What I Learned in the Midwest

Six years ago, my wife and I moved to Fargo, North Dakota for my job at Concordia College across the Red River in Moorhead, Minnesota. Growing up in Bergen County, New Jersey, my view of the country looked a lot like the famous 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from 9th Avenue.”
New Yorker's View of the World

As a kid, a friend’s father tried to convince us that North Dakota didn’t exist (a take on the Bielefeld Conspiracy gag) and it seemed somewhat plausible. Even as I prepared to move, most of my understanding of Minnesota was informed by The Mighty Ducks and, like most people, what little I knew about North Dakota came from the Coen Brothers’ movie, Fargo. In other words, I was profoundly ignorant about the people, the culture, and the geography of our new home.

Six years later, in early June of this year, my wife and I packed up and moved back east to Saratoga Springs, NY for my new position at Skidmore College. In that time, I have had the pleasure of teaching many remarkable students and working alongside some wonderful colleagues. We have made lifelong friendships with people who are smart, progressive, and cosmopolitan, and who violate nearly all of the stereotypes of Midwesterners (except for calling soda “pop” — that’s actually real).

I’ve learned an incredible amount during these years and have come away with some perspective that I don’t think I would’ve had if I’d never left the East Coast. Here are four important things I’ve learned from living in the Midwest:

1. There is no Midwest. Ohio is different from Michigan, which is different from Minnesota. But Grand Rapids, MN in the Iron Range is also different from Minneapolis. Indeed, some of the identity of being an Iron Ranger is constructed in opposition to the culture of people from “The Cities.” While most Minnesotans and North Dakotans I know identify as Midwestern, evidence shows the percentages identifying as Midwestern are lower than for people living in Indiana. In my experience, North Dakotans especially are more likely to specify that they’re from the “Upper Midwest.”

But when it comes to understanding “the culture of the Midwest,” the divides of urban and rural, major city and small city are far more profound than the differences between Midwest and East Coast. The cultural difference between Chicago and NYC is smaller than the cultural distance from Minot, ND and St. Paul, MN. The caveat I would offer is that many urban dwellers in the Midwest are only a generation or two removed from a farm and tend to have greater familiarity with rural life than I have encountered in the East.

An important lesson to an ignorant East Coaster like myself is that “The Midwest” is far from monolithic.

2. If the American Dream is alive anywhere, it’s in the Midwest. With a little help from a 577 page surprise bestseller by a French economist with a name we’re stilling learning to pronounce correctly, we’re in the midst of a national conversation about inequality. It is now well-established that income and wealth inequalities are as great as they have been since the Gilded Age and that the extent of inequality is far greater in the U.S. than in Europe. Likewise (or perhaps consequently), the United States has much lower social mobility than Europe or Canada. Many social scientists and political figures alike fear that the toxic combination of high inequality and low social mobility seriously jeopardizes the dual promises of meritocracy and middle class prosperity that make up the American Dream.

But social scientists have also shown the United States is not uniformly unequal. As the Equality of Opportunity Project has shown, the states of the western Midwest (WI, MN, ND, SD, NE, IA, MT) are among the most equal and socially mobile in the country (see figure).
Social Mobility

Though I grew up with it, when I go back to New York or New Jersey now, I’m stunned by both the concentrated poverty and the extreme wealth. Fargo, a city of almost 200,000, has a booming economy and one of the largest Microsoft campuses and still can’t support a Banana Republic. Meanwhile, nine of the forty-five Gucci stores in America are within 20 miles of each other in the New York area. Of course, major Midwestern cities, like Minneapolis, have greater wealth and poverty, but they simply cannot compare to the intergenerational durability of wealth and permanence of poverty in either the Northeast or, especially, the South. If the American Dream of hard work and upward mobility is alive anywhere today, it’s in the Midwest (actually, it’s in Denmark or Norway where social mobility is much greater).

3. The Midwest has a deserved chip on its shoulder. The nation’s centers of power are on the coasts. The economy and the press are in New York. The government and military are in D.C. The culture industry is in L.A. And over half the nation’s population lives within 50 miles of a coast (39% live in coastal counties representing less than 10% of the country’s land (http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/population.html)). As a result, the Midwest (especially the Upper Midwest) is too often neglected. A snowflake falls in Midtown Manhattan and CNN flies into crisis mode. It takes serious devastation (or an absolutely massive oil boom) for the Coastal press to take notice of little ol’ North Dakota.

