Eyes Wide Shut: Awareness is a Virtue in Real World Sport

I was at a WWE event the other night and found myself thinking about marketing (as I interestingly, often do when thinking about WWE). WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment, is the largest provider of wrestling events and its Chairman, Vince McMahon, is the P.T. Barnum of the modern age. It has been open knowledge for the past twenty years that World Wresting Entertainment matches are choreographed. The fights are planned in detail to maximize audience entertainment and soap opera storylines. Fans follow the WWE Superstars as fans of other sports follow their stars and many consider it a legitimate form of athleticism. However, WWE is marketed as entertainment not as sport.

Most WWE viewers have come to terms with the fact that WWE Superstars are more actor than athlete in the ring. When we take a step back, though, how often do fans of any sport turn a biased, blind eye to the sport they love?

I’m reminded of an older paper in the SSRN eLibrary, Winning Isn’t Everything: Corruption in Sumo Wrestling. Mark Duggan and Steven D. Levitt provide statistical evidence that cheating occurs in the other time-honored wrestling tradition – Japanese sumo wrestling. The paper identifies an incentive structure where sumo wrestlers on the bubble win (and get promoted) disproportionately to their efforts. It also suggests that a future loss between the same competitors may be a partial payment in kind.

The form of deception is different in the WWE and Sumo Wrestling, but not by much. WWE concedes that their “fights” are not an honest display of competition. Sumo wrestling is still presented as fair, but given the evidence in the paper it seems naïve for a fan to believe that there is no preemptive planning to their competitions.


If this talk of manipulation in sports is unfamiliar you, you may be also be unaware of a little nonprofit known as FIFA and the event they organize known as the World Cup. The 2014 FIFA World Cup starts today and a paper recently posted to the SSRN eLibrary got us thinking about the manipulation that has been going on within FIFA. There’s no evidence that the teams themselves have been incentivized to cheat, but the draw in a tournament can have an incredible impact on the
outcome and it is apparently subject to an ever-changing set of rules.

FIFA has had its share of negative press lately and the future doesn’t look much better despite significant revenue increases, or maybe because of them. Fans of the World Cup are becoming more and more aware of the role that FIFA is playing in affecting the outcome of the tournament. With Fox agreeing to pay $425 million for the American rights to the next two World Cups (ESPN paid $325 million less just two World Cups ago), is FIFA becoming more focused on the money than the WWE is? Even if we lovers of the sport hate to admit it, have they always been? Exploitation for money does not make sport solely entertainment, but it does corrupt a beautiful game.

Zen Buddhism has a concept called shoshin.  Translated, it means “beginner’s mind” and asks people to reflectively approach new ideas, even after extensive study, with the non-biased outlook of a beginner. There is a difference between a lack of preconceptions and an ignorance of reality. The knowledgeable viewer understands the difference.

It’s not enough to love a sport. We need to be aware of the possibility there is deception or corruption in the system. We shouldn’t dismiss it, but maybe we need to reexamine a few of the organizations running them.

Me? I used the Bayesian Approach (and lots of respect for that guy Neymar) to go with the home team.

Vamos! Força Brasil! 


6/13/2014: Stumbled upon this very timely NYT piece –
Fixed Soccer Matches Cast Shadow Over World Cup

A soccer referee named Ibrahim Chaibou walked into a bank in a small South African city carrying a bag filled with as much as $100,000 in $100 bills, according to another referee traveling with him. The deposit was so large that a bank employee gave Mr. Chaibou a gift of commemorative coins bearing the likeness of Nelson Mandela.

Later that night in May 2010, Mr. Chaibou refereed an exhibition match between South Africa and Guatemala in preparation for the World Cup, the world’s most popular sporting event. Even to the casual fan, his calls were suspicious — he called two penalties for hand balls even though the ball went nowhere near the players’ hands… [MORE]

Update 6/13/2014:  Also, some uncertain calls in the first Brazil-Croatia World Cup game opener. via tbray.org