European Football is becoming increasingly predictable as the rich get richer

Football is increasingly looking like a gentrified, unequal society, a new study shows.

Football (that is, the sport that people in America tend to call soccer) has never been more popular and financially lucrative. In Europe alone, football is a multi-billion dollar industry, with top players being sold for well over 100 million dollars. The appeal of football, its supporters say, is that you never know what will happen. Underdog tales can always emerge, and just being the bigger team doesn’t guarantee success. The ball is round and anything is possible… in theory.

But according to one study, being the bigger team does make success much more likely. The new study, which used a computer model to look at football games in major European leagues over the past 26 years, found that over time, football games have become more and more predictable and the inequality in teams has become more pronounced.

“On the one hand, playing football has become a high-income profession and the players are highly motivated; on the other hand, stronger teams have higher incomes and therefore afford better players leading to an even stronger appearance in tournaments that can make the game more imbalanced and hence predictable,” the study reads.

The computer model worked on some 88,000 matches played since 1993, trying to predict whether the home or away team would win based on their performance in previous games. The home advantage, once prevalent in all areas of football, has almost vanished, in all countries. It’s not clear exactly why this has happened, though it could be due to non-football reasons: transportation has improved substantially, minimizing the challenges and effort required to play away.

The computer model, researchers say, is simpler than most existing algorithms, such as the ones developed by betting houses to calculate the odds of winning. The advantage of this is that you can input much more data into it and go back further in time with the analysis, something that more sophisticated models would struggle with.

So how much more predictable have matches become? For instance, the model could correctly predict the winner of a Bundesliga game (the top German league) with 60% success in 1993 — in 2019, the figure had grown to 80%. Overall, the model was able to predict results correctly roughly 75% of the time in 2019. Researchers stress that this is not because there was more data to train the models, but it is because indeed, football has become more predictable.

Football as a gentrified society

Initially, this came as a surprise.

Researchers were expecting that more money and higher stakes would make the game more competitive, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, as the leagues mature, they resemble a gentrified society, with the underlying inequality bringing more and more predictability. In particular, researchers have found that the points in a given season were distributed among teams much less evenly. They plotted this point distribution in a similar way to how economists plot income or wealth disparity between members of society — using the Gini coefficient. While there were some exception years, in general, leagues are becoming more and more unequal, with the top clubs gathering more points year after year. This echoes the notion that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”, the researchers write.

“It seems football as a sport is emulating society in its somewhat ‘gentrification’ process, i.e. the richer leagues are becoming more deterministic because better teams win more often; consequently, becoming richer; allowing themselves to hire better players (from a talent pool that gets internationally broader each year); becoming even stronger; and, closing the feedback cycle, winning even more matches and tournaments; hence more predictability in more professional and expensive leagues,” the study reads.

When this growing inequality is coupled with the disappearance of the home-field advantage, a plausible theory emerges regarding the growing predictability of football. Decades ago, the home advantage granted weaker teams playing at home a boost, making it more likely that they can win even against stronger teams — at least once in a while. Now, it seems that stronger teams simply win more, regardless of whether it’s home or away.

However, the researchers emphasize that they did not investigate the direct cause for football’s growing predictability.

Ultimately, with the richest teams pouring more and more money (often, “dirty money” or money from questionable sources), this trend is likely to accentuate. The “beautiful game” may be beautiful to watch — but in other ways, it is increasingly not.

The study was published in Royal Society Open Science.

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