One of the more cringe-inducing experiences in Fargo is seeing a visiting band or comedian take the stage and make a hackneyed joke along the lines of “Wow. I’m in Fargo. It sure is cold!” And here’s the thing: the crowd eats it up! Because it’s a form of recognition. All that talk about the “real America” from the likes of Sarah Palin? Those are desperate cries that “hey, we count, too!” Especially in places like Fargo, what I’d call “place entrepreneurs” engage in active PR campaigns to show that life isn’t as bad as you think way out here (e.g., the #ilovefargo hashtag on Twitter started by a local urban promoter).

There’s a defensiveness in the region that stems from a real neglect and a feeling of disempowerment. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that feeling of disempowerment is somewhat counteracted by the highly disproportional representation that these largely low population areas have in Congress (Obamacare’s “public option,” for example, was taken out of the bill by seven Senators representing 3.6% of the U.S. population).

4. It is a Christian country in the Upper Midwest. An acquaintance, a mother of two small children, told me a story about her move from Connecticut to Fargo. She enrolled her kids in a non-religiously-affiliated day care in Fargo and when she picked them up during the middle of the day, she found that they were saying a prayer before snack time. None of the parents seemed to have a problem with it. She pointed out that in CT, the parents would have flipped out. Now, it’s not because everybody in North Dakota is a pious Christian, but because Christianity is so assumed as a part of everyday life that having a quick prayer shouldn’t bother anybody. The level of diversity in CT makes that unthinkable. As one of the chaplains at Concordia College once told me, “this is Christendom.” It does not operate at the level of aggressive evangelism (in fact, most people I knew are progressive Lutherans). Rather, Christian is taken to be the default category.

The two facts that define New York and New Jersey where I grew up are incredible diversity and extreme inequality. I grew up with a lot of secular Jews and, during the December holiday season, the schools took great pains to have as many menorahs as Santas. Like the rest of the country, all parts of the Midwest are becoming more racially and religiously diverse. So, Christendom is in decline even the Upper Midwest, but there is not the public secularity of the East or the West coasts.


To many Midwesterners, these points may be blindingly obvious, but they are things I couldn’t see as an East Coaster. From my conversations with other coastal folk, I’m not alone. So, thank you to my Midwestern friends who put up with a loudmouthed New Jerseyan and taught me more about my country. To my East Coast friends and family, let’s try to reject that New Yorker cover vision of America.

Clearing Cap Space

Apologies to ThickCulture readers for all the sports talk recently. I’ll get more sociological again soon. I promise. I wrote the following as an email to my pal and historian of American sports, Dan Hawkins, but thought I’d post it here to get a wider response.

I’ve been following the latest NBA free agent rumors and pretty much every other sentence on ESPN is “clearing cap space.” I certainly remember a lot of talk about “cap space” going back to 2008 when teams started drooling over LeBron’s availability in 2010. But I don’t recall much talk about it before then. If memory serves, in the 1990s, people tended to talk about “blockbuster trades” more.

I have several hypotheses to help explain this observation:

1) I’m wrong. Perhaps I’m just more tuned into NBA post-2008, but I kind of doubt it. I feel less tuned in to the NBA than I was 1990-2002.

2) It’s a media effect. Maybe cap space was always a big issue, but because ESPN and its ilk have created a bigger “newshole” for sports coverage, they can cover acquisitions issues more closely. It seems like Bill Simmons and others responded to/created market demand for this sort of trade and signing speculation.

3) It’s a product of the superstar era. The modern game relies on superstars to a greater extent and so free agent signings have become more important means by which teams improve. Thus, “freeing cap space” to sign free agent has become a more common tactic.

4) NBA rules have changed. Here, I’m way out of my depth. Have there been changes to the regulations surrounding acquisitions that have made free agent signings more desirable?

Thoughts?

Is there Such a Thing as a “Tinder for Democracy”?

