Another serious misuse of football statistics by those who should know better

By Tony Attwood

In the affterglow of last night’s lovely victory for Arsenal, I want to turn to something different, not because I didn’t enjoy last night, but because this is Untold, and we like to cover stories no one else will cover.

And what we consider here is a perfect example of the creation of a football related story out of no facts at all – which of course we have looked at many times before.  But this one is different because it is presented in the Guardian – a newspaper that prides itself on providing the “independent journalism the world needs” – running a story about what is claimed to be a serious piece of research about the impact of football – when in reality (at least as far as it is presented in the paper) it is anything but.

The research claims to show how the performance of a team can relate to individual supporters, and boost the economy of the area from which the club draws its support.

The company involved is the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) which says it supplies independent economic forecasting and analysis to hundreds of private firms and public organisations.  Their boast is that “Our predictions have a strong track record of forecasting accuracy at international, national and even company level, placing us consistently in the top handful of UK economics teams and winning us awards and headlines.”

That is quite a boast, and in this little piece I want to suggest that anyone taking CEBR’s boast seriously might like to think twice before they hand over their dosh – at least based on the piece of research reported in the Guardian.  And one might think twice about the Guardian running this story based on what appears to be seriously unthought through research.

The claim in the report is that supporters link the club they support with their own successes and failures, “which can have an impact on people’s dopamine levels and overall confidence, resulting in higher spending on outings and goods.”

Dopamine helps to control movement, attention, learning, and emotional responses.  It enables us to see rewards that can be gained, and to focus our activities so we get the higher dopamine levels.  Higher levels of dopamine give us greater feeling of pleasure and satisfaction.  At that level the link looks reasonable.

The implication is that success for Arsenal makes me feel good, not just about Arsenal but about myself and as a result I spend more money locally.  Indeed it suggests that the effect of a club winning the league could increase a city’s economic growth by 1.1%. The report then suggests that a Man City win of the title could be worth £220m to Manchester, or £133m to Liverpool, if Liverpool somehow won a title for the first time in 29 years, this year.

But you may already have spotted the problem with this, because although it might be true for those teams, there will be contrary indications.  How will Manchester United or Everton supporters feel in either eventuality?  Will their expenditure go down because they feel miserable about their dreaded rivals winning the league?

And it is also widely reported, and I have certainly witnessed the fact, that many Manchester United supporters are not residents of Manchester – and suddenly the generalisation that a club taking the title can boost the economy of the club’s city becomes more dubious.   Does it apply in all cases, or does it apply to just a few select clubs?  Even my own case runs counter to the assertion: I’m an Arsenal season ticket holder but live in Northamptonshire – did they analyse where supporters live?

This becomes an even more interesting question when one looks at championship winners by city and town…

City / Town Championships Clubs
Liverpool (18), Everton (9)
Manchester United (20), Manchester City (5)
Arsenal (13), Chelsea (6), Tottenham Hotspur (2)
Aston Villa (7)
Sunderland (6)
Sheffield Wednesday (4), Sheffield United (1)
Newcastle United (4)
Blackburn Rovers (3)
Huddersfield Town (3)
Leeds United (3)
Wolverhampton Wanderers (3)

I can’t actually imagine that Arsenal winning the League leads to a feel good factor across London.  So we now have two questions: does the “feel good” factor in a city get countered by the negative feelings of supporters of a rival team, and does this apply in Manchseter if Manchester United win the title?   Both questions are central to establishing the general assertion of the article that a title win is good for the economy in the city of the winning club.

If we look just at cities winning the Premier League the list of title winners by city runs like this…

  • Manchester 16
  • London 8
  • Leicester 1
  • Blackburn 1

This makes the article’s claim even stranger.  The report claims that there could be a city bonus for a club winning the Premier League.   But the authors don’t consider London nor the issue of Manchester United’s non localised support – and London and Manchester make up 24 out of 26 PL title winners.   And only three of the Manchester 16 come from Manchester City – a club more associated with Manchester than Manchester United.  And there is no consideration of the downturn in spending from supporters of a rival club from the same city.

Yet this is presented as a serious piece of work, by a serious set of researchers, yet at least as far as it is presented in the Guardian it most certainly is not, since it generalises out from data that only relates to a minority of situations, and offers no consideration of what happens to supporters of rival clubs.

It is just another example of football supporters being treated with contempt; we are so stupid, it seems we can be fed any pap and we’ll believe it.  In reality time and again we are given stories that claim something, but present us with no serious evidence and which if we ever consider them, break down at the first investigation.  No wonder many of us treat the media with such contempt when it deals with football.

11 Replies to “Another serious misuse of football statistics by those who should know better”

  1. Highly dubious……………not you Tony, the “research”!

    It certainly begs the question is Salford one of the most thriving economies in England or is that wealth spread (as you suggest) across Essex, Devon, Surrey etc etc

    Indeed, if we just look at North London, using their rationale a certain part of North London should have benefited hugely over the last 30 years whilst a neighbouring borough would have endured an economic slump for over half a century!!

    Complete rubbish………….and yet, as you say, picked up by a newspaper that claims to be at the cutting edge of analytical journalism.

  2. Given that last nights result was so significant it’s worth noting that we now have 56 points versus last seasons total at this stage of 45. That’s an almost 25% improvement. And there are doubts about Emery?

  3. I find it unbelievable some of the crap that masquerades as journalism in this country.

    The Guardian is now as useful as the Daily Mail / Express.

    They wonder why they are not being bought and their websites struggle – could tell them but they wouldn’t listen.

  4. Gooner S

    “It’s just a bit of journalistic fluff to fill some column inches in The Sports section”

    I thought that was the point of the article?

    Yes it is journalistic ‘fluff’ as you call it, or ‘bollocks’ as we like to call it down our way, which would perhaps be okay in the DAILY STAR, with an accompanying picture of excited Liverpool fans queueing up to buy trips to Mars from a Martian ‘pop-up’ shop, but it isn’t is it?

    It’s in the Guardian masquerading as factual, creditable journalism.

    Or did I miss something?

  5. God luv ya Tony. (just an expression, not a religious statement, lol.)
    You’d have a harder time finding fact based articles re Sport or any other topic for that matter. If you find any, please point them out for us. I can’t even read about the weather without worrying about ‘Killer Storms!’in my neighbourhood or ‘deadly heat’ coming my way as if they’ve targeted me FFS! And I watch football without audio since the match I’m watching and the match the commentators are watching is rarely the same. I sometimes use the audio from the AFC live match if there’s a dodgy call or non-call. Too often the commentators will not change their predetermined narrative in the face of contradictory, slow motion video replay. And this practice is apolitical. Of course The Guardian will mislead if they can; it’s about money. I don’t have any suggestion on how to change this or any solution, just constant disappointment in formerly reliable (and accountable) institutions. But if you continue to do the work, I’ll continue read it since there’s more fact here than most media outlets. The immortal words say “you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows” but in these times I think you might. What’s the forecast Tony?

  6. @gooners72 – I have to agree with every point you made.

    Especially watching football, ANY match between ANY of the teams, the commentators are watching another game with completely different rules to the published ones.

  7. Les Williams @4:49

    Thanks for that. The problem is worse than ever. If I remember my history correctly, Winston S. Churchill said:


    That was pre-internet. How long does it take now?

  8. @Les Williams

    That’s really funny, although you’re giving the ‘expert’ the benefit of a doubt re an attention span.

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