BBC Capital

The psychology of winning the long shot

About the author

Bryan Borzykowski is a Toronto-based business writer and editor. He writes about personal finance, wealth issues and other money topics for BBC Capital and also contributes to the New York Times, CNBC, CNNMoney, Canadian Business and the Globe and Mail. He’s written three investing and personal finance books, too. Follow him on Twitter @bborzyko. 

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People make money in all sorts of unusual ways, but none more thrilling than sinking a $75,000 shot in the middle of a professional basketball game.

Just ask Michael Drysch. In January, the Illinois-based information technology worker was given the chance to heave a ball in to the net from half way down the court during a Miami Heat basketball game. It somehow, inexplicably, went in — from 47 feet away.

“I thought I had taken a good shot,” said Drysch, who rarely plays basketball. “But I still couldn’t believe it when I made it.”

It may not be the most conventional way to earn some extra money, but sporting events around the world offer fans a chance to shoot a puck, kick a football, sink a basket or hit a cricket ball for big cash prizes.

While the odds are against you, it is possible to win.

Since October 30, five fans of the National Basketball Association’s Oklahoma City Thunder have each won $20,000 by sinking a basket from halfway down the court, despite there being 100 to 1 odds of landing the shot.  Meanwhile in June, Chris Newell, who hadn’t played cricket in 20 years, won £50,000($81,040) in Sheffield in the UK after hitting a stump three times in a row from 72 feet away. Four years ago, 24-year-old Stuart Tinner took home £250,000 ($409,375) at Wembley in the UK after hitting the crossbar of a goal post with a rugby ball from 30 metres (98 feet) away.

These competitions are more popular in North America than other parts of the world, said Rod Kohler, managing director of London-based Revolution Sports & Entertainment, but they pop up during cricket matches in India and some other sporting events in Europe.

Practice makes perfect?

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in this situation in the first place — fans are usually chosen by a random draw in the weeks before a game — there are ways to up your odds of winning.

Two keys to success: practice beforehand and find a way to mentally block out the crowd, said Alan Raphael, director of brand partnerships for The Sports Network, a popular Canadian sports channel.

Raphael has organized a number of in-game ice-hockey and Canadian Football events where contestants had a chance to win a CAD$1 million ($938,000) jackpot. In some cases, players are chosen during the game — a seat number is randomly picked — so that leaves little time to prepare. But for the major prizes, ticketholders or other fans are notified in advance that they will be contestants, so they usually have a few weeks to practice, he said.

Darwin Head, a Canadian, won CAD$1 million ($938,000) after he shot 15 pucks into an ice-hockey net from 37 metres (121 feet) away. Head knew three weeks ahead of time that he’d been selected for the contest, so he practiced shooting with his local hockey team. He also got a chance to practice with legendary player Bobby Orr for an hour before the game started.

“We strongly encourage [contestants] to contact their local sporting teams and get some coaching,” said Raphael, who helped set up the event Head participated in.

Drysch had two weeks to practice before taking his shot. He spent two hours every day or two at his local community centre throwing balls from centre court. That helped him with his positioning, he said, but he didn’t sink a single basket despite the many hours he spent practicing.

It was at a pre-game steak dinner with one of the event’s sponsors where he learned how to make the shot.

“I was told to put some back spin on it,” Drysch said. “So I added that to what I was doing in practice — and it worked.”

Psychological warfare

Of course, you can practice non-stop for weeks, but the hardest part of winning, is dealing with the pressure of the moment. Every time Newell hit the stumps with his cricket ball, the 16,000 fans in the ground roared louder and louder.

Drysch not only had to tune out thousands of fans, but star basketball player and four-time National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player Lebron James was also staring at him intently from the sidelines.

“Some people love the crowd, but we’ve also had people who’ve requested ear plugs to drown people out,” Raphael said.

At a charity golf tournament in August, Boston-based health care industry executive Jeff Barton was given the chance to sink a hole-in-one for $1 million. He wasn’t able to practice — his name was drawn out of a hat just minutes before the contest — so all he could do was try to keep himself from feeling overwhelmed.

The odds of making the shot: a whopping 12,500 to 1. Every one of the 132 players there — including his boss, an executive vice-president at his firm — was watching.

“I was incredibly nervous when they announced my name,” he said “But once I got out there, I took a deep breath and felt a sense a sense of calm. I just wanted to have fun.”

He sunk the ball and won the money.

“I looked at my boss and said, ‘I think it went in’,” he said. “His mouth was wide open.”

Windfall economics

If you do win, that monetary windfall can change your life.

Drysch was nearly penniless when he found out about his $75,000 shot opportunity. The day before the competition, his bank had called — his account was overdrawn. The money allowed him to pay off his bills and although financial advisers would always recommend saving some found money for a rainy day, Drysch said he spent the rest of the winnings in two months.

For Barton, his prize money will arrive in yearly $25,000increments for the next 40 years. He has already invested his first cheque in an education savings account for his children and plans to save each lump sum.

Tinner told reporters that he wanted to move out of his parent’s basement and into his own place. Newell told his local newspaper that he planned to use some of the money to travel to Australia to watch — what else — a cricket match.

While most people shouldn’t hold out hope of making that $1 million shot — let alone being chosen to even try — plenty of people have beaten the odds.

“Don’t get nervous,” said Drysch. “Just do it.”

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