I have an curiosity about Tinder (strictly academic — I’m happily married), a dating app that lets you find singles (or “singles”) in your immediate vicinity and allows you to quickly zero in on the one you find most attractive.

An article in BetaBeat details how the site works:

You pick a gender (male, female or both), then decide how far or close you want them to be (10 to 100 miles away) and how old (18 to 50+.) It’s like ordering pizza. You can also write a tagline to describe yourself and add a few more photos for people who want to learn more about you(r looks) before making their choice.

Swipe right if you approve of someone’s appearance. Swipe left if you’re not into them. If you reject someone, the poor schmuck won’t be able to contact you. But if you both swipe right, you’ll be able to chat up a storm until you make plans for drinks at a mutually agreeable location.

What fascinates me about Tinder is that it’s a simple, elegant app that does one thing, facilitate hooking up. Across the world, organizations and city governments are engaging in “hackathons” designed to build apps to help solve civic problems. The White house just concluded their National Day of Civic Hacking where programmers/coders in 103 cities set to work on solving civic problems. The coders created an impressive set of apps and sites designed to address pressing local and regional issues. However, none of these projects, as important as they are will have the social impact of a “hookup app.”

I’m afraid our efforts to change political dynamics using social media is still reckoning with a question posted in a tweet by Jeff Jarvis:

Soccer Isn’t Popular in the US Because the Wrong People Watch it

If you listen to traditional media channels, you may be surprised to learn that soccer is actually a pretty big deal in the United States. Take for instance, Stephen Dubner’s usually engaging and informative Freakonomics radio, who trotted out a tired canard about how unpopular soccer is in the United States. The story starts with the ludicrous notion that the World Cup is unpopular because it isn’t American football.

It’s no secret that soccer continues to lag behind other U.S. sports in viewership and enthusiasm. For instance, 111.5 million Americans sat down to watch Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014. Meanwhile, only 24.3 million watched the 2010 World Cup Final.

I believe this is known as a “straw man” argument. Soccer is not as popular as American football? Nothing is as popular as American football! The 24.3. million people tuned in to the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup (a 41 percent increase over the 2006 cup, by the Way) is comparable to Game 7 of the 2013 NBA finals which captured 26 million viewers and more than the final game of the 2013 World Series which captured 19.2 million viewers. By contrast, it is much great than the 8.2 million that watched the last game of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Finals. By Dubner’s ludicrous standard, no sport is popular in the United States because it isn’t American football.

Later on, Dubner cites a Harris poll noting that only three percent of Americans cite soccer as their favorite sport compared to 30 percent who cite Pro Football and 11 percent who cite College Football. More straw man. That same poll reports that only 4 percent cite hockey as their favorite sport and 7 percent cite basketball. Not to mention that this was an online poll conducted in English.. but we’ll get to that.

This is why a more interesting conversation about soccer in the United States has shifted from “soccer isn’t popular” to “soccer is only popular every four years.” Political Scientist Andrei Markovitz talks of the Olypianization of soccer, whereby Americans tune in to the big event (World Cup) every four years and ignore the sport in the interim (kinda like American politics.. sorry couldn’t resist). But even that isn’t true… the landscape is shifting rapidly, only it’s a little hard to tell because soccer is so fragmented.

First, soccer is a global game so it’s played all over the world. Second, the way soccer works is that there are really two leagues, one based on clubs and one based on country. The biggest event for countries is this month’s World Cup, but national teams play in tournaments between World Cups. There are regional tournaments aside from qualification for the World Cup itself. In the Central American, Caribbean and North American region — CONCACAF, there’s a tournament called the Gold Cup. In South American it’s called Copa Libertadores America, in Africa it’s the African Cup of Nations, and so on… In the US, these tournaments do pretty well. The CONCACAF gold cup does respectable, if not spectacular, ratings on TV in the United States. In 2013, 4.9 million people watched the final between the US and Panama. The 2012 Euro Cup averaged over 1 million viewers on ESPN, double that of 2008.

