Wednesday, June 03, 2009


It's pretty to easy what the toughest part of the job of sports journalism is.

It requires the ability to predict the future.

Reporters in the so-called toy department are asked regularly to go public with their predictions on games and events. Does this happen in any other part of the business? Do City Hall reporters breathlessly print their prediction on that new housing bill that's up for passage? No, they don't. About the only time the newsroom does any predicting is at election time, and most of those races are over before they start. (Hint: follow the money.)

There are a couple of drawbacks to this system in sports, even though it's supposed to be done all in fun. The first is that sometimes you are wrong. Ask Bob Summers about that.

Bob writes a horse racing column for our newspaper. The day of the Preakness, his story was headlined, "The filly fails to infatuate -- Preakness bettors better look elsewhere." The story began, "Favorites have won the Preakness about 51 percent of the time, but the Happy Handicapper just can't bring himself to pick Rachel Alexandra to win today's 134th edition of the Run for the Black-Eyed Susans."

Well, you may know how that one turned out. Rachel Alexandra recorded an historic victory.

Bob told me he never knew he had so many readers until he opened his e-mail the next day. He had more than an hundred messages, telling him what they thought of his prediction.

Bob's problem, ultimately, was that he was no fortune-teller.

The other drawback comes when you are dealing with local teams. A football writer once told me that he hated to pick against the Bills in print, because players on the team would give him grief about it. He didn't seem to think that helped his relationships with the team members much.

Then there are the fans. Dave Kerner once went on a Sabres broadcast and picked Quebec to beat Buffalo in a first-round playoff series. When the red light went off, Dave was yelled at by sportscaster Ralph Hubbell. Ralph told him, "Never pick against the home team. If you are right, the fans won't care. If you are wrong, they won't forget."

To Dave's credit, he gave an honest answer to a question. And Quebec did win that series. But Hubbell's stand was rather insightful to the mindset involved too.

So the next time you see a prediction box in the newspaper, don't take it too seriously. If sportswriters could predict the future, they'd be buying lottery tickets.

1 comment:

Bill said...

I like little capsule predictions for the Sunday NFL games, and I think it is fun when sportswriters try to predict the outcome of a series (Pens in seven!) I doubt very many people remember these sorts of predictions, and they make for diverting reading

What I don't like are columns that make predictions against the spread, or columns like the one the News runs with each member of the staff picking against the morning line. I'm no prude-- I'll play a horse from time to time, and engage in other low-level gambling for recreation occasionally, but playing into the organized gambling on NFL games is creepy, and I'm surprised the News does it.