Super Bowl LVIII: A game of luck and probability

Why do you love sports? Ask people that question and I can guarantee you will receive a range of answers: perhaps one person will say because of the community it provides, maybe another will say because of the excitement it generates, and a third might say because of the escape it offers.

Fundamentally, these are variations on the same theme: we love sports because of the narratives created by it. Any single sporting event spawns countless potential narratives. Every kick could birth a plotline and every catch could kill another. We identify with the protagonists of these narratives and are enlivened by them, imagining we too are leading our nation or our club to success, or struggling to overcome another failure on the road to eventual redemption. 

Fundamentally, these are variations on the same theme: we love sports because of the narratives created by it

Superbowl LVIII was not short of possible narratives. The Kansas City Chiefs were targeting back-to-back titles, and their third in five years, to cement their status as a dynasty. The San Francisco 49ers were aiming to avenge their loss in Superbowl LIV to the same opponent and join the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots as the teams with the most titles overall.

Amongst the players there were possibly even more evocative narratives ready to be played out. 49ers Quarterback Brock Purdy was looking to continue his fairytale journey from being Mr Irrelevant (the last pick in the NFL draft) in 2022 to potentially becoming a Superbowl winner and maybe even MVP in 2024. Across from him, Chiefs Quarterback Patrick Mahomes was trying to continue his inexorable pursuit of Tom Brady by winning his third Superbowl and Superbowl MVP. There was even a sprinkling of celebrity magic in the budding romance of Chiefs Tight End Travis Kelce and popstar Taylor Swift, surely an even more glittering sports-music crossover relationship than that of David Beckham and Posh Spice.

And yet the game itself managed to nullify almost all of these narratives. The first half ended with the 49ers leading 10-3 and both teams’ defences firmly dominant. The second half concluded with the score only increasing to 16-16 before it finally crawled to 25-22 to the Chiefs after overtime. Mahomes looking uncharacteristically vulnerable and Kelce was anonymous for much of the match. Similarly, Purdy was neither especially dreadful nor particularly exceptional.

The Superbowl therefore served as an important reminder that sports make their narratives, their narratives do not make them. When talking about sporting events in retrospective, it is typically through the lens of the stories they generated: the 2015-2016 Premier League will always be the year Leicester City won, the Thrilla in Manilla will always be the fight which cemented Muhammad Ali’s legacy, the 2003 Rugby World Cup will always be the tournament won by Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal.

The Superbowl therefore served as an important reminder that sports make their narratives, their narratives do not make them.

With the alluring benefits of hindsight, it is easy to think these events were bound to happen. Their plots are just too fitting, too captivating, too neat, for their ever to have been a possibility that they might not have happened.

However, this year’s Superbowl potently refuted this notion, revealing its fundamental falsity. Sport is decided by a swirling mixture of probability and chance. Two sides of the same coin, the former describes the ninety-nine times out of a hundred things go as expected, and the latter describes the one time they don’t. Pretty and elegant as they may be, narratives are simply the make-up we use to gloss over these ugly blemishes and imperfections, replacing them with an even and beautiful finish we can make sense of and understand.

Sport is decided by a swirling mixture of probability and chance.

The Superbowl was decided by mechanistic probability and divine luck, rather than any particular individual skill or talent, more than most sporting events. Especially in the first half, the two defences were firmly on top. Marshalled by the 49ers Defensive Coordinator Steve Wilks and the Chiefs Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, they played the odds to ensure the likelihood of big offensive plays were minimal.

Even with offensive talent such as Mahomes, Kelce, Purdy, 49ers Running Back Christian McCaffrey, Tight End George Kittel, and Wide Receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk in the game, significant yardage was rarely gained. By gaming the numbers and limiting the chances of successful deep throws or runs, the defences maintained their superiority.

As a result of this suffocation of scoring, it was always going to take something special to win this match. While it is easy to look for a hero in situations like this and anoint them the matchwinner, on this occasion, blind fortune has seized the throne as kingmaker.

Arguably the turning point of the match occurred with the 49ers leading 10-6 and the Chiefs forced to punt. While this should have resulted in the 49ers beginning their own drive and potentially extending their lead, instead the ball bounced off the ankle of the unaware 49ers Darrell Luter and the Chiefs were able to recover it. They then scored their sole touchdown in regular time on the following play, without which it is hard to imagine them dragging the game to overtime.

Indeed, it is notable that of the seven fumbles in the match the Chiefs recovered six of them. While it is easy to imagine an over-enthusiastic youth coach espousing how fumble recoveries shows passion and desire and determination, in reality, fumble recoveries are more reliant on the uneven bounce of an oval-shaped ball than they are on the actions of any individual. Quite simply, the players are reduced to lottery players hoping the ball bounces their way.

Quite simply, the players are reduced to lottery players hoping the ball bounces their way.

Following the Chiefs’ victory, many reports instantaneously lauded them as the next dynasty to replace Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, appointed Mahomes the successor of Tom Brady, and declared Swift their good luck charm. Fun as these stories are, looking at the events of the match itself reveals a very different story.

The Chiefs, like most winners of sporting events, have emotionless numbers and fickle chance to thank for their victory. They went to the casino, slowly grew their pot counting cards before lucking out on the green in the roulette. Of course, the players themselves played a key role in this, but they were certainly not the arbitrators of their destiny.

Image Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Andrea Perez via Wikimedia Creative Commons

Image Description: Image is taken from U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, Delta pilots fly in formation over the 2016 Super Bowl at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California