The other type of competition in world soccer is league competitions. Here, soccer is gaining ground as well. If you compare the TV ratings of any one soccer league to traditional US sports, they don’t fare well. In the 2012 regular season, the NBA average a rating of 3.3 (roughly between 3-4 million US households). That’s a pretty strong compared to the ratings of our domestic soccer league (Major League Soccer – MLS’s). MLS’s meager ratings of between 100,000 and 300,000 households seems small. But the soccer space in the US is divided between a number of leagues. So to be fair, you add MLS’ 200,000 viewers to the 500,000 to 700,000 that watch the English Premiere League on Saturday mornings and the 800,000 to 1,000,000 that watch the Mexican League (LIGA MX) and soccer on a regular basis begins to approach the NBA in magnitude.

So why the view that the sport is irrelevant, even among people who should know better? The perception that soccer is “small time” in the US sports landscape is driven by two key factors. One, its popularity is fragmented as I’ve already discussed, so there’s not one league to focus on, bur rather a multitude of “foreign” leagues to discuss. But I think the other explanation is more pernicious, its perception comes for society’s sustained marginalization of “foreigners,” particularly Mexican immigrants in the United States. It is a means of drawing boundaries of “Americanness” around sports. Unwittingly, it is a way of identifying based on identity groups that suggest race and ethnic categorization, but do not explicitly state it.

Most telling in the Freakonomics radio piece is this throwaway line where Dubner’s doubts the prospect of soccer becoming as popular as American football.. as if that were the standard:

let’s be honest, it probably won’t. Many of the people who are most fanatical about the sport in the US have some kind of tie to Europe or South America or Africa.

This is intended to suggest that only those with close ties to “foreigners” appreciate the game.. a fallacy that need it’s own unpacking. But let’s take this at face value. Does he realize how many people he is talking about? There are roughly 50 million Latinos in the United States, many of whom “have strong ties” to soccer loving countries, primarily Mexico. I’m sure a smart guy like Dubner knows that Mexico is actually in North America so the exclusion of Mexico must be because it doesn’t fit the narrative they are trying to tell about the unpopularity of the sport.

Here’s the problem: Soccer is enjoyed by people who inhabit the United States, but because many of those people may be first or second generation immigrants, and in many cases many not speak English or have English as a primary language, it’s not culturally relevant to include in debates about the popularity of sport. Close to 5 million people in the US watched the Liga MX (Mexican soccer league) final between Leon and Pachuca, a number that compares favorably with the ratings for MLB playoff games, but it’s irrelevant because either it was watched in Spanish or watched by Spanish-speakers, I’m not sure which.

Sports media constantly refer to a “big four” American sports (Football, Basketball, Baseball and Hockey). Soccer when mentioned is still talked about as a foreign entity. A few days ago ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon opined that US National Soccer Team coach Jurgen Klinsman to “get the hell out of America” because he suggested Kobe Bryant should not be given a contract extension based on past performance. The inference was that this foreigner shouldn’t be commenting on American games.

YouTube Preview Image

So if a person on US soil watches a game in Spanish, are they a foreigner? Are they tuning in to a sport broadcast in a foreign language and that’s what makes it foreign? This narrative of a “big four” underscores a troubling assumption. A sport is only truly “popular” in the United States if English-speaking, native born people follow it. When they do, then we can call it an “American sport.” I’d argue that there is a deep cultural marginalization going on when the preferred sport of the largest-minority ethnic group in the United States is viewed as marginal because it’s not viewed by “the wrong people.” To say people don’t follow soccer in the United States is a veiled way of saying that it’s not viewed by people that matter.

The sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has a great term for what I think is going on: white habitus. This is the idea that the “separate residential and culture life” (103) of Whites creates a:

“racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ racial taste, perceptions, feelings, and emotions and their views on racial matters” (104)

A habitus that reinforces notions of what cultural norms and tastes are “American” and which are “foreign” is reinforced by this social and cultural isolation. To personally not like the game isn’t evidence of cultural bias, but arguing that the sport isn’t popular even when there is evidence to the contrary, suggests an ignorance derived from cultural isolation. Commentators on traditional media outlets (ESPN and FOX, for instance) as a space of cultural life reinforces the idea that to be American means to follow some sports and not others. Mike Wilbon is paid to “act a fool” for lack of a better term, but that doesn’t mean that he’s being culturally arrogant when he claims to know what constitutes an “American” sport. Things are changing however and I suspect that if four year’s time, when the 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia, I won’t be compelled to write a post like this.

