Why the average fan will ignore data and logic when making their picks this year

Jonathan Golbert, an 18-year-old Northeastern freshman from Smithtown, New York, intensely and anxiously watched one of the large screen televisions in the Curry Student Center on Sunday afternoon, as he and a couple hundred fans waited to learn where the Huskies would play in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

“This could be it,” he said, as CBS’ Greg Gumbel announced each team and their first round opponent and location. “Oh! We’re playing Kansas,” he exclaimed with what appeared to be simultaneous excitement and worry after Northeastern was slotted to be a 13-seed playing in Salt Lake City.

“Kansas is tough,” he said. “The good news is they are one of the weakest Kansas teams in a long time.”

Golbert didn’t use data, charts, or sophisticated algorithms to arrive to that claim. His opinion is, as he explained, formed “from watching the games, reading a lot of articles, and listening to a lot of commentaries.”

While data analysis and the use of computational tools such as artificial intelligence and machine learning are becoming ubiquitous across industries, they have yet to find a place with the average sports fan, who, like Golbert, still factor loyalty, and in some cases disdain, for certain teams into their decision-making processes.

“If I had to pick Notre Dame in order to win I would rather lose the bracket,” he said proudly.

Science and its limitations

Sheldon Howard Jacobson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois, has a fascination for NCAA brackets. That’s why he started a site called BracketOdds where he has built a data-driven tool that enables users to have a bracket chosen for them. The site also provides a window into some of the logic Jacobson’s code uses to pick winners and losers throughout the tournament.

But he’s very clear about the limitations of machine learning. “Someone being able to build an algorithm to pick a perfect bracket will never happen,” said Jacobson. “There are limitations.”

Jacobson noted that for him the fun is in the data, not in the games themselves. “I don’t do brackets personally,” he said. “It doesn’t interest me.”

The hunch quotient

Alan Zaremba, an associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern University and the author of the book, The Madness of March: Bonding and Betting with the Boys in Las Vegas, has followed college basketball and its rabid fans, for years. For now, he says, fans still rely on their gut instincts over algorithms.

“They go on hunches,” Zaremba said. “It’s emotional.”

“The idea of letting a machine decide goes against fan emotions and their systems,” he said, referring to the logic or justification sports fans use when picking a game, some of which could be described as pure intuition – or even superstition – such as eating the same number of hot dogs after a victory or not picking a team because of a decision a coach made years ago.

Because of this fan culture, Zaremba doesn’t feel that sites like BrackOdds will be widely adopted by the average fan. Plus, for many, it’s not about scoring a winning bracket and a huge jackpot.

“People get excited about the game because of the game,” Zaremba emphasized. “They’re not in it for the dough. If they are they’re simpletons.”

How far can Northeastern go?

While logic and data clearly point to a Kansas victory of Northeastern this Thursday, no one at Northeastern’s Curry Student Center appeared to agree with that assessment.

“Gotta root for the boys,” said Zach Solo, a 20-year-old sophomore. “They’re a good team. If they get by the first round who knows what can happen the rest of the tournament.”

Golbert, while optimistic, seemed to hedge his bets, indicating he doesn’t see himself picking the Huskies past the first round.

“I want to cut my losses but still feel like I’m supporting the team,” he explained. “There’s definitely a line between being a Northeastern fan and a smart Northeastern fan.”

Solo was not so sure. Despite what all of the data, the experts, and the algorithms may be predicting, he has a different point of view.

“It’s called March Madness for a reason,” he said smiling.

Photo: A sellout crowd at Matthews Arena cheered on the Northeastern men’s basketball team as the Huskies took on the top-ranked Michigan State Spartans on Dec. 19, 2015. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University.