Sports & Expected Value

Winners never quit and quitters never win.
~ Vince Lombardi

I played a lot of sports growing up. There were many invaluable lessons learned competing on a team. Many of which focused on winning.

From an early age, athletes are instilled with the belief that a champion is a combination of talent and tenacity. Having one without the other will not work.

Winning is about heart, not just legs. It's got to be in the right place.
~ Lance Armstrong

But what if that is all just myth created out of confirmation bias? What if there was a third element that played just as crucial of a role?


The belief that the best team wins leaves no room for luck. It does not state that the best team will win 82.3% of the time. Winning and losing is black and white. But where does the gray enter into the equation? If a game was played 100 times, would we expect the best team to win all 100 times? Probably not. But that is the narrative we create in sports.

A champion is someone who gets up when he can't.
~ Jack Dorsey

When a lesser team wins it's celebrated as an upset with the underdog credited with showing heart and preserverence. The favorite on the other hand is a choker without the fortitude to deliver when it matters most. Or did the dice just happen to roll snake eyes that day? What if there was no other explanation than it was just random chance and if the game was played 100 more times the favorite would win 95 times.

That brings up a larger question. As a sports fan and participant what is the optimal answer to the question of design vs luck? Are we just participating in a drawn out expected value formula? Is it as simple as Team A will win 82.3% of the time and Team B will win the other 17.7%? No one likes totally predictable outcomes, but we also want more meaning than a glorified roll of the dice.

The key to winning is poise under stress.
~ Paul Brown

I personally prefer the ethos that the most deserving team wins. It makes victories more rewarding. I cringe at the notion that a superior team would be robbed of something just due to the low probability outcome randomly occurring.

However, the logical nature of my mind tells me that chance plays a large role in any given sporting event. The degree to which chance is involved depends on the game and duration. The longer the game or series, the less chance is involved as the action plays out over longer periods of time allowing the expected result to have a greater likelihood of coming to fruition.

But I will continue playing and watching as I have since I was a kid. I will allow myself to believe that the best team will prevail through their force of will and not from the imaginary flip of a coin. I find this outlook more emotionally satisfying even if it is just a narrative created to make sense of events not completely within our control.