Indiana University Professor Coaches Students in Statistics Using Fantasy Football

Ben Motz's 60 students are using the popular statistics-laden game of fantasy football to learn about techniques for manipulating large datasets, and to engage in quantitative methods of solving problems.

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Ben Motz talks to students in his classroom

Ben Motz talks with his students as they predict win-loss ratios for their fantasy football teams.

The challenge for me was to bring this intrinsic thrill of fantasy football into the college classroom.

Bloomington, IN (PRWEB) December 08, 2012

For many of Ben Motz's students, terms like "multi-dimensional scaling" and "cluster analysis" were Greek to them, as were terms like "waiver priority" and "passer rating." But that's all changed since his new course "Prediction, Probability and Pigskin," got under way this semester at Indiana University Bloomington.

His 60 students are using the popular statistics-laden game of fantasy football to learn about techniques for manipulating large datasets, and to engage in quantitative methods of solving problems.

"Fantasy football supports my course in two ways," said Motz, senior lecturer in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences. "First, it provides a hook, a fun and immersive connection with course material; and second, it requires a lot of strategic decisions -- decisions that can be supported through data analysis."

Students in his chatty weekday lab put it another way: It's not like any other course.

"I expected it to be more technical, but it's fun," said Sarah Murphy, a junior from Palm Springs. Calif., who is studying studio art. She is one of 10 "managers" in the Taliaferro League. "It's not the normal sitting in a class falling asleep. It's interesting."

About 25 million people are expected to play fantasy football this year in the United States, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. The game involves drafting and managing virtual teams of real National Football League players. During each week of the NFL season, managers shuffle their rosters to craft the strongest possible fantasy team, and they earn points for these players' actual performances on the gridiron. Typically, 10 such teams are assembled in fantasy leagues, and managers go head-to-head in weekly matchups to see which fantasy teams earn the most points.

Madison Cortese, a freshman from Pittsburgh who is studying sports management and marketing, has fantasy football in her blood -- she loves the sport and said all the men in her family play fantasy football. This is the first time, however, that she's drafted a team and played. She is part of the Pihos League.

"I love football, so I thought it would be interesting learning about statistics through football," said Cortese, who is interested in being a sports agent or working in marketing for a major sports media outlet. "It could be useful with my major."

Motz began formulating the concept of his class several years ago when he organized his first fantasy football league and was struck by the advanced statistical analysis commonly used by players as they managed their teams. It's common, he said, for players to "devour troves of sports stats each week."

"The challenge for me was to bring this intrinsic thrill of fantasy football into the college classroom," he said.

To do this, Motz compiled a massive amount of football statistics, created six private fantasy football leagues on NFL.com and arranged students into leagues on the basis of their previous fantasy experience, so that fantasy newbies would not be intimated by veterans. Throughout the course, students learn analytical techniques for making predictions by applying such techniques as multiple regression, factor analysis and Monte Carlo simulation to the football data.

At the end of the semester, the top students in each fantasy league earn extra credit in the course, but Motz is expecting that students will learn much more than fantasy skills.

"I tell my students that, 'Yes, if you want to take what you learn and gamble with fantasy football, you may increase your earnings by 5 to 10 percent. Alternatively, you could take what you learn and apply it in the business sector, in marketing, or in research and development -- corporations are desperate for these skills, and you could be making a six-figure salary within 10 years.'"

Despite the course's focus on number-crunching, a critical learning goal is for students to be more than just data-jockeys; Motz expects students to be able to translate patterns observed in football data into meaningful, actionable insights. To communicate these insights, students write public blog posts to a course website, acting as fantasy football bloggers rendering expert predictions each week, and are graded on the quality of their critical analyses. Motz hopes that this skill -- the ability to communicate strategic decisions on the basis of statistical analyses -- will be valuable well beyond the limits of fantasy football.

C105: Prediction, Probability and Pigskin is a Critical Approaches course offered by the College of Arts and Sciences. The C105 blogging platform and assignments were supported by a Writing-Teaching grant from Indiana University's Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning to Motz.


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