The Science of Super Bowl-ology
According to a recent report, nearly 66% of researchers who study the Super Bowl have marriages that end in divorce. An impressive 97% can use Roman numerals correctly. And, sadly, more than 45% have been known to abuse a bowl of Doritos.
None of those facts are true, of course. But that hardly matters when it comes to the Science of Super Bowl-ology (or SOSO).
The formula behind SOSO is so simple: Begin with a premise that appears anecdotally true or at least plausible, and then find numbers to support it. Add the words “correlation” or “causation.” And wait for the phone call from the Today show.
Over the years, fans have learned how the Super Bowl affects the stock market, predicts presidential elections, and causes impotence. Even well-intentioned topics—such as domestic abuse and sex trafficking—often have suspect (or false) findings that are used by activists to raise awareness and cited by journalists looking for provocative angles before the big game.
So let’s rewind the tape on some SOSO classics:
The Super Bowl Outcome Affects the Stock Market
Like the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx or the Madden Curse, the idea that the winner of Super Bowl predicts the stock market for the coming year is one of those facts that is generally accepted as true even though there is evidence to the contrary.
The so-called Super Bowl Indicator (SBI) was first introduced in a column by sportswriter Leonard Koppett in 1978. As a satire. His smartass theory, backed up by the results of the first 12 Super Bowls, was that if an original National Football League (or the NFC) team won the title, it foreshadowed a bullish year for the stock market. But if an American Football League (or AFC) team won, then stock prices would go down. Koppett’s point was to mock the fallacy of statistics and correlation, which he tried to debunk further in Sports Illustrated the next year by finding a pattern between batting averages and the S&P 500.
But the joke was on Koppett.
As of last year, the SBI has correlated with the rise and fall of the Dow Jones Industrial Average roughly 80% of the time. And as those who like to bet on the coin toss at the Super Bowl know, those are pretty good odds.
Upon Further Review: There is not enough evidence to overturn this decision. And so the question remains: Does the Super Bowl actually predict the stock market with such accuracy? Of course not. A correlation between the game’s winner and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is not the same as a causation. To prove that connection, you would have to borrow from another scientific theory: the Observer Effect, which suggests that studying something affects the outcome. In other words, it’s possible that investors buy or sell stocks based on the Super Bowl result because they think the final score has meaning. And in doing so, they prove the SBI true.
The Super Bowl Predicts Presidential Elections
Similar to the science behind the SBI, people with too much time on their hands have attempted to find a correlation between the Super Bowl and presidential elections. The equation goes like this: if an AFC team wins the Super Bowl, a Republican will take the White House—and vice versa.
Since 1980, AFC teams have been victorious when Ronald Reagan won in 1980 (Pittsburgh Steelers) and 1984 (Los Angeles Raiders), and when George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 (New England Patriots).
Alas, the science starts to fall apart when it comes to the NFC. Bill Clinton was elected in years that the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl, while Obama and the Giants both won in 2008. But there’s the slight problem of 1988 (Redskins and George H.W. Bush) and 2000 (St. Louis Rams and George W. Bush.)
Fortunately, there’s another football theory to predict elections. Discovered by Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, the Redskins Rule that when the Washington Redskins win their last home game during an election year, the incumbent party will retain the White House. If they lose, the challenging party will take the election. (The connection was even cited in 2007 episode of Mad Men.)
Sure, it sounds a little goofy, but here’s the astonishing part about the Redskins Rule: since 1936, it held true for every election year until 2004, when George W. Bush retained the presidency after the Skins lost the last game of the season. The Rule got back on track in 2008, however, when Washington lost its final game and Barack Obama took the White House.
Upon Further Review: Like offsetting penalties, these two studies cancel each other out: the first one is basically false, even if the Redskins Rule has been true for 16 out of 17 elections. Which means both parties will just have to wait until late October when Washington plays the last home game before the election to learn which way it will all turn out. But Team Obama take note: the Skins finished 5-11 in 2011 and lost every home game after September.
Domestic Violence Is Highest on Super Bowl Sunday
There is zero truth to this fact. And yet it lives on, much like Newsweek’s infamous 1986 claim that “a woman over 40 was more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than get married.
