One of the most influential people in U.S. sports doesn’t play on, coach, or even own a team. Instead, he wields his sway from a computer in Bloomington, IN. Jeff Sagarin ‘70 has used his MIT math training to create algorithms that rank every team in the country in just about every high school, college, or professional sport-football, basketball, soccer, baseball, hockey, golf, and even stock car racing. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has used his rankings to help set the play-off schedule for the annual basketball championships since 1984 and to choose teams for college football’s Bowl Championship Series since its inception in 1998. USA Today prints abridged versions of his rankings in its sports pages every week, making the full versions (which include computerized standings of every hitter and pitcher in Major League Baseball) available on its Web site.Unlike most other college-sports rankings, which rely on polls and perceptions, Sagarin’s are based solely on statistics that take into account not only win-loss records but also victory margins and a calculation of difficulty of schedule. His method, which sometimes results in an undefeated team’s not being ranked number one, draws as much ire from sports fans as the traditional polls do. “That causes huge controversies among fans, who send me really ugly e-mails,” Sagarin says. But the self-styled “math sports prognosticator” has rigorously tested his algorithms, matching his rankings against results from seasons as far back as 1869. For more recent seasons, he runs the data through a particular point in the season and looks to see how well his rankings predict the winners of the next week’s games. The results are always closer to reality than fans’ (or often even experts’) perceptions. “Reality always gives its own opinion,” he says.
Sagarin began ranking teams when he was a fifth-grade sports fanatic, entering-but never winning-the weekly football contest in the New York Daily News. “At age 10, I’d have been ecstatic if I knew that this is what I was going to be doing,” Sagarin says. By the time he was a junior in high school, Sagarin knew he loved math but hadn’t really thought about going to college. A counselor at New Rochelle High School who helped him sign up for the SAT encouraged him to think about finding scholarship money to go to a school such as MIT. “To me it meant the best at math, so that’s why I wanted to go,” Sagarin says.
In 1966 he was accepted to the Institute, where he studied theoretical math. Although his career is in applied math, Sagarin credits his MIT education with teaching him plenty that he still uses in his work today. “You just learn a lot at MIT about how to work hard-that you should keep working at something until you get it right,” he says. Following graduation, Sagarin did a brief stint in graduate school at Ohio State University, but he quickly figured out that it wasn’t right for him. Before he left, however, he decided to take a shot at turning the sports-ranking system he’d developed as a hobby into a business. Advertising his prospective sports-ranking service, he sent out hundreds of letters to newspapers. One reporter called back: William Wallace, who was covering football at the New York Times. Wallace wrote a profile of Sagarin for Pro Quarterback magazine, and in the fall of 1972, he mentioned Sagarin to a contact at Pro Football Weekly. That publication bought Sagarin’s ratings, and he says, “From that point on, things started happening.” He’s earned his living by ranking teams and players ever since.