The rise of fantasy sports has become a true phenomenon, stemming from the larger, ever-expanding intersection of technology and sports. The applications of fantasy analytics and forecasting continue to become increasingly complex, adding a new dynamic to the way that fans watch their sports.

Fantasy sports mostly occur online and are competitions between friends, colleagues, or strangers. Fans draft an imaginary team of real athletes and compete based off of their statistical performance, usually for money.

Projected points and win odds — two key statistical figures — are now updated live online, keeping fans anxiously engaged, as they experience the highs and lows of rapidly fluctuating win probabilities.

U of T’s Sam Maglio, an associate professor of marketing and psychology, recently wrote an article for The Conversation. In it, he discussed the psychological impact of such intensive and dynamic forecasting of fantasy players, and how this can translate to a similar effect on fans in real sports. “When fans see their team’s win likelihood increase — say, from 40% to 50% (it seems more likely that they’ll win because they think the trend is going to continue. They take the evidence from the past) like a player scoring a quick burst of fantasy points — and expect that the trend is going to continue,” he explained in an email to The Varsity.

Maglio specifically wanted to better understand how fans interpret and react to their team’s changing odds of winning. To do this, he conducted an experiment during the Stanley Cup playoffs, informing some fans of their team’s increasing odds of advancing, and others of their decreasing odds — both of which were made up for the sake of the experiment.

“If the probability of victory was said to have risen, people braced themselves for success and bigger bar tabs — even though everyone had the same 20 per cent as the best estimate to go on,” Maglio wrote in the article.   

Maglio noted that these results are consistent with the concept of ‘psychological momentum’ — “a perceptual phenomenon that changes human behaviour and performance” — and that people are likely to take evidence from the past and perceive it to continue in the future. “[It] formed the basis of our predictions for the experiment… if my team’s odds of winning are in motion — headed upward or downward — I tend to expect that those odds will stay that same course for the rest of the matchup,” he explained.

From a business perspective, this means big bucks for sports teams. With the tools available in advanced predictive analytics, teams can precisely adjust ticket prices to match fluctuations in their win projections. A change in a team’s winning odds results in a change in the psychological response of fans, which in turn results in a real-time change in demand. Meeting this demand with adjusted ticket prices — a process known as ‘dynamic pricing’ — is a common strategic response.

Psychological momentum even extends to the actual teams on the field. Maglio noted that although players and coaches aren’t monitoring and using external predictive analytics during games in the same fashion as fans, their in-game decision making and overall game management still stem from their intuitive sense of fluctuations in their chances of winning.

“Just because people — including players and coaches — don’t have concrete figures in front of them doesn’t mean [that] they’re not doing some sort of win-odds calculation in their heads at halftime. They can tell when they’re on a hot streak or when the other team is starting to turn the tides on them, ” Maglio wrote.

“So even without a perfect picture and the latest stats, everyone has some intuitive sense of how the win probabilities have been changing during the game, and based on the results of our research, I’d have every reason to believe that players and coaches would respond similarly.”

If you’ll be one of the almost 100 million people watching Superbowl LIV on February 2, try to look for ways that the teams may adjust their strategy based on the wavering projections and their own perceptions of their win probabilities. Maglio warns to keep a close eye: “If the Chiefs are on the upswing headed into the fourth quarter in the Super Bowl, they’ll probably start changing their tactics, like trying to run out the clock on the 49ers rather than calling riskier plays.”

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