What the NCAA tournament teaches us about decision bias

It’s that time of year again — when die-hard sports fans (and even some non-sports fans) start filling out their bracket picks as they make their predictions for the NCAA tournament, a.k.a. “March Madness.”

I am an alumnus of a major NCAA Division I basketball school — Syracuse University. Syracuse alumni are well-known for their school spirit and love of their alma mater. As such, SU alums regularly wear their school spirit on their sleeve — often, literally. As an alum, I can relate; much of my wardrobe is orange. Anyone who knows me knows that I bleed Syracuse Orange.

Of course, I am the first to admit that my devotion to my alma mater often influences my decisions when I make my NCAA tournament picks. If I filled out my bracket completely with my heart, I would have Syracuse winning it all every single year (and who cares about the remainder of my picks). As such, each year when I fill out my bracket, my bias toward my beloved Orange often influences my picks. Each year, a part of me starts rationalizing how the Orange will defeat (fill in name of opponent here). I’ll often have thoughts such as, “so-and-so has a hot shooting streak going,” or “our opponent usually struggles against the 2-3 zone,” and so on. More often than not, my heart overrides my head when I pick my Orange to upset their higher-ranked opponent. Of course, I usually end up disappointed as my Orange are sent back home to Syracuse.

The bias works in reverse as well. Anyone who follows college basketball knows about Syracuse’s heated rivalry against the hated Georgetown Hoyas. As such, we Syracuse fans are likely to pick against Georgetown in their part of the bracket. (That said, I watched Georgetown play in this year’s Big East tournament final, and they looked like world-beaters. They’re seeded #12 vs. #5 Colorado in this year’s tournament. I wouldn’t bet against them. If you’re looking for a #12 to upset a #5, you could do worse than this one.)

I believe that there’s a professional lesson to be gleaned from this: our biases often get in the way.

We all have biases of some sort. They come from our worldview, our culture, how we were raised, what we’ve learned, and our belief systems. Everyone has a perspective on how they see the world, and everyone tends to be biased against anything that doesn’t align with that perspective. We’ve seen extreme examples of this throughout the world over the past few years (don’t worry, I will not talk about politics here). At the professional level, our worldview often affects decisions that we make. These biases often establish themselves as blind spots, so no matter how much we claim to be “unbiased,” we often don’t know that they’re there. Probably one of the biggest oxymorons is “unbiased decision.” Realistically, there is no such thing. This isn’t necessarily a deficiency; rather, this is part of what makes us human.

So what can we do to reduce (not eliminate — that is unlikely) bias? For one thing, keep an open mind — no matter what you think, realize that there might be another way. To rattle off a couple of clichés, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat*,” and “minds are like parachutes — they only work when they’re open.” Empathy often goes a long way as well. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes — what would this person think if you were in his or her position? I’ve often found that this approach makes me more successful professionally; it improves my work quality, and it brings projects to a better conclusion. Effective communication (another topic for another time) is crucial here; it adjusts your thought process and helps you to achieve that end.

(*I like cats — I have two of my own — so I tend to not like this saying.)

I would also think about what could happen with a decision. There are some decisions that are okay to make with your heart — proposing to your significant other, for example — but there’s also something to be said about listing the pros and cons of a decision. Do the benefits outweigh the issues? Can you live with the consequences if something goes wrong? And so on it goes.

Making decisions is hard to do — this is why managers often get paid the big bucks. If you’re able to minimize the amount of bias that goes into your decision-making, chances are you’ll do alright.

(And by the way… GO ORANGE!!!)

The sports venues that I’ve visited

I enjoy attending sporting events. My previous post got me thinking about the sports venues that I’ve visited, and I thought it’d be fun to compile that list!

A few caveats: I only list venues (along with their home teams and/or events) in which I’ve actually seen a game. For example, I’ve set foot in Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, but I didn’t actually see a game there, so it’s not on my list.

I don’t list opposing teams. I’ve been to so many events that I don’t remember them all. Also, for “home” arenas in which I’ve seen large numbers of games, they’d be too many to list, anyway.

I also denote any arenas that are homes to “my teams.” While I live two hours away from Syracuse, I still consider the Carrier Dome as my “home” arena. Geographically, Siena and UAlbany are only minutes away from me, and I do root for the home team in those arenas, but they’re not necessarily “my” teams or home arenas.

