Why your favorite team should lose the Super Bowl

Conventional wisdom holds that winning the Super Bowl is an unequivocally good thing. Losing the Super Bowl, on the other hand, is perceived to be unequivocally bad; it stings for everyone involved, including the players, coaches, executives, and the fans (just ask the Seahawks, Broncos, or Niners). A loss on such a huge stage is emotionally difficult to handle, especially after players work so hard all year for the chance to win that one, big game. But what if there is a hidden benefit to losing in the country’s biggest sports spectacle? Interestingly, Super Bowl XLVIII between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos provided us some data that suggest that losing may, in fact, be good for your favorite franchise (you listening, Denver?).

A Super Bowl Study
Twenty minutes after Super Bowl XLVIII ended, fans from each team (Seahawks and Broncos) were surveyed about their general level of football fandom1. Three weeks later, 185 of these same fans were asked to rate their fandom again. We found some interesting, and unexpected results. Immediately after the Super Bowl, both losing fans and winning fans reported roughly the same levels of fandom. Three weeks later, fans of the Broncos reported roughly the same level of fandom as before the devastating loss. However, as can be seen in Figure 1, fans of the Seahawks reported statistically significantly less fandom than immediately following the convincing win2.

Figure 1. Level of fandom after Super Bowl XLVIII

These results seem to support the existence of what we in the sports world have observed for a long time: bandwagoning. After reaching football’s promised land, Super Bowl winning teams may actually experience a drop in fandom as these bandwagon fans move along to the next “big thing”. Interestingly, though, losing the big game may have the exact opposite effect; it may serve to reaffirm people’s fandom — even those who were late jumping on the train. Thus, it would appear that while the glory of a Super Bowl won is short-lived, suffering through a Super Bowl loss might lead to more committed fans in the long term. Additional Evidence

While the results of our analyses suggest that fans of the losing team show greater levels of fandom, we wanted find corroborating evidence that might further validate this finding. One measure that we thought should closely mirror our fandom results are NFL teams’ local TV ratings. We examined these ratings in each season following the two prior Super Bowls — XLVI for the New York Giants (winners) and New England Patriots (losers); and XLVII for Baltimore Ravens (winners) and San Francisco 49ers (losers)3. We wanted to see if the patterns in each of these markets resembled our earlier results — that is, TV ratings should decrease for winners (New York and Baltimore) and maintain or increase for losers (New England and San Francisco). This is exactly what we found. The results are displayed below, in Figure 2.
                      Figure 2. Percentage change in TV ratings after Super Bowl XLVI & XLVII

After their win in Super Bowl XLVI, the Giants’ TV ratings in New York for the following season ended up decreasing by 2%. That same year, the Super Bowl losing Patriots saw a 5% increase in Boston-area TV ratings. A similar pattern emerges for Super Bowl XLVII, when the Ravens had a 3% decrease in TV ratings the following year, while the Super Bowl losing 49ers were the beneficiaries of a 12% bump in TV ratings in the Bay Area. These findings align with our earlier analyses, indicating that fans of Super Bowl winning teams are less likely than their losing counterparts to tune in the following year.

It is important to note that the TV ratings finding is only correlational — just like your stats teacher once said, correlation does not equal causation. So, we aren’t saying that drops in TV ratings were due solely to winning the Super Bowl; rather, many other factors (e.g., regional weather conditions, player turnover or other sports teams in the area competing for airtime) likely affected the rise and fall of TV ratings in these markets. Additionally, it is likely that the team’s regular season performance the following year contributed to some of the changes in viewership. In each of these cases, the team that lost the Super Bowl the prior season had a better record than the winning team the following season. Despite these scientific caveats, the insights from the TV ratings are valuable because they further suggest that fanbases of Super Bowl losing teams are more likely to remain committed the following year whereas their Super Bowl winning counterparts are not.

What It All Means So what are the implications of these findings? First and foremost, our results challenge the existing conception that winning the Super Bowl is the be all and end all of each NFL season. Beyond this, the TV ratings data may have important financial repercussions. According to the most recent census, the average household in the United States consists of approximately 2.58 people 4. New York City, the nation’s largest TV market, is made up of over 7 million households5. Thus, a 2% drop in TV ratings for the Giants equates to roughly 350,000 potential fewer viewers each week in the year following their Super Bowl win. This lost viewership is not only bad news for NFL teams, TV networks, and advertisers, but it also represents 350,000 fans less likely to buy merchandise or otherwise support their team.

Conversely, losing teams may have a striking opportunity. In San Francisco, a market of around 2.5 million households, an increase of 12% represents around 775,000 more viewers potentially tuning into 49ers games each week. This suggests that compared to winning the Super Bowl, losing the Super Bowl may, in fact, bring about more enduring fandom, local exposure and financial opportunities for teams and their local TV networks. Thus, while the immediate pain of losing the Super Bowl is agonizing in the near term, our findings indicate that losing the Super Bowl may have a silver lining in the longer term; a prospect that might, just might, help console losing franchises and their fans.

1 Fans rated their fandom on a scale from 1 to 7 with higher numbers indicating greater levels of fandom

2 A big thanks to our colleague Elena Lyrintzis for collecting the data!http://www.healthpersuasion.com/

3 http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Daily/Issues/2014/01/14/Research-and-Ratings/NFL-local.aspx

4 https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-14.pdf

5 http://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/corporate/us/en/docs/solutions/measurement/television/2013-2014-DMA-Ranks.pdf


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