Taco Bell’s offer of free tacos was genius. Starting with the 2004 - 2005 season, as the Spartans approached 70 points the Izzone would chant “We want tacos!”. During games when the team approached reaching the point of free tacos, each attempt would bring oohs and ahhs from the crowd. A free taco was at stake. But why 70 points? Any number of points between 65 and 85 would be acceptable because a majority of Spartan home games ended with the Spartan scoring between 66 and 82 points at home between the 1995 and 2004 seasons.
In reality, any giveaway where you have to go to the store to redeem a ticket is meant to drive customers to the store. Taco Bell’s goal was not to limit the number of free tacos but to maximize the number of times people visited their restaurants. The likely goal was to have you visit for your free taco (current cost $1.29) and buy several more with a drink. Arby’s likely wants the same. Visit for your free slider (current cost $1.49) and buy a few more with fries and a drink. Unfortunately, we never know if these promotions drive customers to visit these locations or what else they purchased.
In the Tom Izzo Era -- since the 1995 - 1996 season-- the Spartans have scored 70 or more points in at least 55% (eight or nine games per season) of their games each season except for the 1995 - 1996 season where they had a single home game with 70 points or more. During the free taco promotion -- the 2004 to 2013 seasons -- 102 out of 161 home games (~63% over ten seasons) resulted in a free taco. The 2017-2018 season has resulted in free sliders for 9 of 13 home games (~69%). If the Arby’s Free Slider promotion were happening during the 2014 to 2017 seasons, the average number of free slider games would have been eight games per season (50% of home games) with the 2016 season resulting in ten games (~62%) with eight 3s or more.
Setting a scoring goal requires knowing what the team has previously done and expecting the past trends to continue. An easily achievable scoring goal is uninspiring while an overly demanding scoring goal is defeating. The following is likely how the organizers of the food giveaways determined the optimal number of points and three-pointers.
The above plot illustrates the Spartan’s score for each game during the Izzo Era and depicts the number of points scored in each game using the violin (vase) shapes; the girth of the violin indicates more scores at the value while the length represents the range of the score for all games during the season. Very thin regions of the violins indicate a low number of the score’s occurrence. The markers -- circles (Big Ten conference games) and squares (non-conference games) -- represents the scores for individual home games and are color-coded dark green for home wins and orange for home losses. The horizontal line drawn behind the violins represents 70 points. In the 1996 season, the Spartans scored a median of 63 points (equal number of point totals above and below this value) with a low of 47 and a high of 77 points.
Using the pre-taco era to determine the optimal number of points for the promotion, showed 74 out of 125 home games (~59% over eight seasons) would have resulted in a free taco using 70 points; either nine or ten games per season. During this time, the Spartans increased their median score from 63 points in the 1996 season to 77 points in the 2001 season followed by a decrease to 68 points in the 2003 season. Reducing the free taco score to 60 would have resulted in an average of five additional free tacos (15 free tacos) per season, while 65 would garner three more tacos (12 free tacos) per season. Increasing the need number of points for a free taco to 75 reduces the number by two (eight free tacos) per season, 80 by four (five free tacos) per season, and 85 by seven (only three free tacos) per season. Based on the Spartan’s past performance, selecting 70 points for a free taco was sound while 75 points would likely have resulted in free tacos for about half of the home games.
We Want Tacos!
During the reign of tacos, the Spartans scored 70 points or more in 102 of 161 home games (~63% over ten seasons) with the number of points scored in each home fluctuating around 75 points. The 2007 season was the only season where the average and the median number of points was less than 70 with values of 69.05 and 69, respectively. Interestingly, the 2009, 2004, and 2007 seasons had the fewest number of free taco games -- 7, 8, and 9 respectively -- compared to the 2005 (12 free taco games) and 2008 (13) seasons.
Unfortunately, the Taco Bell promotion ended with the 2012-2013 season and left a void -- in the stomach of students -- for several years. Had the taco giveaway continued, there would have been 61 of 76 home games (~80% over five seasons) resulting in a free taco; averaging 12 free taco games per season. The past five seasons, the 2015 season had the lowest average and median score of 74.2 and 74, respectively, for what would have been ten free tacos. The current season (2018) currently has the greatest average and median score of 92.8 and 92 points, respectively. Currently, all home games during the 2018 season would have resulted in free tacos. Though, a free taco could never take the hurt out of the demoralizing loss to Michigan.
You’ve Got Sliders!
Recently, Arby’s has stepped up and offered to feed the Breslin faithful. When the Spartans score eight 3s in a home game, the game ticket is worth a free slider. Eight 3s is a considerable number of points; approximately a third of the points when using the 70 point mark for free tacos. Let’s take a look at how eight 3s might have been reached using the number of made 3s since the 2010 - 2011 season.
The median number of 3s scored in each Spartan home game has increased since the 2013 season; see plot below. Before the 2014 season, the Spartans averaged between five and six 3s per home game with a median of six 3s per home game. These values are skewed due to the 2011 and 2013 seasons -- minimal free slider games of five and two, respectively -- with eight free slider games during the 2012 season.
If Arby’s free slider promotion started in the 2014 season, half of 2014’s 16 home games would have provided a free slider. The 2015 season had 7 of 16, the 2016 season had 10 of 16, and the 2017 season had 8 of 16. The 2018 season has already reached eight free slider games with five home games remaining. The Spartans are averaging almost nine (8.7) made 3s per game -- home and away -- with the median number of made 3s being nine -- also home and away. Reducing the required number of 3s to seven would have increased the number of free slider games by about three for the 2011 through 2017 seasons. A further reduction to six 3s for free sliders would have only benefited the 2011, 2013, and 2014 seasons and increased the number of free sliders by four, six, and five respectively. An increase to nine 3s would have reduced the number of free slider games by one or two while increasing to 10 threes would reduce the number of slider games by three or four each season. Hypothetically, with approximately half of the home games resulting in free sliders over the past four seasons, a goal of eight 3s is optimal if the goal is 50% of home games result in a free slider.
Data obtained from Sports Reference’s Men’s College Basketball and ESPN. Analysis performed using R.