I only consider organized professional (major or minor league) and NCAA (any division) teams or events. Organized non-professional or collegiate events (e.g. Little League World Series, Olympic games, etc.) count too, although I’ve never been to one. The pickup game of touch football in the public park doesn’t count.

These are listed in no particular order, although I try to list my “home” arenas, places I’ve visited more often, and places geographically close to me first.

I mark arenas that either no longer exist or are no longer used for that sport with an asterisk (*).

All games are regular season games, unless denoted.

I have never been to an NBA, NHL, or major soccer game, which is why you don’t see them listed.

So without further ado, here’s that list.

Arenas I’ve visited

Baseball

  • Yankee Stadium (new), Bronx, NY — NY Yankees (home arena), ALDS
  • Yankee Stadium* (old), Bronx, NY — NY Yankees (home arena)
  • Joseph Bruno Stadium, Troy, NY — Tri-City ValleyCats (home arena)
  • Heritage Park*, Colonie, NY — Albany-Colonie Yankees (home arena), Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs, NCAA Div-III tournament regional
  • Robison Field, Troy, NY — RPI Engineers (home arena)
  • Fenway Park, Boston, MA — Boston Red Sox
  • Shea Stadium*, Queens, NY — NY Mets
  • Citi Field, Queens, NY — NY Mets
  • Kingdome*, Seattle, WA — Seattle Mariners
  • Safeco Field (now T-Mobile Park), Seattle WA — Seattle Mariners
  • Camden Yards, Baltimore, MD — Baltimore Orioles, All-Star Game
  • SkyDome (now Rogers Centre), Toronto, ON — Toronto Blue Jays
  • MacArthur Stadium*, Syracuse, NY — Syracuse Chiefs
  • Alliance Bank Stadium (now NBT Stadium), Syracuse, NY — Syracuse Chiefs
  • Olympic Stadium*, Montreal, PQ — Montreal Expos
  • Veterans Stadium*, Philadelphia, PA — Philadelphia Phillies
  • Tiger Stadium*, Detroit, MI — Detroit Tigers
  • Coors Field, Denver, CO — Colorado Rockies
  • Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, FL — Tampa Bay Rays
  • Damaschke Field*, Oneonta, NY — Oneonta Yankees
  • East Field*, Glens Falls, NY — Glens Falls Redbirds, Adirondack Lumberjacks
  • Stade Canac, Quebec City, PQ — Quebec Capitales
  • Dwyer Stadium, Batavia, NY — Batavia Trojans
  • Silver Stadium*, Rochester, NY — Rochester Red Wings

Places where I’ve never seen a game, but are on my wish list: Wrigley Field, Chicago; Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles; Oracle Park, San Francisco; Kaufmann Stadium, Kansas City; Petco Park, San Diego; Nationals Field, Washington DC; PNC Park, Pittsburgh; any Nippon Professional League game in Japan

College football

  • Carrier Dome, Syracuse, NY — Syracuse Orange (home arena)
  • ECAV Stadium, Troy, NY — RPI Engineers (home arena)
  • ’86 Field*, Troy, NY — RPI Engineers (home arena)
  • Bob Ford Field, Albany, NY — UAlbany Great Danes
  • Alumni Stadium, Chestnut Hill, MA — Boston College Eagles
  • Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, MD — Navy Midshipmen
  • Michie Stadium, West Point, NY — Army Black Knights
  • Veterans Stadium*, Philadelphia, PA — Temple Owls
  • Yale Bowl, New Haven, CT — Yale Bulldogs
  • Met Life Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ — Syracuse Orange
  • Giants Stadium*, East Rutherford, NJ — Syracuse Orange
  • Ohio Stadium, Columbus, OH — Ohio State Buckeyes
  • Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans, LA — Sugar Bowl
  • Pontiac Silverdome*, Pontiac, MI — Cherry Bowl
  • Tampa Stadium*, Tampa, FL — Hall of Fame (now Outback) Bowl
  • Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ — Fiesta Bowl
  • Yankee Stadium, Bronx, NY — Pinstripe Bowl
  • Camping World Stadium, Orlando, FL — Camping World Bowl
  • Jacksonville Municipal Stadium (now TIAA Field), Jacksonville, FL — Gator Bowl
  • Fenway Park, Boston, MA — Fenway Gridiron Classic

