Friday, August 19, 2011

Lucky Number 13

Nate Silver managed to drop an astounding stat into a column recently, which he often does, but then did not comment on it, which was even more bizarre because he so rarely lets one sail by.

His point was that one symptom of the NBA's labor problem - evidence that it has a real problem as opposed to just everyone wanting more money - is the clear, rigid Have/Have Not order in place.

He notes, almost in passing, that only 8 teams have won the NBA title in the last 20 years while 13 teams have won each the NFL, MLB and NHL titles.

And that was all he had to say about that.

Really? 13 EACH. That seems remarkably... meaningful. I mean, despite the wild differences between those games and leagues and their rules and incentives, they end up with exactly the same number of champs?

I looked up about a dozen other major sports, and the results are below. But what does this apparent triskadecaphobia of Major Sports tell us about these leagues?

At first glance, it seems to say that "repeating" a championship - even just within 20 years - is much harder than winning one, which seems counter-intuitive. Once you know how to win, you're more likely to repeat it, right?

And, in fact, that turns out to be true, but barely and for less obvious reasons. Baseball and the NHL have 30 teams. So under our Rule of 13, in 20 years, 13 of them - 43% - will win a championship. Of those 13 one-time winners, as many as 7 - 53% - might win a second in the same time frame. The numbers for the NFL's 32 teams are 40% and 53%.

(Yeah, yeah, I know, for all you Monty Hall Puzzle-breakers - it might come out totally opposite, with, say, 12 one-time winners and one eight-time winner. That still hits the Rule of 13, but it makes repeating not just much harder than your one-time odds, but impossible for all but that one dominant team. Make of it all what you will).

But in leagues of current size and with no totally dominant teams, the Rule of 13 confirms - rather than disproves, as it appears - that winners tend to win again, at least compared to losers, but just barely. If you can get out of the loser pool, you are slightly more likely to stay out.

What about other elite leagues? How about college football and college basketball?

  • 13: Individual champions in last 20 years of NCAA I-A football. (encompassing 22 'champs', including co-champs)
  • 14: Individual champions in last 20 years of NCAA Division I basketball.
  • 12: Individual champions in prior 20 years of NCAA Division I basketball ('91 to '72).


So four of the US's six major sports have produced 13, 13, 13 and 13 champions in 20 years, and a fifth - Men's D-I college basketball - has produced an average of 13 winners over its last two 20-year periods. Only the NBA is off the mark (wildly, too).

But wait a second? What does that mean? Have we discovered an inalterable Law of sports with the power to dictate events? Were the Butler Shot, the Vince Young/LenDale White 4th Downs, the Red Sox* comeback, the horrible calls against the Seahawks - all crucial to this stat parade - somehow, ya know, pre-ordained?

'Course not. But its definetly a pretty remarkable argument for the 'it all comes out in the wash'-school of forecasting.

*If the Sox hadn't won in '03, what are they odds they'd have won in '07? Just sayin'.

So where else do we find this Rule of 13? Does it apply to ALL sports leagues?

Turns out: no, but for very interesting reasons.

I dug into the next best organized (and easiest to check) leagues I could find, the lesser NCAA Division I sports. And a remarkable pattern comes out: among sports played everywhere, with the most open and mature talent collection systems, that are either for big money or that can lead to big money, you get 13 champs every 20 years.

But for every grade of specialty or exclusion, you lose champs. Its almost uncanny.

Champions in last 20 years
  • 13: NCAA DI Baseball
  • 12: I-AA Football, the highly-organized, full-scholarship but somewhat more regionalized level below I-A.
  • 12: Men's Hockey (13 in the last 21 years)

Still on or just slightly off the Rule of 13 - but, of course, those are 'feeder' leagues for established pro teams, just like D-I basketball. Even if the players at these levels are less likely to make the pros, well, a) they may be in denial about that until the end of their careers and b) their coaches can still make it to pro-level paydays in the Hard 13 Leagues.
In other words, the incentives at play on their practice and recruiting fields are very similiar to those at the higher levels, so no surprise we see the Rule of 13.

