The Stats Driven Approach to NFL Team Likeability

Over the opening weekend of the NFL’s 2016 season The Renaissance Fan’s own Frank Anderson (with some contributions from myself) took a stab at describing whether each NFL team was good, evil, or neutral. You can read the two part write up here (AFC, NFC). Frank did some fine work on this piece, but as is the case with anyone’s opinion (including Frank’s which I respect deeply) it is at its core subject to biases that are unique to that person. Even though Frank and I have known each other for years, are about the same age, are the same race, come from the same part of the country, hold generally similar political views, we saw certain NFL teams differently (particularly in the NFC North…).

Instead of writing a pure rebuttal to Frank’s piece and arguing why certain teams should have been categorized differently, I decided to start from scratch with my own analysis. In essence, I wanted to approach the same question with my own style, which meant bringing in some statistics. This head (Max) and the heart (Frank) relationship is kind of what makes The Renaissance Fan run. I left the good/evil and lawful/chaotic classifications behind, those work for Frank because he’s a movie wonk and understands all that. For me, the question boils down to putting each team on a sliding scale from likeable to hateable (with neutral lying in between).

I wanted to stick with the same criteria that appeared in our original piece which I think are the basic things that fans look at when deciding how they feel about a team. Roughly speaking those criteria were: uniforms, mascots, winning history, conduct (on and off the field), and personalities or stars. In other words, people want to root for a team that is nice to look at, doesn’t win all the time, are generally decent humans, and have some standout stars that are easy to root for. My goal, was to quantify those factors, assign a score for each team, and then come up with an equation to mesh it all together into an overall rating from likeable to hateable. So here we go.

The first criterion was the attractiveness of the team’s jerseys. This is a tough one because it is inherently subjective. Some jerseys are loved by one person and hated by others. I am not a fashion expert and I have my own biases, so I wasn’t going make any calls on this factor myself. Instead, I farmed it out to ESPN, who have some writers there spending a lot of time obsessing over jerseys. Their ranks are incorporated into the analysis.

Similarly, I grabbed a ranked list of the best NFL mascots off of Buzzfeed. Once again, this is subjective, and there are many other lists out there with mascots ranked in all different orders. But the Buzzfeed article was selected because it included all NFL teams, not just those with the traditional fuzzy mascot costumes.

To capture the personalities on each team, or the star power if you will, I looked at jersey sales. From the list of the top 50 highest selling NFL jerseys in 2015 I tallied up the number of players representing each team. This is actually a pretty good representation of popularity in the internet age since anyone in the world can buy a jersey to support a player they like.

The amount of winning a team does has the potential to make a team more or less likeable. Winning a lot is a factor in why some people hate certain teams (Patriots) while not winning ever can make a team more endearing (Browns). As a rough measure of how often a team wins, I grabbed the total number of playoff appearances for each NFL team over the last 11 years (yes, it’s a weird number, but I found a nice tidy summary of the years 2005-2014 and then I added in the 2015 season).

Last, we have conduct which is a tricky thing to gauge. Fortunately, there are some tangibles associated with how NFL players act. First, we have data on arrests per team (since 2000). Which was shockingly easy to find. That captures the off-field conduct of these players and captures the really bad stuff. Next, we looked at on-field conduct by totaling the amount of fines per team (for late hits, celebrations, etc.). But both of those just penalize for bad behavior. I also wanted to also reward good behavior. A majority of NFL players are generous with their time and money, most have their own charity even. But it’s hard to track all those activities. Instead, I looked at the past winners for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award (since 2000). That award recognizes players in the league that are doing outstanding things in their community.

So with all those variables in tow I set up an algorithm that would generate one score for each team with all these factors considered. It works like this:

  • +32 points for the team with the best jerseys, +31 points for the next best, then +30 and so on.
  • Same 1-32 point scale for mascots (the two teams without a mascot were given the average score of +16 so they were neither penalized to aided). There was one catch here, the team with the worst mascot was given -100,000 points
  • +5 points for per team for every player in the top 50 for jersey sales
  • -1 point for every post-season appearance
  • -1 point for every arrest
  • -2 points for every 1 million dollars of fines from the NFL
  • +5 points for every Walter Payton Man of the Year recipient
  • And last, +4 bonus points for teams that have made the choice not to objectify women by having cheerleaders as a part of their football franchise (there are six such teams, can you name them?)

Higher score=more likeable. With all that in place, let’s run the numbers (beep boop beepy boop computer noise):

nfl likeable teams

How they wound up where they did:

The Hateables:

The Minnesota Vikings and the Cincinnati Bengals found their way into the hateable group by virtue of leading the league in arrests over the last 15 years (40 for each team), having few popular players (particularly now that AP is fallen from grace), and mostly mediocre uniforms. The Vikes did score highly for their mascot which raises them to the lesser side of hateable. The Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins earned their spots at the bottom by having higher than average arrests and huge totals of fines for on-field conduct. The Dolphins players racked up a 10 million dollar tab with the NFL’s disciplinary arm since 2002. The Baltimore Ravens had no popular players, average uniforms, and a hateable amount of success lately. Similarly, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons do not have much for star power (curiously Julio Jones did not make the jersey sales top 50) and score poorly in many other categories as well. New Orleans suffers in popularity from the fines levied in their pay-to-injure scandal from a few years back. Last, there is the football team from Washington who received our arbitrary but appropriate penalty for having the worst mascot/namesake not only in the NFL, but in all of sports. Congratulations Dan Snyder.

The Neutrals:

There is considerably less to say about the middle of the pack teams, except perhaps, that they all seem like they belong here. Many of these are younger franchises (relatively speaking), with fairly well behaved players, and only a moderate amount of success on the field. Most of these teams are popular in their local area but may not attract many fans from other parts of the country.

The Likeables:

The Oakland Raiders have a surprising number of popular players, low incidents of conduct, and no playoff appearances recently. The San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, and Chicago Bears scored well both for uniforms and mascot. The Giants are squeaky clean from a conduct standpoint (fireworks incidents were not penalized) and score well enough in other categories to land a high rank. The also got our “not skeezy toward women” bonus. The Seattle Seahawks led the field with 6 players in the top 50 for jersey sales (as the bandwagon loads up). The New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys both scored well for their mascot, have few arrests (deflating balls not a criminal charge), and some popular players. The Pittsburgh Steelers performed well in all categories, well enough to grab second place. To….

NFL Team Likeability

The Green Bay Packers. Rated by our algorithm as the most likeable team in the NFL. The Pack has very low rates of arrests and fines, a highly ranked uniform, 4 players on the top 50 for jersey sales, a Walter Payton Man of the Year Recipient, and our no-cheerleader bonus. And before anyone cries foul about a personal bias, allow me to point out that the criteria for this analysis was all determined before I knew how each team ranked in each category. I did not predict nor drive this result. Furthermore, this analysis did not take into account other factors that might have driven the results even further toward the Pack, such as fan ownership, or brightness and joy of the quarterback’s smile. Additionally, other analysts have undertaken similar exercises recently and came to the same results.

When you consider all the things that we as fans appreciate about football, the Green Bay Packers are statistically the most likeable team in the NFL right now.

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