The winner is: Janesville natives crunch numbers

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staff, Gazette
Wednesday, March 20, 2013

— America has been wrestling with brackets for the better part of three days.

A couple of Janesville natives produced 50,000 different outcomes of the NCAA tournament in a matter of seconds.

Paul and Joel Bessire, the general manager and chief technical officer with PredictionMachine.com, respectively, have spent the better part of a decade wrapping their minds around the numbers involved in sports. Their website has made a name for its ability to predict outcomes of games—including those in the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and college sports.

“Twenty-three and a half percent of the time in 50,000 simulations, when we go all the way through the bracket, Indiana wins,” Paul said on CBS Sports Network’s Bracket Breakdown in the hours after the field of 68 was released Sunday.

Using his formulas, he has correctly predicted the eventual NCAA tournament winner on selection Sunday in seven of the past nine years.

But the story begins back in Janesville, where the Bessires grew up with parents Bill and Jan—both former Janesville teachers—and brother Jeff, now a teacher in Minnesota.

“I was 11 or 12 years old and looking through every box score in The Gazette and trying to determine the likelihood of an (NBA) team winning based on how many 20-point scorers it had,” recalled Paul, who is now married and lives outside Cincinnati, Ohio. “I don’t know what the theory was behind it, but I got very intrigued right off the bat.”

“My family has always been kind of sports-crazy, so I kind of assumed at some point I’d be doing something sports-related,” said Joel, a 2003 graduate of Craig High School, who graduated from UW-Madison in 2006 and now lives with his family of four in Evansville. “I got into computer programming in high school and kind of stumbled onto a situation that I can do both computer programming and deal with sports. It’s just kind of a perfect situation.”

Paul, a graduate of Craig in 2000, went on to the University of Cincinnati and finished with bachelor’s degrees in finance and quantitative analysis and a Masters is quantitative analysis—all in a matter of 12 quarters.

Between his bachelor’s and master’s programs, he stumbled upon on opportunity with WhatIfSports.com, a sports simulation website now owned by FoxSports.com.

After an internship, Paul eventually landed a full-time job with the site, and Joel came aboard as an intern in 2005.

“My objective was to rewrite the math behind the simulation engines at WhatIfSports, to make them more comprehensive, more thorough and more accurate,” Paul said. “I realized that we weren’t just good at coming up with a box score of what could’ve happened, but we also got very good at predicting what was going to happen.”

With Joel hoping to return to Wisconsin and the brothers’ goal of one day starting their own business, the Bessires branched out, partnering with other business associates with whom they had already worked to launch PredictionMachine.com.

“We wrote the engine, built the website, had the contacts, went to radio row for the Super Bowl in 2010 and immediately established some credibility for what we had,” Paul said. “Since then, the record’s been pretty strong.”

Notably, the site broke through when it went 11-0 predicting the outcomes of the 2011 NFL playoff games against the spread—the projected outcome set by bookmakers in Las Vegas.

The “Predictalator” is 26-8 in the NFL Playoffs against the spread since the site’s inception and is 26-5 on its top MLB picks when it comes to projecting a team’s total number of victories in a regular season.

While consumers can use the site’s NCAA tournament outlook for free this week as they fill in their brackets, the business—which employs three others full-time besides the Bessires, as well as a couple of freelance writers—typically creates revenue by selling subscriptions to picks, which are calculated daily. According to the American Gaming Association, $2.88 billion was legally wagered on sports bets in Las Vegas in 2011.

“I’m very happy and proud with the approach that we’ve taken to be as educational and thorough and intelligent about how to approach who is going to win, by how much and how often,” Paul said. “We can run all 67 games from the bracket 50,000 times and track every team’s likelihood to make it to every level, and that takes just a matter of seconds.”

The Bessires believe that working alongside each other for nearly a decade gives them an advantage.

“He’s probably my biggest role model, so it’s awesome to work with him day-in and day-out,” Joel said. “There’s not too much tinkering we have to do on a daily basis, but we’re constantly reviewing our engines and results to make sure we’re getting the results that we want.”

In turn, they might just help you get the results you’re looking for in this year’s bracket.

On top of the information and simulations that can be found at PredictionMachine.com, Paul offers three tips:

“Get the end right because the person winning after Day 1 is rarely the person that’s winning at the end. Survive, which is similar, but don’t force upsets early in rounds because a 12 usually beats a 5 because 5s are 75 percent likely to win. And then ignore seeds.”

The Janesville natives should know. They had already seen the bracket play out 50,000 times before the second round even began.


THE DETAILS: Paul and Joel Bessire, who grew up in Janesville, are the general manager and chief technical officer of PredictionMachine.com, a sports simulation website.

TRY IT OUT: Fans can simulate the NCAA tournament for themselves or check out the “Predictalator’s” likely outcomes at www.PredictionMachine.com. The site is also offering a contest that challenges users to pick the 10 individuals who will score the most points in the tournament.

ON TV: On YouTube, search “Paul Bessire predicts NCAA Tournament” to check out Paul’s take on the bracket on a clip from CBS Sports.

Here’s who they’re picking


National Champion: Indiana.

Final Four: Louisville, Gonzaga, Florida, Indiana.

Wisconsin will…: Make the Sweet Sixteen but lose there to Gonzaga.

Marquette will…: Make the Sweet Sixteen but lose there to Miami.

Upset special: In 50,000 simulations, No. 8-seeded Pittsburgh made the Final Four more than 11 percent of the time.

Gazette staff predictions

Eric Schmoldt

National Champion: Indiana.

Final Four: Louisville, Ohio State, Michigan, Indiana.

Wisconsin will…: Suffer another loss to Ohio State with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

Marquette will…: Lose to Indiana in an Elite Eight game.

Upset special: Pac-12 tournament champ Oregon makes the Sweet Sixteen as a No. 12 seed.

Tom Miller

National Champion: Ohio State.

Final Four: Louisville, Ohio State, Florida, Indiana.

Wisconsin will…: Win three games before losing to Ohio State in the Elite Eight.

Marquette will…: Suffer an upset in its first game, losing to Davidson.

Upset special: Davidson goes on to win another game before losing to Miami in the Sweet Sixteen.

Ken Veloskey

National Champion: Gonzaga.

Final Four: Michigan State, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Miami.

Wisconsin will…: Win twice before losing to the eventual national-champion Bulldogs.

Marquette will…: Also lose to a team nicknamed Bulldogs, suffering a third-round upset to Butler.

Upset special: The South Dakota State Jackrabbits knock Michigan out in another first-game upset for the Wolverines.

John Barry

National Champion: Miami.

Final Four: Louisville, New Mexico, Florida, Miami.

Wisconsin will…: Beat Ole Miss, Kansas State and Gonzaga but lose to New Mexico in the Elite Eight.

Marquette will…: Beat Davidson and Butler but lose to Miami in the Sweet Sixteen.

Upset special: Top-seeded Kansas loses to North Carolina in the third round.

Last updated: 7:55 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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