✉️ What to expect from Plot the Ball in 2024
My Week In Sport(s): a new format, Shohei Ohtani and Mo Salah
Welcome to My Week In Sport(s) — a new regular newsletter from Plot the Ball.
In this edition:
✉️ What to expect from this revised format
⚾️ Shohei Ohtani’s popularity in North America
⚽️ Mo Salah’s reading of the game
✉️ What to expect from Plot the Ball in 2024
I suppose it’s true in a narrow, literal sense — but, for me, describing professional sport as ‘entertainment’ ultimately misses the mark.
Rather, I think about professional teams and athletes as being in the business of generating joy for the millions of people who follow them.
This joy, of course, can be generated in a number of different ways. As a basic framework, though, I find the three tenets of sports consultancy Twenty First Group’s model of audience engagement extremely useful:
And everyone who follows sport weights each of these three factors differently in their own unique set of preferences.
I, for one, have come to realise that jeopardy and connection contribute far less to the joy I derive from sport than they do to the average consumer1 — and that quality, conversely, contributes far more.
I also believe that you can only properly understand and explain the quality of teams and athletes — how good they are relative to their peers, and the specific things they’re good at — by using data.
Excelling in any sporting code, after all, is an iterative process. You must do the same exceptional things over and over and over again — and the systematic recording of these actions in the statistical record is what ultimately allows this quality to shine through2.
Across the many sporting codes played throughout the world, there is so much evident quality — much more than any single observer could ever fully appreciate.
Nonetheless, since the start of 2022 I have attempted — through the writing I’ve published here at Plot the Ball — to draw attention to what I see as the most interesting examples of quality in the specific sports which I follow, and to contextualise them as best I can so that readers can appreciate them too.
2024 will be the third year of this newsletter — and I now want to commit to publishing in a more consistent format and according to a more consistent schedule to help you understand and appreciate these teams and athletes even more.
Going forward, therefore, I’ll be sending out My Week In Sport(s) each Saturday3.
Each edition will contain a piece of writing similar in content4 and in length to those you can find in the website’s archive, as well as two shorter sections highlighting other interesting things I’ve watched, read or thought about that week.
I will be continuing to cover a range of different sports from week to week — but, even if you’re not a fan of the code I’m writing about in a given piece, it will always be underpinned by a general analytical principle or method which you can take away to help you better contextualise and understand those you do follow.
I’m also keen to return more rigorously to things I’ve written about in the past in order to update or revise my opinions — and I think that committing to a stricter (and expanded) publishing schedule will give me more space to do so5.
It’s important to me that I lay out my own preferences to the audience of this newsletter as explicitly as possible here, as I don’t think you can properly contextualise anyone’s analysis of sport without understanding where they get their joy from.
If you have enjoyed reading my analysis in the past, I hope you’ll continue to get a lot out of Plot the Ball in 2024 — and that you’ll share it with your colleagues, friends and family members who enjoy thinking about sport in a similar way too.
⚾️ Run the Numbers
On a recent episode of Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast, co-host Tracy Alloway — while discussing Shohei Ohtani’s new contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers — mentioned that she had first heard the Japanese baseball star’s name only a couple of weeks prior to recording.
Can we roughly assess Ohtani’s popularity relative to his on-field success? This is the sort of question I love using Google Trends data to address.
The new Dodger is one of a number of athletes in the four major men’s sports leagues in North America to have won multiple MVP awards over the last five seasons6. How often do people Google his name compared to the others?
Ohtani, though, has a higher peak than either the NHL’s Connor McDavid or the NBA’s Nikola Jokić over the same period — and it came at the culmination of his recent period of free agency.
Major League Baseball will be hoping that this new level of awareness of one of their most marketable players will translate into more eyeballs on the field next season.
⚽️ Watch the Games
Even the greatest athletes aren’t puppeteers; they make predictions about how teammates and opponents are likely to act better than anyone else, but they are ultimately never in complete control.
I was thinking about this during Liverpool’s Premier League win over Newcastle on Monday. In the 48th minute, Virgil van Dijk played a long pass forward from a position to the left of the centre circle towards Mohamed Salah on the right wing.
What struck me about this moment is that, when it becomes clear that the aerial contest will be won by one of Newcastle’s defenders, Salah decides to accelerate away from the ball — and directly into the space between the opposition backline and their goalkeeper.
Had the left back decided to head the ball back towards his own goal rather than upfield, Salah may have been in position to intercept — and we might have been talking about another moment of singular genius from the Egyptian, in addition to a dominant performance from Liverpool.
Sometimes, though, the breaks don’t go your way.
You can watch a clip of this sequence here.
The next edition of My Week In Sport(s) will be published on Saturday January 13th.
As friends and family members who I’ve dragged to their seats long before the start of games to watch players warm up can attest!
I would argue that this is even true of judgements made by followers of sport who reject data-led and analytical viewpoints. The difference between an assessment of how good NBA players are based on the number of championship rings they have and something like the ‘40 Best Careers in NBA History’ list put together by Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball isn’t categorical; the former is just based on a much shallower statistical record than the latter.
As Plot the Ball remains a journalistic project I’m pursuing in my spare time, to begin with I’ll be taking a break every third Saturday.
If you’re unfamiliar with the type of stories I’m interested in telling, you can also read the ‘About’ page of the website.
For this quick analysis, I looked at one player from each of the NHL, NFL and NBA alongside Ohtani; ties were awarded to the player with most recent MVP award.