Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sports Statistics: Using Fantasy Basketball to Teach Math

At my charter school, our faculty teaches both 70 minute long block classes (in my case, Algebra I & II) and at least one 55 minute short block class twice a week. Last quarter, my short block was SAT Math Prep. It was horrible for a number of reasons:

  • Students were forced to take it, even though many weren't interested in taking the test any time soon (if ever).
  • The class was overcrowded.
  • It was at the very end of our 8 hour school day.
  • Poor planning and execution by yours truly.
I was determined to make my short block class for this quarter as interesting and engaging as possible. I wanted to give students a chance to earn learn math in a completely unexpected way, almost without them realizing it. A colleague had mentioned a sports statistics class he had taught in the past, and I immeadiately remembered the fantasy sports and mathematics curriculum I tried to use last year.

In that case, we used fantasy football, but it was too late in the season to pick up with that. Besides, football is nowhere near as popular with my current students as it was with my South Texas kiddos. The timing and situation was perfect to use fantasy basketball as the centerpiece of my new class.

The curriculum breaks down as follows:

  • Students draft a fantasy basketball team, using player values and a salary cap devised by the Fantasy Sports and Mathematics (FSM) developers.
  • Every day in class, students look up the statistics for their starting players since the last class. Since we meet twice a week, this means that players might have played 2-3 times since our last class meeting.
  • Each statistical category we track has an assigned value. We use a "total points equation" to figure out our total points for the week.
  • As we start collecting more and more data, we'll use it to complete all different types of math problems.
  • Besides the project, we'll discuss the growing role of statistics in sports today, reading and analyzing other kinds of data than just those from our fantasy basketball project.
  • Grades are based on daily maintenance of their fantasy teams and participation in discussions and related math assignments.

FSM directs users to the New York Times website to find basketball stats, as it's comprehensive and relatively easy to read and navigate. FSM publishes a teacher's edition and student workbook that provide worksheets for creating teams, tracking data, and applying the ideas to a wide range of math problems:

I can tell you that the students I have, even those that don't know anything about basketball or hadn't signed up for the class on their own, are engaged in the project even in its early stages. I expect things to get even more exciting as we post up weekly scores for the first time, and students get more into the competitive spirit.

There's no shortage of interesting articles and books to read on the subject of sports statistics; indeed, there's an entire industry that's exploding right before our eyes. As I told my students, you could study mathematics and get a job with a company, league or franchise doing things that nobody even thought of just a decade ago.

I'll continue keeping you updated on how the class progresses. In the meantime, if you're interested in exploring this as a possible class, unit or project, here's a recommended reading list:

  1. Moneyball - The book that changed baseball, and sports, forever.
  2. Fantasy Basketball and Mathematics: Teacher's Guide
  3. Fantasy Basketball and Mathematics: Student Workbook
  4. Freakonomics (check out the section on cheating sumo wrestlers)
  5. "Hoop Data Dreams" [article from the Freakonomics blog at the NY Times]
  6. "Fantasy sports now 27 million player, $800 million business" [article from South Florida Sun-Sentinel]
  7. More fantasy sports articles here on