Places where I’ve never seen a game, but are on my wish list: Harvard Stadium, Harvard; Memorial Stadium, Clemson; Beaver Stadium, Penn State; Rose Bowl, UCLA; Michigan Stadium, Michigan; Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame

College basketball

  • Carrier Dome, Syracuse, NY — Syracuse Orange (home arena), NCAA tournament
  • Manley Field House*, Syracuse, NY — Syracuse Orange (women — home arena)
  • RPI Armory*, Troy, NY — RPI Engineers (home arena)
  • Times-Union Center, Albany, NY — Siena Saints, MAAC tournament
  • Alumni Recreation Center*, Loudonville, NY — Siena Saints
  • SEFCU Arena, Albany, NY — UAlbany Great Danes, America East tournament
  • Pittsburgh Civic Arena*, Pittsburgh, PA — Pitt Panthers
  • Lundholm Gymnasium, Durham, NH — UNH Wildcats
  • Case Gym, Boston, MA — Boston University Terriers
  • Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome*, Minneapolis, MN — NCAA tournament
  • Reunion Arena*, Dallas, TX — NCAA tournament
  • Madison Square Garden, New York, NY — St. John’s Red Storm, Big East Tournament, NIT Preseason Tournament
  • Barclays Arena, Brooklyn, NY — preseason tournament

Places where I’ve never seen a game, but are on my wish list: The Palestra, Penn; Allen Field House, Kansas; Pauley Pavilion, UCLA; Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke

RPI has a new arena: ECAV (East Campus Athletic Village) Arena. I have yet to see a game there.

College hockey

  • Houston Field House, Troy, NY — RPI Engineers (home arena)
  • Messa Rink, Schenectady, NY — Union Dutchmen
  • Times-Union Center, Albany, NY — Mayor’s Cup/Capital Skate Classic, NCAA tournament
  • Glens Falls Civic Center*, Glens Falls, NY — Mayor’s Cup/Capital Skate Classic
  • Lynah Rink, Ithaca, NY — Cornell Big Red
  • Starr Rink, Hamilton, NY — Colgate Raiders
  • Tate Rink, West Point, NY — Army Black Knights
  • Bright Hockey Center, Cambridge, MA — Harvard Crimson
  • Yale Ice Arena, New Haven, CT — Yale Bulldogs
  • Thompson Arena, Hanover, NH — Dartmouth Big Green
  • Olympic Ice Arena, Lake Placid, NY — ECAC tournament
  • Walter Brown Arena*, Boston, MA — Boston University Terriers
  • Cumberland County Civic Center (now Cross Insurance Arena), Portland, ME — Maine Black Bears
  • Hartford Civic Center (now XL Center), Hartford, CT — I don’t remember the event, but it was four teams: RPI, Maine, Colgate, and I don’t remember who the fourth team was.
  • Madison Square Garden, New York, NY — Rivalry On Ice (Yale vs. Harvard)

Places where I’ve never seen a game, but are on my wish list: Alfond Arena, Maine; Hobey Baker Rink, Princeton; Matthews Arena, Northeastern

AHL Hockey

  • Times-Union Center*, Albany, NY — Albany River Rats, Albany Devils

NFL Football

  • Giants Stadium*, East Rutherford, NJ — NY Giants (home arena)
  • Rich Stadium (now New Era Field), Orchard Park, NY — Buffalo Bills
  • Sullivan Stadium*, Foxborough, MA — New England Patriots
  • Veterans Stadium*, Philadelphia, PA — Philadelphia Eagles

Although I’ve been to Met Life Stadium, it was for a Syracuse game. I have yet to see the Giants there.

CFL Football

  • Landsdowne Stadium*, Ottawa, ON — Ottawa Roughriders

Arena Football

  • Times-Union Center*, Albany, NY — Albany Firebirds


Wow, I’ve attended a lot of sporting events!

Anyway, this was a fun exercise, and a neat list to put together. I’m hoping to add to it!

On the NCAA basketball road

I like to read articles and surf the web during my lunch breaks. Today, I stumbled across an article about a guy who’s on a mission to visit all 350+ men’s college basketball venues. He even has a ‘blog in which he writes about his travels.

