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Back in what now seems like a different world – the 1980s, when football was played behind steel fences, moustaches were considered stylish and a trip to the match cost you a few quid and left you smelling like you’d spent two hours in a men’s toilet – football betting was as often as not based on instinct rather than analysis of sets of information that could support intelligent bets.
It was not even possible to watch a lot of football. Only one game a week was televised on ITV’s The Big Match – with highlights in the evening filling in some of the blanks. The smart punter did not have much football data to support his bets, relying instead on newspaper reports and the basic info the league table provided: wins, draws, losses and goals for and against. Individual player statistics were also similarly sparse, with goals scored about the only thing you could find: the “assist” had not even been invented yet.
The intelligent punter had to put together his own data, perhaps keeping track of trends – how many games in a row had Arsenal gone without conceding more than one goal (often a lot!) – on his own charts and papers to try and outsmart the bookmaker. Beating the odds was a challenge one had to almost entirely put together oneself, with very little data available before the days of the internet and before the data-driven world of American sport crossed the Atlantic to influence football data and betting.
Good-bye Betting on a Hunch, Hello Data-Betting
In 2014, the situation could hardly be more different than three decades ago. There is more information out there available for free than one perhaps could consume in a 1,000 lifetimes, even just on the Premier League alone. Every player’s statistics are tracked down to the last blade of grass covered, the angle of passes and the number of lost possessions. Trends on team performances are readily available at the click of the button.
Of course, the flipside is that the odds-makers also have more information to work with than in the 1980s. They are smarter, too. So in some ways, not too much has changed – while you can now avail yourself of reams of data to help in your football betting, you still need to use your own analysis and at times your own instincts to mine through all of the information out there on football and place an intelligent bet.
A Blessing in Disguise for Bookmakers?
Bookies also use the data to their advantage in another important way: by placing the stats on their site, they entice bettors to wager on odds they may not have felt so confident about. All major odds-makers rely on this now, with large segments of sportsbooks being dedicated to highlighting important stats (which can even come into account when comparing bookmakers’ various offerings).
But is football just about x’s and o’s? Time and again, complete underdogs will clinch a surprise equalizer, a big win, or even a title. While data will always comfort the safe bet, showing the favourite’s clear advantage, it can almost never predict a surprise. Beyond science and tech, therein lies the true essence of the sport and the insurmountable difficulty for bettors.