The Republican’s Latino Problem

Danny Vinik at the New Repubic has an interesting piece that makes the claim that the Republican Party’s problem with Latinos rest less on immigration reform and more on social spending and persistent messaging that is perceived as hostile to Latinos. The problem is more with the party’s base than with the party leadership:

The Brookings/PRRI poll found that 50 percent of Republicans believe immigrants are a burden on the country, compared to just 44 percent who say they strengthen the nation. On the other hand, 73 percent of Democrats say that immigrants strengthen the country.

This statistic highlights a dilemma for the party, appeal to a big chunk of the party base that is hostile to immigrants while attracting those immigrants to begin with. In the past, this dilemma was resolved by parties through patronage. David Roediger’s brilliant book, the Wages of Whiteness, tells of the patronage system as a ladder of opportunity for Irish immigrants, one many found more preferable than partnering with blacks to agitate for better wages. Hence, they chose the “wages of Whiteness” over actual wages. Neither the Republicans or the Democrats have patronage to give. I’m skeptical that an “improvement of manners,” to quote Richard Rorty, would do much to change the political equation.

In Memory of Yuri Kochiyama

You may have heard that long-time civil rights activist and Asian American icon Yuri Kochiyama passed away earlier this week at the age of 93. Readers can learn more details about her amazing life through boted Asian American scholar Diana Fujino’s biography Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama. Prominent Asian American blog Reappropriate also has links to several other articles from major media outlets about her passing.

Yuri Kochiyama, © ColorLines magazine

The biography and articles highlight how she grew up in the Los Angeles area and had a seemingly normal middle-class life. All of that changed after the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. As history records, this eventually resulted in 120,000 Japanese Americans (two-thirds of them being U.S. citizens) having their constitutional rights revoked and incarcerated, just based on their Japanese ancestry, in dozens of prison camps across the U.S., without any due process whatsoever.

Among those imprisoned were Yuri and her family and this experience forever changed her perspective on the state of race relations, racism, and the overwhelming need for social justice in the U.S. She eventually married a Japanese American GI and moved to Harlem, New York City. There, she befriended a young Black nationalist named Malcolm X and in the course of her friendship, galvanized her determination to work toward social equality and justice on behalf of her community. She was there when Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965.

Thereafter, she became known for actively participating in the movements for ending the Viet Nam War, Puerto Rican independence (highlighted by being part of the group that occupied the Statue of Liberty in 1977), and for Japanese American reparations. In her later years in Oakland, CA, she kept up her activism and social justice work, particularly around the fight against racial profiling and rounding up of Arab and Muslim Americans in the aftermath of 9/11, as detailed in the excellent documentary “Lest We Forget” that highlighted the similarities between Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and Arab & Muslim Americans after 9/11. Here at my institution, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, our Asian American student center is named the “Yuri Kochiyama Cultural Center” on her behalf.

For me personally, Yuri Kochiyama was a hero and an inspiration. Like Yuri, I grew up in a predominantly White community and was entrenched in an assimilationist environment. I did not care about my roots as an Asian American, an immigrant, or a person of color — I just wanted to fit in and be like everybody else around me. In doing so, I was ignorant of all the racial injustices that had been perpetrated against people like me throughout U.S. and world history and that was still taking place all around me in different ways.

It wasn’t until my later years in college and after I started studying Sociology and Asian American Studies that I finally woke up, opened my eyes, reclaimed my identity, and pledged myself to do what I could to fight for racial equality and justice. That’s when I first learned about Yuri Kochiyama. She represented not just someone who was determined to draw on her personal experiences of racism to fight on behalf of others in similar situations, but as an Asian American woman, she stood in stark contrast to the stereotypical images of Asian American women as meek, submissive, exotic, and hypersexualized “geishas” and “China dolls.”

In other words, she gave all of us — men and women, Asian American or not — a different example of what Asian Americans, particularly women, are capable of. It is these examples and memories of Yuri Kochiyama as a strong, determined, committed, and inclusive activist and Asian American woman that I will carry forth with me.

