Number crunching in the Wall Street Journal's new sports page

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As reported by Rueters Monday, the Wall Street Journal has beefed up its sports coverage, with an apparent focus on professional baseball, football, basketball, and hockey, and collegiate football and basketball--the main sports covered by competitors like the New York Times and USA Today. Sports-loving subscribers to the WSJ's print edition, like myself, got a bonus yesterday (the only one I'm expecting this year) when the paper changed the back page of its Personal Journal section, which had featured weather forecasts and miscellaneous articles, to Sports.

A full-page ad for the section that ran in Tuesday's WSJ showed a picture of a baseball ripped open at the seams, conjuring the baseball phrase "tearing the cover off the ball." The image also resonated with the ad's headline, "Go deep," and suggests the paper is interested in digging into core issues, something it doesn't particularly argue in the rest of the ad:

"The Wall Street Journal doesn't just follow sports. We lead the way. Sure you might call our sports coverage analytical, insightful or even forward thinking, but one thing you can't call it is conventional. When we report on sports, we focus less on what you've already seen happen and more on what will happen next. We look behind the scenes. At the big picture. We tell stories you don't expect from a perspective as unusual as it is engaging. And we show you the shape of things to come. It's a whole new take on sports. It's sports in the Wall Street Journal. And it's 5 days a week. Sports coverage has gone pro."

Whether the sports page runs five days a week or six days as reported in the Reuters article remains to be seen, but the ad should have mentioned that the paper is going to "report" and "focus" and "look" and "tell" and "show" largely through statistics, percentages, and odds. If the pages from yesterday and today and the complimentary Web version, wsj.com/sports, are any indication, the WSJ is aiming to do with sports what it does so well with business: reduce the field largely to numbers. 

The page is divided into three distinct areas. The bulk of the page is devoted to an in-depth article. Today's piece hinged on a figure, .340, the unusually low winning percentage of road teams in major men's college basketball. A box on the left side of the page provides short articles with slanted takes on popular headlines. Today's paper, for example, includes a bit not on whether the soon-to-be-released Michael Vick will play in the NFL again, but on the dollar value of one of his houses, recently put up for sale.

The third area is a set of three boxes along the bottom of the page that focuses explicitly on numbers. The first box is called "The Count." Yesterday it surveyed the odds of Tiger Woods winning the Grand Slam; today it examined the effect, or noneffect, of height in offensive rebounding in men's college basketball this year. The second box, located inside "The Count," simply shows a figure in large red font above an explanation. Yesterday it was the percentage likelihood of a fight between between two NHL teams playing that night; today it was the season-long local TV rating for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The third box, in the bottom-right corner, is called "Today's Game Predictions" and lists the percentage odds of winning for dozens of teams playing that day. According to AccuScore, the WJS's named source for these predictions, the Bulls have a 71% chance of beating the Warriors at home tonight.

But isn't this prediction box strange? I care about weather forecasts but not about game picks. And I'm a big sports fan. The paper provides plenty of fodder for financial risk-takers, with its extensive listings of stock gainers and losers, money rates, etc. Is the WSJ now pitching to sports gamblers?

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