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Sports Personality: McIlroy is favourite but these numbers tell us Lewis Hamilton is really in the driving seat

The numbers that hint Rory isn't quite a shoe-in for the Sports Personality of the Year Award

by Aidan Elder | December 14, 2014

It’s Christmas time.
They come to worship the chosen one from all around.
It’s a lot like the stable scene from the Bible, only with a much greater chance of James Corden turning up.

The BBC Sports Personality is one of those cultural institutions etched into the public psyche. Throughout the year, whenever a home-grown athlete does something remotely good, there’s almost immediately a link made to the Beeb’s famous accolade. You know the scene:

Commentator: “And after 22 long hours here at the World Biscuit-Baking Championships, the Briton finishes just outside of the medals … disappointment today, but more performances like that would almost certainly make him/her a contender for Sports Personality of the Year”

Obviously that scenario isn’t entirely realistic. Mainly because BT Sports would probably outbid the BBC and Sky for the rights for the World Biscuit-Baking Championships, but whenever a sportsperson does enjoy some success, thoughts of the BBC’s prize is never too far from the mind.

WinDrawWin Both teams to score acca Mobile Size

It seems to be an odd mix of predictable coronations and shock results. But is there some order to all the wide grins, excessive back-slapping and inevitable controversy? The Paddy Power Blog has looked back over the 60 years of the award to try and make some sense of it.


Let’s Talk About Sex

In terms of gender, it’s almost certainly going to be a man. That’s not us getting all Keys and Gray about women’s sport, it’s just the statistics. Around four out of every five SPOTY prizes have gone to men and it’s not as if more modern times and greater coverage of women’s sport has helped.

Men have won the last seven awards on the bounce following a comparative purple patch for the girls when they claimed three titles in five years (Paula Radcliffe 2002, Kelly Holmes 2004, Zara Phillips 2006). At 40/1, Jo Pavey is the shortest price woman for the award this time around. Her ‘mum to gold medal’ story is one of the more fascinating of this year and we are due a female win, but her best of victory comes in the Betting Without McIlroy and Hamilton market where she’s 6/5. There is a strong female contingent this year however and it’s just 8/13 that one of them finishes in the Top 3.

Region For The Stars

England are miles ahead in terms of victories, but that’s to be expected. It’s by far the biggest country involved and that’s reflected by the fact they have claimed nearly 80% of all SPOTY crowns. What’s more interesting is the success rates of regions relative to their population.

Way out in front is the Isle of Man, but that’s all down to Mark Cavendish rather than it being a horribly overlooked bastion of sporting prowess. Wales and Northern Ireland are the regions punching above their weight. The award has gone back to the principality four times (none of which were for rugby BTW) at the rate of one win per 750,000 of population. Norn Iron has also performed well on a per capita basis, lending support to Rory McIlroy’s position as hot favourite. If you fancy England to assert it’s dominance, we go 8/5 for the winner to be English.


Be A Good Sport

If you fancy getting your hands on that weird camera statue, it doesn’t hurt to don the lyrca and hit the running track. Athletics is the most successful sporting discipline of them all and by some distance. If it was a 10,000 metre race it would be lapping the competition blowing raspberries as it cruised past. Athletes competing under the admittedly broad umbrella of Athletics have won 17 times, almost 30% of the time.

The next most successful category is Motor Racing, 10 wins behind. Of the sports that tend to get a lot of hype and coverage, it’s perhaps surprising to see Golf and Rugby Union floundering around the back with two wins and one win respectively.

But wins by volume doesn’t paint the entire picture. Some sports attract much more attention than others and you’d think that would skew the figures in their favour. Looking at the winning sports via the prism of participation rates in England, we see rather a different story. Due to the high number of people partaking in athletics, the sport goes from the top straight into mid-table obscurity.

In The Driving Seat

On account of the fact very few people have a F1 car or Superbike kicking around the garage at home, Motor Racing participation rates are tiny, leading to a disproportionately high wins per capita rate. Still though, there’s clearly a lot of interest in the sport which is a strong positive if your looking at Lewis Hamilton to upset the odds.

Figure skating and boxing also go quite well, once again fueled by comparatively low participation rates but high interest among the viewing public. The best achievement of the British figure skaters at the Sochi games earlier this year was pretty much turning up, so that’s less relevant this time around, but Carl Froch might be a decent outside bet in the betting without Rory and Lewis at 11/1, especially considering the recent tendency to celebrate athletes approaching the end of their careers.

The Equestrian category does well, but it’s also a tad misleading. In that, we’ve lumped Eventing, Showjumping and Horse Racing into a single category despite them having very different fanbases. Let’s just say there’s little to link the upper middle Musto-clad class crowds at the eventing with the type of folks in the betting shops screaming at a seller at Lingfield other than presence of a horse.


