NFL Fans and Reporters Overly Optimistic About Teams’ Prospects

RTX1P8YL
Most people over-estimate how many games their favorite NFL team will win, and underestimate wins of franchises they dislike. Here Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles passes against the New York Giants on August 22. Noah K. Murray / USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

“This is our year.”

Many people claim to be able to realistically assess their team’s chances of success in the coming season, even while acknowledging their fanhood and bias. In general, though, people’s biases interfere with their predictions: New research shows that people tend to overestimate the amount of games that their favorite team is going to win, and underestimate the number of wins for squads they dislike.

Reporters are also not immune: They generally overestimate the number of games teams will win across the board.

This is an example of a phenomenon called "optimism bias," wherein people mistakenly believe that they (or their family or their friends or—in this case—team) are less likely than others to experience a negative event like a loss, says Bradley Love, an experimental psychologist at University College London. Another way to put it: The future will be better than the past.

In a study published on September 9 in the journal PLOS ONE, Love conducted surveys of more than 1,100 people online, asking them what their favorite NFL team was and then having them estimate how many games they would win in the 2015 season. On average, people guessed that their favorite team would win between nine and 10 games. That is statistically impossible, because in a 16-game season, teams will average eight wins. Respondents also predicted that teams they disliked would win only six games.

Reporters and experts, who, in theory, are aware that franchises will win an average of eight games, still estimated that teams in general would win a mean of nine games during the season.

Love also calculated what he calls the “optimism gap”: the difference between the number of wins predicted by those who like a certain team and the predictions of those who don’t. The largest gap belongs to the Cincinnati Bengals, followed by the Arizona Cardinals and the Houston Texans. Bengals fans think the team will win six more games than those who aren’t fans of the franchise.

The “optimism gap” is larger for mid-market teams that don’t receive as much media attention as, say, the New England Patriots or the Dallas Cowboys. Love speculates that may be because such fans hear less negative press about their teams from local media outlets, and fewer comparisons are made between the improvements or setbacks of these franchises with other teams.

The study also calculated that the NFL’s least-liked team (as calculated by the ratio of people who like a team to the number of those who dislike it) is the Oakland Raiders, followed by the New York Jets, Tennessee Titans and Patriots. The most-liked teams, on the other hand, were the Detroit Lions, Denver Broncos and New York Giants.

Teams that were well-liked also tended to be disliked. The Patriots are adored by the highest proportion of people, at 7.7 percent of respondents, but also reviled by the highest margin, 17.3 percent. (This is a separate calculation from the one above, which involves a ratio instead of a raw percentage.) But because the Patriots are perennially good, receive a lot of media coverage and their developments are followed closely, they have a pretty low “optimism gap”; their fans think they will win only one more game on average than their detractors. Even haters aren’t blind to consistent winning.