Now, two sports that are wildly popular across the country, but lead to far fewer and far less lucrative pro opportunities:

  • 10: Women's Basketball
  • 10: Men's Volleyball*
  • 10: Men's Soccer

You can, if you are truly an elite player or coach, make an upper-middle class living in those sports. But not very often and not much more. (*my count of 10 includes not one but two teams stripped of their titles, which is always great fun).

Then come the prep school sports, which are played by almost no one and have no pro prospects, but instead lead to - and, at the youth league level, are financed by - Wall Street money:

  • 8: Women's Tennis
  • 7: Men's Tennis
  • 7: Women's Vball
  • 6: M Lacrosse
  • 6: W Field Hockey - 8 champions ever, dating to the 80s.
  • 6: W Soccer
  • 5: W Lacrosse - 11 champions ever, dating to the 80s.

Yip - rich kids and beach kids and not much else. Something about that pool tends to breed far less diversity. Imagine.

What's with women's soccer? It's wildly popular across the nation in neighborhoods of every economic level, but sits at the bottom of our list, with just 6 champions. But the flaw in that stat is both obvious and, lately, rapidly correcting: Carolina won every single title for essentially the sports' first two decades, which includes over half of our 20-year sample. But 4 of soccer's 6 champions have won their first title in the last 7 years, so, as the Quants, say, a 'reversion to the mean' is underway.

So now we get to my favorite part, The Sweeping Statement: the bigger the riches and fame at stake - now or in the future - the more champions get produced. It's an almost perfect match, other than women's soccer (which is coming back to the pack) and the NBA, whose punishment for ignoring our Rule of 13 is the current Death spiral it is caught in.

And now here comes the Nelson "Ha ha!" part.

Let's look at "The World Game".

We are lectured to, as Americans, that our sports leagues can't hold a flame to the passion, intensity, athleticism and general love of the game than Europeans have for soccer.

Before they can fully walk, we are told, the toddlers of Dresden, Cape Town and Rio and everywhere in between are mercilessly trained and selected, cast aside or pushed on into soccer's great meritocracy. And for organizations that can't compete on the World Stage, down they go in the delightful practice of Relegation.

EVERYONE, we are told, plays soccer and they play it EVERYWHERE. It's the WORLD'S GAME, doncha know!

Surely, no sport embodies the Human Will To Compete like soccer, eh?

Here is the championship distribution of The Big 4 Leagues over the last 20 years

  • Germany's Bundesleague: 6
  • Spain's La Liga: 5
  • Italy's Serie A: 5
  • England's Premier League 4

Wow. Men's lacrosse, that citadel of American exclusionism, is as or more open and competitive than the four great leagues of Europe. NONE have figured out how to let new blood circulate, even as well as our most tightly-held college sports.

Or even as well as the sickly NBA.


CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: Ah! Here was the problem - if the NBA eludes the Rule of 13 because it is prone to anti-competitive forces built into its structure, then surely this is true for the European soccer leagues as well - a theory that gains traction when we look at the Champions League. There, above the orbits of the monopolies held by teams at the national level, we have seen 12 champs in its last 20 years, 13 in the last 21.

MLS BONUS: Where the MLS fits on our scale is up for debate - its certainly professional, but not exactly a way to get rich or famous. Still, let's have a look: in its 15 years of play, the MLS has had 7 champs, below the 13-champ trendline but perfectly in line with the Men's NCAA soccer trendline of 10 in 20.
Included in that list is the franchise that began life as the San Jose Earthquakes, won the title in 01 and 03, promptly shutdown and moved to Houston, then won it again in 07 and 09 (*years are from memory and might be off a little, but the chronology is right).
Which leaves us a nice trivia question to go out on: Has any other franchise in any sport dominated a decade, with a move in the middle? I can't think of one.