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What makes a Sports Personality of the Year? by George Hodgson-Abbott and James Lally

The BBC Sports Personality of the Year is awarded once a year to the sportsperson "whose actions have most captured the public's imagination". The ten nominations for this year’s Sports Personality were released on Monday, ahead of the awards show on Sunday 14th December. Figure it Out investigates what we can learn from the historic winners, their sports and the achievements which named them Sports Personality of the Year.

First won by Christopher Chataway in 1954, it has since been won by sporting greats including Bobby Moore, Princess Anne, Jonny Wilkinson and more recently Andy Murray in 2013, which led to some to question the ‘personality’ aspect of the award. The chart below shows a breakdown of every winner by their sport:

Athletics contributed to the 17 out of 60 winners, almost three times as many as the next highest contributor: Formula One drivers. But what contributes to athletes’ dominance in the history of SPOTY winners?

One could speculate that it is down to the Olympics, where every 4 years the athletes capture the hearts of the nation. In fact, it could be argued that the greatest achievement in any eligible sport is made at the Olympics. We’d exclude tennis from this assumption - despite tennis being an Olympic sport; a Grand Slam is generally a bigger achievement for a tennis player. The charts below illustrate whether the Olympics affects the winner of SPOTY:

Although there appears to be an effect, the statistical Chi-squared test indicates that there is a 45% chance of there being a relationship between the two. Statisticians are hard to please, and are only satisfied at around the 90-95% mark, so there is not enough evidence to suggest Olympians will be Sports Personality of the Year in Olympic years. However, there is more certainty when looking at the top three places in SPOTY during Olympic years:

The likelihood of a sportspersons that competes in an Olympic sport winning Sports Personality is significantly higher in Olympic years than in other years. Statistically, there is a 99% chance that there is a relationship between the two. A sportsperson in the top 3 of SPOTY during an Olympic year is 60% likely to be an Olympic sportsperson, whereas in other years it is only 39% - an increase of 54%.

Jo Pavey is the only athletics nominee for SPOTY this year. Despite her incredible achievement of winning her first World Championship gold medal in the 10,000m as a 40 year old mother of two, she is placed only 33-50/1* to win this year. Perhaps 2014 isn’t the year for athletics.

Gareth Bale, the most expensive footballer in history, is the third favourite to win Sports Personality of the Year. As a footballer, it may be harder to excel in the world of sport due to playing in a team game. On the other hand, three of the five most watched sports on TV in the UK are team sports (Football, Rugby Union and Cricket). We decided to categorise the sports by team sports and individual and look at all the sportspersons to be placed first, second or third. For the most pedantic of readers, I have categorised Formula One as an individual sport – I would be willing to debate for hours as to why it is not a team sport but I think it is best to save that for another blog.

Historically 20% of all the 1st, 2nd and 3rd placed SPOTY nominees, and only 17% of the winners, plied their trade in team sports. I can offer Gareth (he is an avid Figure it Out reader) some consolation in the fact that the last Welsh footballer to be nominated was Ryan Giggs, who went on to win SPOTY in 2009.

If the bookmakers are to be trusted (in my case, this is far too often), then there are two runaway favourites:
  • Rory McIlroy, golf’s brightest star who has won 2 majors this year, and
  • Recently crowned Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton.
In the case of the latter, recent history does not seem to favour the Formula One world champions when it comes to SPOTY. Hamilton finished runner up in the 2007 F1 championship, and was also runner up in SPOTY. Hamilton went on to win the F1 championship in 2008, only to finish runner up in SPOTY, again. The following year Jenson Button, a fellow Brit F1 driver, won the championship only to finish runner up in SPOTY. Perhaps there is no longer enough merit in winning the F1 championship in the eyes of the British public?

This leaves us with the favourite, Rory McIlroy. Truth be told, history does not seem to leave many clues as to how the success of golf players relates to their success as SPOTY. This year, McIlroy has won two of the four majors – golf’s biggest tournaments. Nick Faldo was the last golf player to win SPOTY in 1989, after he won one major. The following year he won two majors, but did not feature in the top three in SPOTY. That said, I find it very hard to argue with the 1/4 betting odds* that some bookmakers are offering for him to win. They must know something that Figure it Out do not.

*Correct as of 27/11/2014

About the author

James Lally
James Lally
James Lally has 10 years experience in analytical consulting across a range of projects in the public and private sector. James spent the first part of his career in an internal business consulting and strategy group at Network Rail, working as an adviser to the Board and Executive Directors and leading on high profile projects to restructure the business, support executive decision-making and drive significant performance improvement. James now works as a Managing Consultant in Capgemini Consulting’s Business Analytics team. James leads the team’s Value Management service offerings and is also focussed on clients within the Utilities sector.

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