3 Surprising Similarities between Sports Analytics and Accounting

Jacky Levi
May 28, 2023

Like every other extremely popular high schooler, I have always found the numbers behind sports to be fascinating. Stats are another layer to sports that, if used correctly, can be the difference between a winning season and a losing season. It’s easy for anyone; coaches, parents, players, and fans, to get carried away when emotions run high during games. When used correctly, stats are a tool that gives teams a glimpse into a team’s objective performance - one that removes the subjectivity from an otherwise, game of emotion. 

Stat-keeping in sports and accounting may seem like two completely unrelated topics, but they actually have a lot in common. Both involve a set of rules and procedures that are used to measure performance and assess success. In the case of football, statistics are used to track the performance of individual players and teams, while in accounting, financial statements are used to measure the performance of a company. In this blog, we will explore the similarities between football stats and accounting and why accurate stats are important in football.

1. Accuracy in stats 

Balance is fundamental to accounting. Every transaction that occurs in a business must be recorded in a way that ensures that the accounting equation remains balanced. 

Assets = Liabilities + Equity

When analyzing a business, it’s necessary to understand the relationship between assets, liabilities, and equity because it provides insight into the financial health of the company. This equation is used to ensure that the financial statements are accurate. If a company’s balance sheet shows that assets do not equal liabilities and equity, this is a clear indication that there may be errors in the financial statements. If this inconsistency is ignored or overlooked, the person analyzing the company may be led to make incorrect conclusions about the company’s financial performance. 

There are manuals published by the NFHS, NCAA, and NFL on how to record stats. Although there are slight differences between each, they are all mostly the same and they each are designed to have balance in the stats. Although it’s far from exhaustive, I wrote some of the formulas for high school football stat-keeping below. Keep in mind that laterals and fumbles get recorded, or accounted for, differently. 

Passing Yards = Pass Length + Yards After Catch 

Kickoff Yards = Kickoff Length - Kickoff Return

All Purpose Running Yards = QB Scramble Yards + Rushing Yards 

Passing Yards = Receiving Yards

Receiving Yards = Air Yards + Yards After Catch

This principle of balance ensures that stats are an accurate reflection of the players' and teams' performance. If the stats are not balanced, it could lead to incorrect conclusions about the performance of the players and teams. A quick example is with passing and receiving yards. If a team throws for 300 yards during a game, their quarterbacks will be credited with 300 cumulative passing yards for that game; similarly, the receivers must also receive 300 cumulative yards for receiving. 

2. Confirmation Bias

If teams aren’t aware of the true benefits of stats, they usually don’t even realize that they are putting themselves at a disadvantage. The University of Texas - Austin, defines confirmation bias as our tendency to seek out or interpret information that supports our pre-existing beliefs, expectations, or hypotheses. 

Confirmation bias is a natural human tendency. It occurs without us realizing it, regardless of the stats (or data) being present. Another advantage that a team with statistics can enjoy as opposed to a team that doesn’t use statistics is that teams can avoid issues resulting from confirmation bias using objective and consistent criteria. 

Imagine this: you are the head coach for a high school football team, and after working hard all season, your team made it to the state championship game. Your team is down by 5 points on 3rd & goal with just enough time on the clock to run one more play. You have two running backs, RB1 & RB2, which player do you pick to lead your team to victory?

RB1 is your first string in his senior year. He leads the state in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. RB2 has been in the shadow of all of this, but consistent. 

Without stats, I think most wouldn’t put much thought, and give the ball to RB1. A coach with stats might see things differently. You have been using Athlogic throughout the season and in your pre-game report, you noticed this chart.

Chart 1. Comparing the average yards per carry between RB1 & RB2 by the distance to the endzone.

To keep things simple, and so no one tries to get me with this, we’ll assume that both players had enough carries to make all the data statistically significant. From this data, you can see that RB2 gets over twice the yardage per carry in the red zone. RB1 is the better running back when there are more than 20 yards to the goal line. 

You’re still not convinced? There’s a lot on the line - I get it. The chart below shows RB2’s yards per carry broken down by the direction rushed from each play along with the yards after contact. From this chart, plays rushed up the middle have an average of 6 yards per carry. 87% of his rushing yards come after the first contact. 

Chart 2. Chart showing rushing yards and yards after contact in the red zone, broken down by direction of rush. 

I can only speak for myself, but in this hypothetical situation, I know who I am hypothetically giving the ball to, and I’ll give you a hint - It’s not RB1. 

The statistics aren’t there to replace you, or to tell you what to do. The stats are a tool, and just like with tools, it doesn’t matter if you have the best tools that money can buy. If you don’t use them, they are just expensive paperweights. 

3. Advancing the Game

Although cost accounting has been around in business since the 1700s, John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, was one of the first businessmen to leverage modern cost accounting to revolutionize the petroleum industry. While his competitors were keeping track of expenses with elementary methods, applied cost accounting methods to track expenses, optimize efficiency, and identify areas for cost reduction. 

This streamlined operations, helping him achieve economies of scale, and undercut his competitors. This gave him an objective landscape of the market, which he used to take control of the industry as a whole. When his competitors realized the advantages of his cost accounting principles, he already had a sizeable lead which made it tough for them to compete. Ultimately dominating the oil market. 

Rockefeller used accounting as a tool to grow and scale his business. High school football coaches can use statistics to analyze the performance of their team to create better strategies, play calling, and improve their athletes. Fans use stats to compare players and teams and to make predictions about future games. If the stats are not accurate, these decisions and predictions could be incorrect.

The parallels between sports stats and accounting are more than I initially expected - not that I had particularly high expectations beforehand. Both require accuracy, balance, and an objective approach to understanding performance. Just as John D. Rockefeller revolutionized the petroleum industry by using cost accounting, football teams that embrace the power of statistics can gain a competitive edge over their opponents.

By avoiding confirmation bias and using stats as a tool for objective decision-making, coaches can make better-informed choices that maximize their team's potential. Accurate stats not only help improve a team's performance but also elevate the experience for fans, creating a richer and more engaging sports culture. Embracing the power of statistics in sports has the potential to advance the game to new heights, ushering in an era of even more exciting and competitive play. The combination of passion, talent, and data-driven insights will lead teams to victory and create a lasting impact on the world of sports.

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