A Big Spot in the Big Game

Rutherford Professor of Mathematics and Professor of Statistics Michael Schuckers had two reasons to celebrate on Super Bowl Sunday.

About a year ago, the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi approached Schuckers to gauge his interest in doing calculations that would be used in an advertisement for one of their biggest clients, Toyota.

Schuckers, a well-known sports statistics researcher throughout the U.S. and Canada, was immediately intrigued. “It sounded like a really cool project and opportunity.”

The ad, “Good Odds,” was a television spot from Toyota’s “Start Your Impossible” campaign. According to Toyota, the ad, which was planned to air for the first time during the 2018 Winter Olympics, highlighted “the real-life story of Canadian Alpine Skier Lauren Woolstencroft, who overcame tremendous odds to become a legendary Paralympic gold medalist.” Schuckers’ assignment was to show just how tremendous those mathematical odds were.

Over the next several months, Schuckers and the agency went back and forth, fine-tuning the numbers as the final story took shape. “What I was doing – what we all were doing – was a very liberal arts thing,” he says. “We were telling a story, but we were telling it through the images, the music and the numbers. I was engaging both sides of my brain when working on all of this.”

While the calculations were not much more than some multiplication, he says, the more challenging work involved was knowing the assumptions he was going to have to make and the pitfalls of those assumptions.

“It was a lot of looking at where we are at a certain point in Lauren’s life and as we transition to the next part of her story, what are the things that are relevant?” Schuckers explains. “For instance, there are however many millions of kids who start out as ballerinas; how many of those kids are going to be active in sports? My role was to find some support from one number to the next.”

Schuckers woke up on the morning of the NFL’s biggest game to an unexpected email from Saatchi & Saatchi. Plans had changed: the ad would air during the Super Bowl in the highly-coveted ‘1A’ timeslot, the first commercial played during the first commercial break after kickoff.

“It was a total surprise to me,” he says. “My contact at the ad agency said this is advertising’s biggest stage. I was excited.”

Less than four hours after the ad aired, Schuckers found himself celebrating again.

“My mom grew up in Philadelphia and for that day and that game, I was cheering with my mom’s side of the family,” he laughed.  “I was pulling for the Eagles.”