More than 100 million Americans will likely spend Sunday night watching the Super Bowl. Although it is not quite the same as a FIFA World Cup Final – which had one billion viewers worldwide in 2014 – the Super Bowl is still a big deal in the United States and around the world.
And before the game many will ask a simple question.
Who is going to win?
Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com almost wrote a book on the topic, offering more than 6500 words trying to answer this question. Many other “experts” have also offered their thoughts and many more will continue to try. But is it possible to really know?
As an economist, I am inclined to begin by looking at how much teams spend on players. One might expect the team that spends the most on players has better players, and therefore more likely to win the game. In 2016, the Atlanta Falcons spent more on players than the New England Patriots. So are the Falcons favored?
Looking at payroll data from 2000 to 2015 we don’t see much evidence this is true. Across these 16 seasons, the team with the highest payroll in the Super Bowl only won eight times. And that means the team with the highest payroll lost eight times. So payroll really doesn’t tell us who is going to win.
What about wins in the regular season? It should be the case that teams that win more in the regular season are the better team. And since the Patriots won 14 games in the regular season while the Falcons only won 11, New England should be favored. But again, the data in this century doesn’t tell that story. From 2000 to 2015, 13 times one Super Bowl team won more games than the other during the regular season. But only four times did the team with the most wins manage to win the big game.
Okay, what about the team with the best defense. Many people think defense wins titles, and the Patriots had a better defense than the Falcons in the regular season. But in the 21 century, the team with the best defense won the Super Bowl eight times. And again, that means they lost eight times. And before you ask… the story for “best offense” isn’t much different. The Falcons have the best offense in this game. But the team with the best offense has only won seven of the 16 Super Bowls this century.
What about point differential? Perhaps the issue is how many more points a team scores above what it surrenders. The Patriots outscored their opponents by 191 points in 2016 while the Falcons only outscored their opponents by just 134 points. However, in the 21 century the team with the best point differential has won eight times. Yes, that means the team with the best differential lost eight times.
Okay, nothing obvious seems to tell us what we want to know. But what if we look at something not-so-obvious?
A few years ago, Jennifer VanGilder (of Ursinus College), Rob Simmons (of Lancaster University) and I looked at how physical attractiveness of quarterbacks impacted their wages. We found that quarterbacks that had more symmetrical faces (which is a method plastic surgeons use to measure beauty) were paid higher wages, even after we controlled for the quarterback’s performance (and other characteristics). In sum – as our academic article indicated ― quarterbacks who literally “looked good” saw more dollars in their paychecks.
So looks get you paid. But can attractiveness help you win?
Of course not.
But just for fun, I thought it would be interesting to see if there was any pattern in the data. So Jennifer VanGilder collected symmetry scores on each quarterback that appeared in the Super Bowl since 2001. And what she found is that teams that had the better looking quarterback won 13 times!
Yes, none of the obvious factors tell us anything this century. But teams with the more attractive quarterback won 81 percent of the time.
“Teams with the more attractive quarterback won 81 percent of the time.”
So who is better looking, Matt Ryan or Tom Brady? Tom Brady is famous for his looks. But as NFL Films noted, Matt Ryan had the most symmetrical face in our sample.
So does that mean the Falcons can ride Ryan’s good looks to victory?
Again, this story is difficult to believe. Yes, there is a pattern in the data. But for us to infer a causal relationship we need a theory. What could be the theoretical reason for this outcome? Hard to think of what this might be.
A more plausible explanation is that this is just a great example of a correlation without causation. As Popular Science detailed two years ago, Tyler Vigan created a program called Spurious Correlations. This program searched data sets to discover odd correlations. One great example is that mozzarella cheese consumption had a 95 percent correlation with the number of civil engineering doctorates earned.
Yes, correlation doesn’t mean causation. And one suspects that better looking quarterbacks winning Super Bowls is a similar story.
So what predicts the winner of the Super Bowl? I would argue – despite all the efforts made by “experts” – that there isn’t much that allows us to know the winner before the game is played.
In the end, football is very resistant to prediction. To illustrate, team payroll from 2000 to 2016 explains less than three percent of the variation in regular season wins. Yes, more spending doesn’t really lead to more wins. And this is because it is hard for NFL decision-makers – the “experts” paid by teams – to know which players are going to be good or bad before the season starts.
One obvious problem is the unpredictability of turnovers. We know turnovers predict outcomes. But as Brian Burke and I noted in 2011, both interceptions and fumbles are essentially impossible to predict.
So does that mean we have no idea who is going to win? Well, Joshua Pitts published an extensive study that indicated that passing – both the ability to throw the ball and the ability to defend the pass – does seem to have some ability to predict postseason success. Unfortunately, that really doesn’t help us much here. Atlanta does have a better passing offense. But New England has a better pass defense.
And that means if we wish to predict the outcome, it doesn’t look good. Unless we wish to just go with a silly theory that being good looking all you really need. If that is all you need… Well, Matt Ryan will look good on Sunday night. But I remain skeptical that this will mean the Falcons are definitely going to win.