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Super Bowl Case Study: How Does the Press Impact a Team’s Morale?

If you were following NFL this year leading up to the Super Bowl 50, you know that there is a lot of hype which builds up over the course of the season.  Everyone has an opinion to express—whether it is the sharps in Las Vegas, reporters at news agencies, or sports fans and the betting public.  That is true with any sport, but this year’s Super Bowl provides us with a particularly good case study to explore how that hype can impact a team’s morale.


In Super Bowl 50, the Denver Broncos faced the Carolina Panthers.  The Broncos had far more experience with Super Bowl pressure than the Panthers—they had gone to a lot more of them.  Plus, the Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is (or was—he may be retiring) a veteran, whereas Cam Newton, the Panthers’ quarterback, is a young guy without nearly as much experience.


As you might expect, the Broncos were going to be a lot less intimidated by the hype and the pressure than the Panthers.  You might think it would be a good thing for the Panthers that the press were largely on their side, but in this case, the opposite was true.


Leading up to the game, most analysts believed that the Panthers were going to win, and by a substantial margin.  Many were predicting that they would get a huge lead right out of the gate, as they had been doing all season.  Some people thought that they could end up winning by as much as 30 or more points.  Las Vegas was a lot more moderate, predicting a much smaller point difference in the final score, but the message the press broadcast to the Panthers was clear.  They were going to win, and win big, and they were going to do it by taking a major lead in the first quarter of the game.


There is nothing quite so spirit-crushing as the violent clash between expectations and reality, and that was exactly what hit the Panthers so hard in the Super Bowl this year.  The Broncos shocked everyone and took a lead over the Panthers in the first few minutes of the game, and they held it.


What is astonishing is that if you actually watch the footage of the game, you can see the mounting pressure and fatigue all over the faces of the Panthers players.  Their confidence and morale were eroded right from the start, and that dragged them down for the rest of the game, adversely impacting their performance.


Now, what would have happened if the press had not told the Panthers over and over that they would be winning right out of the gates?  What if another team had been facing the Broncos?  The score differential in the beginning of the game wasn’t that big.  Another team might not have even been fazed.  They might even have felt like they were holding their own.  They might have stayed strong and fought and won. 


Essentially what the press had done was set the goalposts for “success” and “failure” in the minds of the Panthers.  Since the Panthers felt like they were already failing right from the start (even though objectively, they were not), it smashed their confidence to pieces. 


This is a fascinating study of the role of ego in sports.  It is hard to say what would have happened if the situation had been different—if the Panthers had not gone in with their egos entirely wrapped up in getting a huge lead in the first quarter—but it doubtless was a major factor in what happened to them on Sunday 7th, 2016.


This is just one more example of an aspect of sports that you are not going to understand by reading quantitative data.  You not only need to know the stats for a team’s performance, but also how that team is reacting to their own stats.  You need to not only listen to what the press is saying about the team, but also watch how the players react to the publicity.  Psychology is a huge part of sports, and the more you understand about it, the more you can predict about how a team will play—especially during games which take unexpected turns.  This is true not just with NFL, but with literally every sport under the sun.


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