How Healthy is Your Democracy?

If you’re not busy and are interested in democratic outcomes, you should really read this important piece by Ben Page and Martin Gilens.

The authors test four preeminent theories of democratic influence in which different actors have disproportionate influence in the American political system (average voters, economic elites, general interest groups and business oriented interest groups). Here’s the takeaway:

Economic elite policy preferences strongly correlate with “average” citizen policy preferences, but aggregated interest groups preferences do not. Business interest group influence does not always correlate with economic elite influence (economic elites want all government spending reduced and business interest groups want spending on their areas of influence).

When it comes of policy outcomes, economic elites and interest groups have the most influence…

a proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favor) is adopted only about 18 percent of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favor) is adopted about 45 percent of the time. Similarly, when support for policy change is low among interest groups (with five groups strongly opposed and none in favor) the probability of that policy change occurring is only .16, but the probability rises to .47 when interest groups are strongly favorable (see the bottom two panels of Figure 1.)

This is an empirical confirmation of my “NCAA Tournament” view of American politics. The “3 seed” usually beats the “14th seed,” but not always. A good way of measuring democratic health is how often “bracket busters” occur.

Search for a New Journal Editor – Journal of Integrated Social Sciences

The Journal of Integrated Social Sciences (JISS) is searching for a new Political Science editor. The journal is a web-based, peer-reviewed international journal committed to the scholarly investigation of social phenomena.

In particular, JISS aims to predominantly publish work within the following social science disciplines: Psychology, Political Sciences, Sociology, and Gender Studies. A further goal of JISS is to encourage work that unites these disciplines by being either (a) interdisciplinary, (b) holistically oriented, or (c) captive of the transformative (developmental) nature of social phenomena. Aside from the theoretical implications of a particular study, we are also interested in serious reflections upon the specific methodology employed – and its implications on the results. JISS encourages undergraduate and graduate students to submit their best work under the supervision of a faculty sponsor. More details can be found at www.jiss.org.

General responsibilities include:

• The day to day running of the journal political science editorial office, including managing article peer review, liaison with authors, editing of articles, and preparation of editorial copy.
• Contributing to strategic development of the Journal
• Attracting submissions and themed issue proposals to the journal to ensure continued relevance and quality of content
• Promotional activities, including attending conferences

To make an application, you will need to send a statement outlining your reasons for seeking the position, and overall objectives as political science editor of JISS.

To discuss further or submit an application, please contact Dr. Jose Marichal (current Political Science Divisional Editor of JISS) ~ marichal@clunet.edu.

Making Sense of the Madness

The following post is by Ryan Larson ’14, a senior sociology major at Concordia College. He loves sports of all kinds, plays jazz sax, and will begin a graduate program in sociology in the fall.

With the NCAA’s Men’s Basketball Tournament starting today, the media are alight with predictions as to who will cut down the nets April 7th. The annual phenomenon of penciling in the winners in tens of millions of brackets has a new twist this year: a billion dollar prize. The grand prize is being offered by Quicken Loans, the Detroit mortgage lender, with the backing of Warren E. Buffett, to anyone who fills out a perfect 2014 tournament bracket. The prize money will be paid out in 40 annual payments of $25 million, or a one-time lump sum of $500 million. However, how likely is a perfect bracket to surface?

Dunkin' Robot

In all likelihood, it won’t. No record of a perfect bracket has surfaced to date, and the advent of Internet-based bracket filling makes this much easier to track. For example, in the 16 years of the ESPN online bracket challenge, not one has been perfect (this also holds for the other Internet-based hosts). Jeff Berge, Professor of Mathematics at DePaul University says the odds of picking a perfect bracket randomly is 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 (the probability of getting 63 out of 63 right is the product of the probability of getting each one right, which for a coin flip is 50 percent). If everyone on earth filled out 100 brackets, it would theoretically take 13 million years to get a perfect bracket. In sum, the prediction worth putting much credence in is the notion that Buffett won’t have to part with his billion.

