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The mathematics of live fans

The mathematics of live fansWatching FC Bayern Munich being awarded the Champions’ Bowl inside a stadium filled with empty seats is a glimpse of what live sports will be in the immediate future—without fans in the stands. Fans have always been an important component of live sporting action. I wonder if we can ever have a true estimation of what was lost without fans in the stands and how this will affect how the game is played.  

Maybe math is the answer.

Mark Dalliston, in his book ‘Deism: an enlightened view’, wrote: “Everything is explained by math...Math can explain everything.”

If you’ve seen the Denzel Washington classic Remember The Titans, there is a scene there wherein football coach Herman Boone sought the help of the math teacher to understand and predict the tendencies and patterns of a formidable coach he is set to meet next.

Reporters ask for a copy of the score sheet post-game when writing a story, referencing statistics to substantiate claims found in the article the same way fans use statistics to make a reasonable and logical point when arguing.

Math is ubiquitous in sports. Math in sports commands reverence and esteem. It is innate in a competitive activity such as sports to constantly rank everyone and everything from best to worst inside a constantly-shifting hierarchy on the account of recorded and quantifiable attributes. Math is essential for this task.

Who is the best player? Use math. Who performed the worst considering his or her average? Use math. What are the odds of one team winning or losing? Use math. How many minutes should LeBron James play every game if he expects to remain healthy, reliable, and competitive five years from now? Use math. 

There is math for everything in sports—everything, but live fans.

Stadium fans are an interesting lot. They fulfill a certain role in the ecosystem; they are not competitors, but they have a strong influence on the possible turnout of the game. You don’t need fans to start a game, but without live fans, the game feels different even for players. 

In basketball, fans watching in the venue are often referred to as the sixth man. In football, there are ‘ultras’—association football fans considered as most passionate, and at times, unfortunately, very extreme in their show of support that it results in violence.

Up to this point, what we have is mostly anecdotal. I remember watching the Jazz-Bulls finals series and the many times the commentators mention how the Delta Center is one of the loudest – if not the loudest – home court in the NBA. As a fan of Michael Jordan, I am glad this didn’t deter the Chicago Bulls from defeating Utah, twice.  

It hasn’t been done - understanding the impact of live fans on players and the outcome of a match from a statistical point of view. We never talk about ‘fan factor’ from a statistical perspective. The gathering of live, noisy, chanting fans is an experience, something felt and but hasn’t been quantified or measured. I doubt that there was ever a headline that reads ‘The Lakers are 14-0 at the Staples Center when fan cheering is at 130 decibels or higher’. 

Instead, we read about how fans inspired players to rally towards a victory.

Ask Russia goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev when they won against Spain in 2018. Ask Shillong Lajong owner Larsing M. Sawyan to whom does he attribute the first-ever I-League home game win against Air India. His answer: to the 30,000 fans watching the match responsible for creating an electrifying experience that inspired the players to play well. Ask Gareth Bale what triggered the Welsh victory over Slovakia in 2016. His answer: Welsh fans singing the national anthem late in the game. Fans changed the game, but neither they nor their performance was recorded in any stat sheet.

So the next question is this: is it important? I can’t imagine this data drastically altering the sporting landscape, but someone somewhere out there will find this useful and put this to use, especially now that we are living in the era of data analytics. 

If and when someone can finally provide a more elegant mathematical articulation of how live fans affect the players and the game, it will be interesting to have a tour of this previously unchartered territory. That one I am certain.   

Topics: FC Bayern Munich , Champions’ Bowl , Mark Dalliston , Denzel Washington
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