Summit To Think About

The vast majority of SPOTY winners won at or around the peak of their career. That’s a somewhat subjective assessment, but for the most part the peak happens in the 12 months before or after winning the SPOTY Award. Sometimes it’s a single achievement that stands above all others in a person’s career and sometimes it’s the accumulation of several victories around a single point in a career.

In other cases, it’s an award that comes early on in a career and the actual peak of that person’s success goes without winning the award. That’s happened about 17% of the time. Adam Peaty and Max Whitlock are the two representatives from the category in this year’s competition, but both are considered big outsiders, unless you’re looking at the Betting Without McIlroy and Hamilton market.

On the flipside, sometimes it’s an award that comes long after the de facto peak in someone’s career, near the time when they’re about to call an end to their career. Ryan Giggs is the epitome of this type of winner and Carl Froch and Jo Pavey carry the hopes the group this year, although admittedly there are also shades of ‘career peak’ about the two of them in 2014. They’ve got a shout to Finish In The Top Three.

Feeling A Bit Peaky

On a handful of occasions, it’s gone to someone who is going along nicely in their career, but not near the end and not at their peak – they’ve won a few major prizes and they’ll continue winning for a few years to come. At 7%, it’s not a major category but looks more likely to suit Lewis Hamilton’s career profile than Rory McIlroy’s. With his talent and the best car under him, he could yet get a few more Driver’s World Championships under his belt and there may not be a single, definable peak, which may not be the case with the fantastically-haired Northern Irishman.

Claiming Rory has hit his peak at the tender age of 25 is controversial, but this far from saying he’s finished. He may well continue to win majors long into the future, but in winning two majors, a Ryder Cup and claiming ownership top spot in the world rankings in 2014, this may well be his single greatest year. It’s rarely going to be this good ever again, therefore this is quite possibly his peak. Given how your chances of winning are linked to the success of other athletes in the same year, he may not get into the reckoning too often in the future, even if he continues to win over the longer term.


A Touch Of Class

The use of the word ‘Personality’ has always been one of the most curious things about the award so we decided to take the ambitious step of categorising what these personalities might be. It’s also important to note that this is based on the public perception of winners at the time the person won rather than what those personalities may have been in reality and what the person has developed into since then. Take Michael Owen for example – at the time of winning he was widely seen as a fresh-faced, innocent youngster, but now ‘money-grabbing self-aggrandising dullard’ may be the opinion held by some people. Not us though. No way. It’s open to some debate, we admit that much.

The Posh category is fairly self-explanatory. Educated at a fancy school, probably taking part in an expensive, non-mainstream sport, may or may not have a parent whose a royal – they’re the main criteria. Princess Anne is probably the most posh of all the winners. It has had sporadic success reaching a peak in the mid 90s during when Jonathan Edwards’ win was sandwiched between Damon Hill’s two victories. They account for about 18% of all wins but don’t have much of a representation this year, except for Charlotte Dujardin, who if she wasn’t so posh would be called Chaz Garden.

The one to look out for is the Salt of The Earth Type. This is meant to encapsulate winners who just come across as pleasant, agreeable people from middle class-ish backgrounds who tend to be modest despite being hugely talented. People it’s hard to hate. Think Chris Hoy, Torvill and Dean and a pre-dumping in public Paula Radcliffe. This category accounts for 43% of all SPOTY victories so it’s worth looking out for.

Highly Traited

A short step from the Salt of the Earth Types is the Working Class Hero, who have many of the same characteristics but with either less money or a very tough upbringing – possibly both. They’re also more likely to be playing a mainstream less, elitist sport. Think Gazza, Henry Cooper and Bobby Moore. The WCH’s have won 28% of SPOTY Awards, so in combination with the Salt of the Earth Types, they constitute over 70% of wins.

There are two minority categories one which is more clear cut than the others. Youthful Prodigy are the young tyros who are clearly very talented, but haven’t really established a public persona yet. On the other end of the scale are the Bit of a Dick, But Very Good types. They have had to time for both success and to establish their personalities, but they’re not especially nice personalities. Typically smug, arrogant, over-confident possibly with a streak of grumpy, but undeniably good at what they do. Nick Faldo, you are the archetype of this genre. Well done, you smug bastards.

Looking at this year’s contest, it’s hard to know where to position the two market leaders. Depending on your point of view or jealously towards his magnificent hair, Rory McIlroy could go in the Salt of the Earth Type or Bit of a Dick, But Very Good category. The same could be said for Lewis Hamilton, except for the magnificent hair. There can be little debate that Gareth Bale falls into the Salt of the Earth Type. It’s hard to come across like a dick when you’re playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo week in week out.

It looks to be a straight shoot-out between Rory and Lewis, but it’s down to a public vote, so you can never really tell how the unpredictable British public will go. If Rory says the wrong thing or reminds everyone that he ditched his fiance just as they sat down to send out the wedding invites, the tide may turn. The power is in the same hands as the people responsible for making Nick Clegg Deputy Prime Minister. Never forget that.

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