He even has his own theory about how the NBA "rigs" games by sending weak officials to big games. Will Hauser's term paper on home bias in NBA refs was essentially motivated by my desire to see if the empirics back up the "Simmons Hypothesis." While I hope to finish a more complete empirical examination of the assumptions underlying the Simmons Hypothesis later this summer, let me state now that I certainly agree that NBA officials have the ability to affect the outcome of games more than officials in the NFL or major league baseball (excepting maybe the atrocious officiating in the Super Bowl).

NBA officials, however, have a trivial affect on games compared to soccer officials. Soccer officials easily sway the probabilities associated with different game outcomes more than any other officials. The most dramatic way they do this is by awarding penalty kicks. Just the morning, in the wake of the highly dubious penalty kick awarded to Ghana, the probability of a Ghana victory (as reflected in the price of "Ghana to win" contracts at Tradesports) jumped from 30 percent to 70 percent. Lest you think that this is largely driven by Appiah's successful conversion of the kick, during yesterday's Portugal-Mexico match the contracts moved 20-30 points up then down (or down then up depending on which contract you examine) when O. Bravo was awarded and then missed his penalty kick.

Soccer officials also dramatically affect current (and subsequent) games by handing out yellow and red cards. E.g., when Jan Polak was sent off with his second yellow card in this morning's Italy-Czech Republic game, Italy's probability of winning jumped 10 points. It would require a more subtle analysis, but I would expect that the price in the market for future games moves similarly when the market finds out that key players will miss the next match because of red cards or accumulated yellows.

All of this is compounded by the fact that officiating in soccer is apparently arbitrary. I was watching the Argentina-Holland yawner yesterday with a friend who has probably watched more than 10 matches in her life, and she was commenting about how she still had no idea what constituted a foul much less what warranted yellow or red cards. I have to agree. I've watched hundreds more matches than she has, and I still don't get half the calls or non-calls that officials make.

This same friend also made the very good point that it seems unfair that some teams get assigned refs who hand out yellows left and right (see Mexico-Portugal which had like 9 or so) and force them to play without players in later games, while other teams get lenient refs (see England-Sweden which had only 3 yellows) and get to play the next match with all options available.

Yet, in the sport where officials likely have the biggest impact, they use the fewest number of officials. On an enormous field with 22 players, there is one referee (and two referees assistants who really only make small calls). This strikes me a silly. First, it is impossible for one person to be in position to make calls on every play. The ball travels too far, too fast, and soccer players are conditioned to take dives (precisely because the one referee is seldom in position to see what really happened). Second, having one official with an enormous amount of potential influence on the game makes soccer one of the easiest sports to fix. Gamblers only need to pay off only one guy to substantially slant the odds in their favor. In other sports, to get the same change in odds, gamblers would need to get several players or officials on board.

All in all, while I enjoy the World Cup, I am getting pretty annoyed with the officiating, and my odds of watching in the future are falling daily. It seems like a waste of time and energy to watch a game that is too frequently decided by some old dude in a yellow jersey. Oh and lest people think that I am just bitter because the US got totally hosed by the officials in the last two games, the US is not yet good enough for me to get too emotionally attached to their results. I find them extremely frustrating to watch because they make too many silly mistakes and seem incapable of putting much pressure on goal against good opponents. And based on their play in the group stage, it is hard to argue that they deserved to advance regardless of officiating.

The racist guy I was sitting next to in the shady bar where I watched the first half of the US game definately thought it was a foul and deserving of a penalty kick. That "pub" was not a happy place, regardless of what was happening on the TV.

And with the advent of things like Tradesports, you don't even have to fix the games to take home big gambling winnings. Just convince the ref to give Ghana a penalty kick some time in between the 30th and 40th minute. Surely something will happen in the box at that time that he could decide was a foul. Then buy shares of Ghana wins during the 29th minute and sell them right after the call. Instant money, and you don't even need to rig the game, just one call!
You could even go one step further, and make sure the ref "evens the score" later and make the same money buy buying shares of USA wins. Then you've "rigged" the game in a way such that each team gets the same advantage, and you don't really affect the ex ante chance of either team winning.
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