Why the World Cup Is an Economist’s Dream (Ep. 6)

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World Cup Edition: Steve Levitt on why the center cannot hold in penalty kicks, why a running track hurts home-field advantage, and why the World Cup is an economist’s dream.

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This is a short, sweet, and simple episode — a conversation with Steve Levitt (hey, you could do worse) about World Cup 2010, which begins tomorrow in South Africa and in the coming weeks will consume tens of billions of hours of global mindshare. The latest odds leaders: Spain (4-1), Brazil (9-2), Argentina (13-2), England (9-1), and Germany (12-1). The U.S. is listed (generously?) at 80-1; remember, despite the conventional wisdom, bookies do not necessarily seek to “balance” their books and live off the vig, but rather take advantage of bettor sentiment. (Here’s an article we wrote on the topic; here’s a related research paper of Levitt’s.)

The podcast covers two topics in particular: home-field advantage and penalty kicks.

The home-field advantage stuff is based on clever research by Thomas J. Dohmen (“In Support of the Supporters? Do Social Forces Shape Decisions of the Impartial?”; press summary here).

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: Bill Ward’s Brickpile A San Jose Earthquakes player prepares to take a penalty kick.

The penalty-kick findings are based on research by Levitt, Pierre-André Chiappori, and Tim Groseclose; their paper’s very sexy title is “Testing Mixed-Strategy Equilibria When Players Are Heterogeneous: The Case of Penalty Kicks in Soccer.” I will not give away its most surprising finding here, but I will give a hint, courtesy of Yeats: the center cannot hold.

If you are the kind of person who can’t get enough empirical analysis about soccer, you should definitely read Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, parts of which I found to be very good.

Spain celebrates its World Cup 2010 win. (Photo Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)

I was in Madrid last month and saw Real Madrid beat Athletic Bilbao in a game that was very important when it began but became less so since Barcelona was beating Sevilla at the same hour, essentially clinching La Liga title. Even so, seeing Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Iker Casillas in person, surrounded by thousands of Spanish fans who watch the match as carefully and reverently as if it were the national theater, has made me more excited about this World Cup than any in the past. I cannot wait for tomorrow morning.

*CORRECTION: Steve Levitt refers to Ronaldo in this episode when he means Roberto Baggio. This correction is not reflected in the audio. Thanks to listener EB3 for the fact-check!

Richard, Uk

It'll be interesting to see how the US gets on, I wish you the best of luck after Saturday!


how does one account for bettor sentiment in an international event?- are the odds stratified for different markets (maybe by popularity of betting sites?)- or are they tilted towards the wealthy country teams, where people have more $ and computer access?
ps- i love the british press summation of england's draw:


"Spanish fans who watch the match as carefully and reverently as if it were the national theater"

Dude, it IS the national theater!


Absolutely brilliant! I love football, and have come to love game theory.


Kickers have a "natural side". How come goalies have equal capability to make a save in either direction?


I don't think keepers have equal capability in both directions, or at least not all of them do. My guess is that at least one in a while, there's word amongst players that a goalie has a weak side for stopping penalty kicks.


Big takeaways from the "Soccernomics" chapter on penalty kicks:

- never confuse "change" with "randomness"
- "the plural of anecdote is data" - Tunde
- the penalty "creates an enormous disproportion between the foul and the reward"
- Left? Right? Strong side? ABSOLUTE CHANCE!

If you're into exploring World Cup historical data, do check out the new Spotfire app:



Looks like people have been studying the goalie / penalty-kicker dynamic for some time now. This article describes research that led to a conclusion opposite from Levitt's - that it's actually better for the goalie to "stay at home" and not dive to either side:


Ironically, the author of this article and Levitt both use the same reasoning (actually speculation) to explain why goalies dive more often than they stay in the middle ("do something rather than nothing")...even though the studies they cite seem to disagree on whether this strategy is effective in the first place.

Given the numbers used by this other study, I'm inclined to think there's another reason penalty-kickers don't kick down the middle more often. Since they kicked to the center 30% of the time in the study and were unsuccessful 66% of the time, it appears that it's just not a good strategy for the kicker. Therefore, one might assume that kickers would aim to either side, where their odds would be better (which is what they're doing - 70% of the time). If 70% of the kicks are going to the sides and not the center, doesn't that explain why goalies don't stay in the center more often? That's not where the ball is most likely to be kicked.

Another aspect of this is that, even if one were to assume that the strategy of kicking down the middle IS effective, the advantage of this tactic would lessen over time as the goalie caught on.



U.S. 2
England 1
at least that's what i'd like to see.
let's channel the spirit of 1950


Having just listened to the podcast including the probabilities swirling around kicking to the left, center or right of the net, I am reminded of this scene from The Princess Bride:


Hopefully, Tim Howard has spent the last few years building up an immunity to center-placed goal kicks.


Regarding the penalty kicks, what happens when you have the same match-up occurring more than once?

An example, late in this season Burnley played against Hull City in the English Premier League. In the 64th minute Burnley earned a penalty kick and their specialist penalty taker, Graham Alexander, a right-footer, kicked it right, the keeper jumped left (his right) and he scored. 6 minutes later Burnley have another penalty. Up steps Alexander, same kicker, same keeper. Alexander shoots right, keeper dives left (his right).

Clearly the Hull keeper, Boaz Myhill, had an idea of which way Alexander would go, and Alexander knew Myhill had seen him kick before.

