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Phil McCarten/AMPAS

Oscars fiasco a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ foul up? You wouldn’t bet on it

The 2017 Oscars will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. The finale should have been the award of Best Picture but, when La La Land was mistakenly announced as the winner, it was only halfway through their acceptance speech that the mistake was recognised. The speech was abruptly stopped and Moonlight was announced as the actual winner.

No doubt, this is a matter for extreme embarrassment for PwC, the accountants who are responsible for counting the Oscar votes for the past 83 years. I suspect that it is especially embarrassing for the two partners that look after the counting of the votes and, importantly, safeguard the envelopes.

This mistake is likely to be put down to human error and I am sure that we all feel sorry for the individuals involved. But what are the chances of a mistake like this happening?

Long shots

At the start of the 2015-2016 football season, Ladbrokes were offering odds of 5,000-1 that Leicester City would win the Premier League. If you know anything about the betting industry you will recognise that these are very high odds, certainly far higher than anything that the betting industry would envisage happening.

To put this into context, when Leicester won the premier league, the Daily Mirror published an article that listed 11 other bets that had shorter odds than Leicester winning the premiership. A few examples are given here:

  • Arsenal to sack Arsene Wenger and install Piers Morgan as boss: 2,500-1
  • David Cameron to replace Tim Sherwood as Aston Villa manager: 2,500-1
  • Sir Alex Ferguson to win Strictly Come Dancing: 1,000-1
  • Andy Murray to name his first born Novak: 500-1
Has anyone seen his quickstep? Daily Mirror

The BBC had a similar article which gave odds of 500-1 that the Queen would have a Christmas number one in the pop charts, Kate and William would have triplets (1,000-1), Kim Kardashian would be the US president (2,000-1) and the Loch Ness monster would be found (500-1).

The BBC also reported that the odds of Elvis being found alive in 2016, bearing in mind that he died (or at least he was reported to have died) in 1977, was 2,000-1. According to the bookmakers the chances of Elvis being found alive, 39 years after his death, was more likely than Leicester winning the premier league. Indeed, all of the items listed above were felt more likely to happen than Leicester winning the premiership.

Red faces

All this begs the question, what were the chances of the mistake happening at the Oscars on Sunday evening? There are a number of ways that we could calculate this.

The easiest would be to go to the bookmakers and ask them to give you the odds. You are likely to get quite short odds. I would not expect bookmakers to offer anything like 5,000-1, or even 2,000-1. This is because it could easily happen, as evidenced by the events on Sunday evening and the calling of the wrong Miss Universe winner in 2015.

If you look at the examples given above, most people would consider them virtually impossible. So, why offer long odds with the risk that this exposes the bookmaker to, when the event could actually happen?

Pie regret. The Sun

There is also a risk of manipulation. The recent Pie-Gate incident – in which a football player was forced to resign after being seen eating a pie on the sidelines and for which a bookmaker had offered odds of 8-1 – is currently under investigation.

When it comes to the Oscars, there may also be concerns about how the bet would be settled. Does it count if the declaration is in jest (which could be manipulated), does the mistake have to be made by the auditors (PwC) or is it enough for the host to make a mistake, even if the paperwork is in order?

I am not a bookmaker but I would be surprised if you could get odds of more than 100-1 against the Oscar mistake – and probably a lot less now.

500-1? Now those are good odds. Ad Meskens, CC BY

If you want to make your own judgement, you could look at various odds and decide where the Oscar announcement fits. I would argue that there is less chance of finding the Loch Ness monster than the error that occurred on Sunday. Therefore, the odds would be shorter than 500-1. You can continue picking bets until you find something that in your view – which is important, as the betting industry depends on differing views – is equally likely to happen. I would not be surprised if you ended up with something that was even lower then 100-1.

A further way is to try and analyse the likelihood of making such a mistake. The press is reporting that this is the biggest mistake in Oscar history. We could take the view that something like this would inevitably happen, given that PwC have been managing this process for 83 years. It was only a matter of time.

Doing an analysis that everybody agrees with would be difficult, as it includes so many unknown factors, but the probability is certainly not close to zero.

So, despite the press coverage that resulted, the incredulity that it could happen and the fact that it actually did are a little surprising. It was going to happen at some time, it was just a matter of when.

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