Football and Econom(etr)ics

Commandeur, Diede

Football and Econom(etr)ics

This week the World Cup (WC) started in Qatar, a nice excuse to write something about one of the most popular sports in the world: Football.

What to write about economics and football? That question is easier to answer than one might expect: since August this year, the EUR has already published 6 articles about football and economics. Moreover, economists in the Netherlands have tried to predict the winner of the WC in 2018. Even a master student in Groningen wrote his thesis about economics and football.

Football and economic models
The researchers in the above-mentioned articles mostly use econometrics to study the relationship between things, but one of the EUR articles uses a theoretical model to make predictions. In the article, Thomas Peeters used a model to explain why mediocre talented trainers are found among a substantial number of clubs. His paper is based on earlier research that found that mediocre-level CEOs maintain for long, while one would expect that they would be replaced by more talented people. They still find new positions as a CEO due to their visibility: companies know what they get when they hire them. A new, unknown, but potentially great CEO would mean a gamble because this unknown candidate could perform unexpectedly poorly as well. One could think of this unknown candidate as if it is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get.

The same happens to football trainers: when hiring a mediocre talented trainer, the club at least knows what they are going to get. An unknown trainer will mean that there is a risk that the trainer might not be as good as expected and for clubs fighting against relegation, security and stability is important. Therefore these clubs will choose a known, but mediocre one. Peeters tries to test this theory with data from English football teams and finds that this is indeed the case.

Football and econometrics
There are other researchers at the EUR that use econometrics to analyse football. Professor Jan van Ours tried to measure the effect of a new coach on the results of a team. He finds that there is some short-term effect on the results. This could be attributed to psychological effects on the players of that particular football team, because they have to prove themselves for the new trainer, amongst other things. In the long run however it seems as if there is not much of a result.
Other research in the field of econometrics and football has been done on artificial grass. Do clubs have an advantage when they play their home matches on artificial turf? Van Ours and his colleague Martin van Tuijl from Tilburg University did research on this in 2017. Contrary to their earlier findings, they do seem to find an effect. In this new research they use a larger sample to compare the home and away matches of three consecutive seasons of the highest Dutch football league (de Eredivisie). They compare the home and away matches between artificial grass clubs and natural grass clubs and compare this with the matches between only natural grass clubs. In this way they take the home advantage into account. They find that the advantage for a club that has artificial grass in their home stadium is 0.53 goal or 0.6 point per match (played in their own stadium).

Predictions for the World Cup
Predicting the winner of the WC is another very important thing that economists do. This is a quite complicated task since there are many variables that influence the result of a football game. Just one small moment or a red card can decide a match and in the knockout phase, that means either continuing the way to the final, or going home.

The investment bank Goldman Sachs was brave enough to try to predict the winner of the WC in 2014 and 2018. In 2014 they predicted a final between Brazil and Argentina, won by Brazil. Argentina did indeed reach the final and Brazil the semi-finals. The winner however was Germany. In 2018 they predicted Brazil to be the winner and Germany to be the runner up. They wrongly predicted France to be a semi-finalist, instead it turned out to be the winner. The two previously mentioned Dutch economists, Van Ours and Van Tuijl, made their prediction for 2018 and predicted Brazil as a winner as well.

It seemed as if this year both Goldman Sachs and the Dutch economists have not predicted anything. Given their earlier results, maybe economists should be a bit more humble and look elsewhere for predictions? The game Fifa (made by EA sports) for example tried to predict the winner in 2010, 2014 and 2018 and was correct all three times. This year they are anticipating Argentina to be the winner. Would you bet on that too, after their loss to Saudi-Arabia? It could turn out to be a wise decision. After all Spain did lose their first match as well, when they won the WC in 2010…

Back to top