So how did shoddy science about such an important topic come to be so widely reported? Christina Hoff Sommers retraced the story in her book Who Stole Feminism? In 1993, a few days before Super Bowl XXXVII, a network of women’s groups held a press conference in Pasadena, California, to announce that Super Bowl Sunday was “the biggest day of the year for violence against women.”
Citing several studies—including one by Old Dominion University—and backed up by a representative by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), there was enough anecdotal evidence on the topic to inspire newspaper stories and TV segments. Within days, the New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte referred to the game as “Abuse Bowl” and Good Morning America did a piece connecting the game to violence against women.
Later that week, Ken Ringle, a reporter for the Washington Post, looked into the evidence behind this “day of dread” and found that none existed. The Old Dominion study actually contradicted the reported findings of spousal abuse, and other sources denied similar facts that were attributed to them.
Retractions connecting the Super Bowl and domestic violence were printed, but nearly 20 years later, the myth lives on.
Upon Further Review: Illegal use of statistics. Domestic abuse is very real, but Super Bowl Sunday is not part of the problem.
A Super Bowl Loss Causes Fatal Heart Attacks
A study published last year in Clinical Cardiology gave new meaning to the phrase “die-hard fans.” According to Robert Kloner, a cardiologist at the University of Southern California, there was an increase in cardiac deaths in a home team’s city following a Super Bowl loss. (Researchers examined death results in Los Angeles County in the weeks following the 1980 and 1984 Super Bowls, which resulted in a respective loss and win for the home team.) “Fans develop an emotional connection to their team…and when their team loses, that’s an emotional stress,” said Dr. Kloner. “There’s a brain-heart connection, and it is important for people to be aware of that.”
Upon Further Review: Inconclusive, so the ruling stands. While it’s true that increased stress can lead to a heart attack, more study is needed to prove the Super Bowl connection. Dr. Rebecca Goldin, director of research at STATS, a non-profit organization at George Mason, found several flaws in the USC survey, including whether those who died of heart attacks were actual fans of the home team—or even knew the Super Bowl was being played. But just to be safe, go easy on the anger during the game—and the Cheez Whiz.
The Super Bowl Is the Largest Sex Trafficking Event in the US
As with most major sporting events around the world, sex trafficking—particularly child prostitution—spikes during Super Bowl weekend. While estimates are often exaggerated about how many prostitutes actually flock to a host city — it was reported that 10,000 came to Miami in 2010 — the statistics have heightened awareness about the problem and led to increased law enforcement precautions. In advance of this weekend’s Super Bowl in Indianapolis, Governor Mitch Daniels pushed for tougher sex-trafficking laws and the state’s House and Senate voted unanimously to approve them.
Upon Further Review: Tougher penalties are needed.
The Super Bowl Lead-in Means Big Ratings
Who among us will ever forget where we were and what we were doing when MacGruder and Loud, The Last Precinct, and Davis Rules first aired? (Here’s a hint: it was right after Super Bowls XIX, XX, and XXV, respectively.) There’s no doubt that having the highest-rated TV show of the year as a lead-in insures a lot of eyeballs that night, but it doesn’t guarantee long-term success. (The Last Precinct was put out of our misery after eight episodes.) This may explain why the networks with the Super Bowl have recently used the broadcast to boost an existing favorite—last year Fox promoted Glee and this Sunday NBC is launching the second season of The Voice.
Upon Further Review: There are several infractions here, including a seriously false start and too many timeouts. Super Bowl commercials are a hallowed tradition—unless they ruin the game itself. The day after MacGruder and Loud ran a lot of ads during the 1985 Super Bowl, The Tonight Show’s Johnny Carson joked, “Did you see that new show, Often and Loud?”
The Super Bowl Causes Impotence
The point is in 2011, the Weekly World News — the paper of record for Bat Boy and alien abductees across the galaxy—published an article linking the Super Bowl to impotence. Citing a study at the University of Pennsylvania, the WWN quoted the lead researcher as saying, “The results were startling. Even though Americans consider the Super Bowl to be one of the manliest events on TV, it turns out that watching it might not be so good for our…ahem…’health’.”
Except no such study was ever conducted.
Upon Further Review: It’s up…and it’s good!
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