However, not all NCAA March Madness contests are a 50/50 coin flip. A no. 1 seed has never lost to a no. 16 seed, which makes these games easier to predict correctly than the Final Four contests. Incorporating just this one piece of information, University of Minnesota Professor of Biostatistics Brad Carlin put the odds at more like “1 in 128 billion.” This estimate is based solely on the probabilities of correct predictions in each round: the probability of calling a first-round game correctly ranges from 51 percent for the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game to 100 percent for the No. 1 vs. No. 16; and that second-round games can be called with 65 percent accuracy. The figures are 60 percent for Sweet Sixteen games and 50 percent for every game from the Elite Eight through the final. To put this in perspective, your odds of being killed by a vending machine are higher than picking a perfect bracket at even with the incorporation of these conditions.

All hope is not lost (although it’s pretty close to it). Implementing statistical modeling techniques on historical tournament data can help increase your chances of picking games correctly (however, at a very modest rate). Arguably the most popular model is that of former New York Times, now ESPN prognosticator Nate Silver. Silver, and his team at fivethirtyeight, are in their fourth year of building a model to correctly pick the winners of the March Madness contests. The model is primarily based (weighted at 5/7 of the model) of a composite of computer college basketball rankings. These computer based rankings are combined with two human based metrics (2/7 of the model): the NCAA selection committee’s S-Curve and preseason rankings from the Associated Press and the coaches (used as an indicator for “underlying player and coaching talent”). Additionally, Silver and his team adjust for injuries and player suspensions (using a statistic called win shares) and travel distance. Silver then simulates the tournament thousands of times to obtain predicted probabilities of each team advancing in each round (interactive graphic with the final model can be found here).

What other factors influence a win probability? Other inquiry has backed up Silver’s notion that rankings matter, and that season performance (wins (particularly away wins), offensive scoring) and historical team performance (final four appearances, championships) also can lend some predictive insight. Ken Pomeroy’s predictive rankings are also very popular (and also incorporated into Silver’s model), although details of his methods are hidden behind a paywall. His models highlight the importance of strength of schedule as an important factor in the equation. Additionally, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI), created by Alok Pattani and Dean Oliver, accounts for the final score, pace of play, site, strength of opponent and absence of key players in every Division I men’s game (a new addition to silver’s model this year). However, the inclusion of these metrics into a regression equation rarely gets you more predictive prowess than a coin toss (R2=.5).

Although modeling could help you gain valuable insight into your office bracket pool, it will not lead to a perfect bracket without a large amount of luck coming your way. Although sports do have a large amount of systematic variation, the inclusion of a good amount of random variation is what makes both prediction difficult and athletic contests beloved. When filling out your brackets this year, data driven analysis should give you leg up wouldn’t have had otherwise. Listen to what the fox has to say. (For further reading: predictive analytics are also used to predict which teams will be selected to the tournament on Selection Sunday, with surprising accuracy).

Olympic Hockey Semi-Finals Update

The following is a guest post by Concordia College sociology major Ryan Larson ’14 and continues his series predicting Olympic hockey results.

With the semi-finals set, I have indicated where I got predictions right and wrong. Keep in mind these are probabilities, and upsets are common in Olympic hockey (1980 anyone?). Recall that the models, at best, explained just under a third of the variance in probabilities. Therefore, getting more than 50% of the games correct would be a case of the model outperforming itself. These are probabilistic statements, and in the case of the Finland Russia game, we would expect each team to each win 50 games were 100 games between them to be played (In sum, it is no surprise that Finland won the game). Also, Slovenia’s defeat of Austria would have 30 times if 100 games were played (in theory), and that game Tuesday morning happened to be one of them. On the other hand, Latvia’s win was a bit more impressive considering their lack of NHL talent. Furthermore, the models are built to explain medal wins, not necessarily qualification playoffs.

In the following bracket, correct predictions are highlighted and incorrect forecasts are marked in red. Additionally, teams who were eliminated are crossed out. In terms of the semi-finals, Sweden’s probability of advancing to the gold medal game marginally increased with Finland’s defeat of host nation Russia. Predicting such rare events (Olympic medal wins), off of small sample sizes (only 4 previous games allowed NHL talent to participate), in a game with a lot of randomness is a difficult endeavor.

Semi-Finals