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The Science of Sports Fandom

Why Is the NFL Draft So Popular?

Potential is seductive.


Beginning today, several million sports fans—myself included—will tune in to watch a 3-day event that isn’t really a sport at all. Its main highlight occurs only every few minutes, lasts only a few seconds at a time, and features a man in a suit walking to a podium and reading a name from a card. Nevertheless, each announcement will inevitably send the gathered crowd of hundreds—many dressed in their favorite team’s apparel—into a screaming frenzy. TV commentators will practically scream at one another, debating the apparent worthiness of each announcement. Websites will buzz with similarly heated analysis.

Welcome to the biggest non-event in sports, also known as the NFL Draft.

For something so mundane—professional teams taking turns selecting players from the college ranks—the Draft draws considerable attention from the media and the public (including last year's record-setting 25 million TV viewers on the first day alone). Entire books and websites feature “mock drafts” that try to guess who will be picked and when. In fact, the buzz starts even a couple of months beforehand with the NFL Combine, where draft-eligible players run around in glorified high school gym outfits as they are timed with stopwatches (also televised, and also drawing several million viewers).

Never mind that the immediate result of the Draft is pretty underwhelming. Sure, some stars will emerge and make major contributions to their teams. But far fewer draftees will make much of an impact early on (if ever), and it often takes years to determine the true output of a given draft class. Nevertheless, the attention given to the Draft far outweighs that of any other off-season player acquisitions—including the recruiting of “free agent” veterans with a more proven track record of success.

But this doesn’t seem to make much sense. Is it really the case that the proven track record is that much less appealing than the mere possibility of future stardom? Do people really not bear in mind that proven track records are actually the most indicative of future success?

The answer to these questions appears to be yes, according to a set of published experiments by Zakary Tormala, Jayson Jia, and Michael Norton. In their paper on “The Preference for Potential,” they show that people reliably favor the possibility of future returns over proven track records in multiple domains—even if the outcomes are framed in equivalent terms.

Watching this well-dressed man read names off of cards gets people excited about possible future success.

 

For instance, participants in one experiment learned about a basketball player, along with 5-years’ worth of statistics. For half of these participants, these stats were achieved—that is, stats the player had earned during the first 5 years his professional career. For the other half of the participants, these stats were projections for the player’s first five years of NBA play. Despite the equivalence of the statistics, participants were inclined to pay the "potential player" almost $1 million more in salary than the player who had already demonstrated a performance of that exact same level. In other words, people appear to actually pay a premium for potential.

Think the preference for potential is unique to sports? It’s not. The researchers go on to show that people prefer to hire job candidates who score highly on a test of “Leadership Potential" than those who attain an equivalent score for “Leadership Achievement.” Same story in the art world: Artists with “the potential to win a major award” are valued more highly than those who had already won said major award. Likewise, people are more likely to become a fan of a comedian “who everybody could be talking about” next year, to one who “everyone is talking about” already. And so on.

What does this mean for the real world? Should job candidates minimize their accomplishments and instead emphasize only the great things that they might be able to do? Well, not exactly. People do need to meet some threshold of competence before having the opportunity to signal the possibility of even greater things (much like football players need to show some degree of collegiate success to be considered for drafting).

Still, the reliable preference for potential is interesting food for thought. I’m sure you can think of your own examples of people’s over-excitement at the next big thing—like the enormous line (and high cost) to get that new phone or tablet, even when the beta version is often buggy compared with proven, existing technology. Or how it's much cooler to claim liking a band before they hit it big, rather than jumping on the bandwagon that’s already formed. "Could be" often is way more exciting than "already is."

And there's nothing terribly wrong with valuing potential per se. In fact, capitalizing on it can be quite profitable. Just ask ESPN Draft Analyst Mel Kiper, Jr., who has made an entire career out of discussing what amateur football players might become, even though most will not probably realize these grand predictions.

Just keep in mind that valuing potential over proof isn't always completely rational—much like the amount time and energy I will spend following the Biggest Non-Event in Sports for the next few days.

Go Team!