How does game theory deal with rematches and did you search for this in the data? That changes everything, especially at the World Cup where penalties become all to relevant. In those cases goalkeepers are facing players they've studied on video, players that take penalties often (Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Lio Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, etc.). That is why I think shooting down the middle cannot become something players make a habit of doing.

Man United won the Carling Cup two years ago when the goalkeeper coach showed goalie Ben Foster videos on an ipod of the opposing players, right before the kicks were taken.



Dude: World Cup is "theater"! And you left out the odds of the World Champs winning! Remember we Italians know exactly how these guy play. ITALIA will win again!


1) Graham Alexander is special. He has not missed a penalty in 6 years. Note he kicks in a rather unorthodox, high risk style (outside of the foot to the right). He spends hours practicing. He gives little in a way of clues where the kick is going. I am sorry we shall not be seeing him in the EPL next year.

2) I have seen matches go to penalties where a whole string of players go down the middle. The key, however, is to go down the middle and *high*, at least 4 feet, otherwise the goalies' legs will save even if he dives. High kicks are, however, inherently risky: It is easier to place the ball in either corner than be accurate within 4-7 feet in height.

3) Go Ivory Coast!

Kocsen Chung

Why is the world cup and economists dream? Let's start with the basics. The world cup is currently one of the most viewed and lived across the whole world. This implies millions of fanatics that are essentially the public you are selling out to: The world IS your public.
Having said that, possibilities are quite large pretending to such a large pool of people. You can advertise, sell, auction, bet etc. from simple tickets to soccer t-shirts.
The great majority however, will be encountered with quite an inelastic demand for anything. Real soccer fans will want to go first row and, as any profit maximizing economist, the scarce seat with inelastic "demanders" will go high up the price list generating a lot of money.

In relation to the article and penalty kicks. Generally there are two general heights to goalie kicking and three general areas. High and low are the heights and middle, left and right are the areas. Each kick has its own risks (costs) but each with an equivalent retribution (utility/revenue). If you kick to the middle, you are almost assured the ball will go inside the goal however the goalie will most probably block it if he doesn't dive to a side. On the other hand, left and right areas are harder for the goalie to reach but you have a higher chance of missing the ball and not making the point.


Jon Guzie

As a soccer fan, I would have thought the team that can afford a single-use stadium probably has deep pockets to also seek the better talent, coaching, equipment, et al.

Your association of fan influence by proximity is the type of reckelss intuitive association Freaknomics cured me of doing.


possible lower production in work places. I for one will be shirking this month, just set up espn 3 remote access so i'll be able to access it at work and shirk quite a bit :) ahh the economics of shirking

Tom D

The only way the US will beat England tomorrow is to hack England's best player (Rooney), knowing he is a bit of a hot head and will probably end up kicking back and getting send off! (just like last world cup!)

The bookies are giving quite good odds for it to happen! http://clinicalfootballtips.com/betting/world-cup-specials/


Jon Guzie's on the right track. I would be interested in a test where neither team is the home team and there is a clear crowd favorite.

Kevin Schwarm

One kind of strategy Steve Levitt mentions in this podcast is why the ball during the penalty kick is not kicked to the middle of the goal? If the goalie (over 99% of the time) moves to his left or right, would it not make sense to kick the ball to the center of the goal? Levitt suggests there's only one thing more compelling for soccer players besides winning and that is not to look foolish. Many are afraid their shot could be stopped if they kick it to the center of the goal. Looking foolish is a great motivator to kick either left or right and avoid the middle entirely.

I would disagree with this reasoning. Of course, soccer players don't want to look foolish. Who does? However, there's another significant reason why they don't kick to the center - and much more compelling. From a very early age, soccer players are taught to aim or kick to the far post. In other words, kick as far away from the goalie as you can. How can you suggest the striker should sometimes kick to the middle of the goal when they've been socialized thousands of times to keep it away from the goalie? A striker is unable to automatically "switch" that tendency in order to gain a competitive advantage. It just doesn't work that way. They instinctively will hedge by kicking either left or right trying to score the goal and keeping it as far away from the goalie as possible. Therefore, it's less about embarrassment and much more about kicking where the goalie ain't.


Morgan Chase

I agree with the idea that a penalty kicker may be partly motivated by not looking foolish. There's a theory floating around the Jeopardy! world [http://www.j-archive.com/help.php#shoresconjecture] that involves a player leading going into Final Jeopardy not wagering enough to win if s/he and the second-place player both answer correctly. (The danger is that if both players answer incorrectly, the front-runner will lose if s/he wagers too much money.) Yeah, maybe if I bet that way, I'd have a 3% higher chance of winning, but in a win-or-go-home situation, I'm going to trust in my ability to answer correctly and not hedge my bet in case we both get stumped. If you lose because you answered correctly but didn't wager enough money, everyone will think you're an idiot -- better to bet with confidence and, if the question makes you look like an idiot, so be it.

In any such sport, you need to balance your strengths (e.g., kicking to the left) with your opponent's likelihood to try to neutralize that advantage. If you kick to the right or center and don't score, you'll be second-guessed for not playing to your strength.

And aren't auto racers told to, in the event of a crash, aim for the cars in front of them because those cars will be someplace else by the time you get to that spot? I can't believe that strikers can't convince themselves to aim for the middle of the goal (as mentioned in the previous post); it's not like a penalty kick is pure reaction/reflex/ingrained motion; you've got a moment to plan where you're going to kick the ball.