I became interested in this ‘blog for several reasons. I am an alumnus of an NCAA Division I power conference basketball school. I am a college basketball fan, and a sports fan in general. I was a pep band member in college, so that fandom tends to be amplified. I enjoy visiting and exploring sports venues. And I love to travel (although I don’t always have the time or money to do so).

I became curious about his ‘blog. I did a quick skim of his impressions about my “home” arena. I also have two Division I basketball schools within fifteen minutes of my home (Siena and UAlbany), so when I have a chance, I’ll have to read those as well. His ‘blog looks interesting, so I’ll have to read through it some more when time allows!

I applaud the gentleman’s efforts. While I’m not as ambitious as he is to try attending 350 basketball arenas, I do enjoy catching games whenever I can (I recently caught a St. John’s game at Madison Square Garden during a weekend getaway down in New York). I will confess to having a pipe dream of attending games in all thirty Major League Baseball stadiums. (So far, I’ve made it to Yankee Stadium [both old and new], Citi Field, Shea Stadium, Fenway Park, Camden Yards, SkyDome/Rogers Centre, Olympic Stadium, Tiger Stadium, Veterans Stadium, Kingdome, Safeco Field [or whatever they call it now — T-Mobile park, or whatever it is], Tropicana Field, and Coors Field. Whew! I think that’s all of them!)

Everyone needs to go out and experience life. One of my ways of doing it is attending sporting events. Whatever it is you enjoy, go out there and enjoy life!

The mystique of March Madness


(Photo source: sports.cbslocal.com)

It’s March, which means college sports junkies are in nirvana.  As I write this article, the first of the First Four games of the NCAA tournament are on the TV in front of me.

For the benefit of those of you who either live under a rock, know nothing about sports, or refer to all things sports generically as “sportsball,” a brief primer: “March Madness” (a.k.a. “the big dance”) is a reference to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, where 68 schools compete for the national championship in a single-elimination tournament format.  It generates a great deal of excitement for students, alumni, and sports fans.  It creates a conversation topic as millions of people fill out tournament brackets, trying to predict (mostly, in vain) the outcome of all tournament matchups.  To put it mildly, March Madness is a huge deal.

I played in a pep band for a power conference NCAA Division 1 school, so my sports loyalty and school spirit are, to put it mildly, very strong.  (Side note: GO ORANGE!!!)  Those of you who know people associated with college pep bands realize that our school spirit tends to run deep (this might be another article for another time).  I’ve had friends and colleagues comment that they almost never see me without wearing an article of Syracuse gear.

However, I was spoiled at Syracuse.  We are a major conference school.  When I was a student at SU, we expected to make the NCAA tournament every year.  Anything less than a tournament bid was a disappointment; for us, NIT stood for “Not In the Tournament.”  Our ultimate goal was, and still is, to win the tournament, finally reaching the NCAA basketball summit in 2003.

There are 351 schools (as of this article) that play NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball.  68 of them make the NCAA tournament.  That’s 19% of NCAA membership.  Of those 351 schools, there are 42 schools that have never played in the NCAA tournament.  (That number had dropped by one from 43, after Lipscomb won their conference tournament this year to make it for the first time.)

I currently live in a metropolitan area that hosts two Division 1 basketball schools (Siena and UAlbany), both mid-major conference schools.  Unlike the power conferences, the mid-majors usually don’t harbor realistic expectations of winning the national championship.  For them, just making the tournament is a big deal, never mind actually winning it all.

This is a frequent conversation topic with my friend, Jim, who is an alumnus of the University of Maine (and one of the 42 schools that, as of 2018, has never made the tournament).  He has told me that he dreams of watching the selection show and seeing Maine appear in the bracket.  I understand his sentiment; for him, it is a source of school spirit and regional pride.  Seeing your school’s name come up for a major sporting event in front of a national audience is a source of pride and excitement.

Only one school will win the national championship; the other 350 will be left saying “wait ’til next year.”  For the vast majority of those schools, the possibility of winning the championship is far-fetched.  But for the 68 schools that make the tournament, it’s the idea that you have the opportunity to play for a championship, regardless of your team’s odds of winning it.  It’s like playing the lottery; as long as you get a ticket, there’s a possibility, no matter how small, that you could win it.  This is the mystique of March Madness; the majority of schools in the tournament likely will not win it, but they at least have the opportunity to compete for the big prize.