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Kyle J. Anderson
Kelley School of Business

David Pierce
Ball State University

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University Communications

Dave Hosick
Kelley School of Business

Last modified: Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Study looks at officiating in college basketball, finds patterns that reward aggressive play

Nov. 17, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS -- The tip-off of the basketball season also brings the return of the "sixth man" -- hometown fans who implore the officials on how to call the games. At the same time, officials will work hard to be seen as fair.

Basketball Referees

Photo by Harris Walker

Two professors found clear patterns in the way that basketball games are refereed

A study co-authored by a professor in Indiana University's Kelley School of Business suggests that fans do have a great impact on games and that officials often are not objective in their efforts to be fair to both teams.

An examination of 365 major conference games played during the 2004-05 college men's basketball season found a clear pattern of an increased probability of a foul on the team with fewer fouls, the visiting team and the team that is leading.

"Whether consciously or subconsciously, officials seem to show a pattern where they try to make the number of fouls called on each team come out approximately even," said Kyle J. Anderson, a visiting assistant professor of business economics at Kelley-Indianapolis. "That is seen as being objective or fair.

"We had suspected that, having played and watched basketball," he added. "But once we started to run the data, I think the magnitude of the effect was much more than we had ever anticipated. We thought that this was going be a very small effect."

Anderson and his co-author, David Pierce, an assistant professor of sport administration at Ball State University, published their findings in the Journal of Sports Sciences earlier this year. Both have ties to the game -- Anderson played collegiately at Division III's Knox College and Pierce has done some local officiating.

Basketball officiating can be very subjective, with a variance between what is and what isn't a foul. Anderson and Pierce set out to measure officials "fairness" by examining the number and timing of fouls called during games. They looked at 272 regular season games, 30 neutral-court conference tournament games and 63 neutral-court NCAA tournament games. To avoid the effect of trailing teams intentionally fouling at the ends of games, only foul calls in the first half were included.

Among their findings:

  • The probability of a foul being called on the visiting team was 7 percent higher than on the home team.
  • When the home team is leading, the probability of the next foul being called on them is about 6.3 percentage points higher than when the home team is trailing.
  • The larger the foul differential between two teams, the greater the likelihood that the next call will be made against the team with fewer fouls. For example, when a home team has three or more fouls than the visiting team, the probability that the next foul call is made against the visiting team is more than 60 percent. When the foul differential is as high as five, then that probability rises to 69 percent. The researchers also observed this trend when they looked at neutral-court games.

"We talk about crowd as a factor, but we're able to rule that out as a complete explanation because it happens to the visiting team too," Anderson said. "There's clearly a score effect on both sides. The team that is leading is more likely to get a foul call."

Anderson does not believe that this phenomenon is caused by any changes in coaching strategy or aggressive play by players.

In the introduction to their article, he and Pierce cite as an example a 2005 Final Four semi-final game between the University of Illinois and the University of Louisville. Illinois, a team known for its aggressive defensive play, was whistled for the first seven fouls. Five of the next six fouls were called against Louisville. By the end of the game, Louisville was called for one more foul than Illinois, which they called a "dramatic turnaround."

Illinois won the game, but lost to the eventual national champion -- the University of North Carolina.

The professors believe their results match up well with the observed behavior of basketball teams over the last 25 years, when play became increasingly aggressive. While the NCAA has called for a reduction in such physical play, the authors believe that the underlying problems may be greater than the organization appreciates.

"The team that plays more aggressively benefits from this pattern," Anderson said. "If you're a super aggressive team and you're pushing and shoving and knocking people down ... and the referees are going to try and call an approximately even number of fouls, then you're going have a big advantage ... You never want to be the less aggressive team.

"Unless the NCAA can come up with some way to address this, there's always going to be an advantage to the more aggressive team," he added.

To reduce the level of aggression, Anderson and Pierce say, the NCAA needs to enact policies and change rules that would reward teams for less physical play. "This could include educating officials about officiating biases and encouraging them to call fouls without regard to foul differential or to possibly increase the penalty for a foul," they wrote in the paper.

While the study focuses on the sport of basketball, Anderson believes his findings also have applications in management settings.

"Our broader, bigger picture point is anytime you're making a subjective judgment under uncertainty, you're likely to take into account the past decisions that you've made," he said. "In terms of a management setting, it might be the slacker who benefits from the situation involving a manager who might not want to appear biased."