At the beginning of this NFL season, I was teamless and adrift. The St. Louis Rams had left my hometown to return to Los Angeles. Embittered by sour memories of how the franchise ownership handled their departure, I had no interest in pursuing them there.
So my colleague Neil Paine and I ginned up a solution: an analysis of NFL teams using metrics I cared about. Neil built the model, we plugged in my preferences (determined by my rankings of team and ownership characteristics in thousands of head-to-head matchups) and out popped my new team: the Green Bay Packers. I pledged to spend at least one season cheering for them, and that’s what I’m doing.
What did I learn by choosing a new team using the sports equivalent of an online dating algorithm? A couple of things: 1. it’s not that easy to start caring about a team out of nowhere, but 2. it’s not impossible, especially if the team is — as the algorithm said it would be — a pretty good match for the stuff I care about.
|Suspensions of players since 2007; extra weight to crimes against women||1.98|
|Ownership honesty and loyalty to core players and the community||1.92|
|Players’ effort on the field and likability off it||1.74|
|Projected wins over next five seasons||1.62|
|Are the team’s next five years likely to be better than their previous five?||1.28|
|Championships/division titles/wins in team’s entire history||1.20|
|Wins per fan dollars spent||1.16|
|Courtesy toward fans; how well a team uses technology to reach them||1.02|
|Distance from team’s stadium to New York, in miles||1.00|
|Distance from team’s stadium to St. Louis, in miles||0.94|
|Price of tickets, parking and concessions||0.62|
|Size of market in terms of population, where smaller is better||0.52|
|Quality of venue; fan-friendliness; frequency of promotions||0.46|
|Strength of on-field leadership||0.42|
|Stylishness of uniform, according to Uni Watch’s Paul Lukas||0.12|
|Size of market in terms of population, where bigger is better||0.04|
When I did this exercise back in September, I received predictably mixed responses. Some L.A. Rams fans said it was never really St. Louis’s team anyway (fair), and other readers told me that I wasn’t a true fan if I’d walk so easily (kinda fair, but Kroenke walked first!). A handful of St. Louis Rams fans told me that they’d also landed on Green Bay, no math needed (good call). Others told me that I was bandwagon scum (maybe). The response from Packers fans was welcoming and positive, though; the team was already easy to like.
But the question came up over and over during the season: “Are you really a Packers fan now?”
Early on, when Green Bay was looking a little rough, I felt simultaneously alarmed and prepared. My natural state for the previous decade had been forced optimism that would bleed into resignation, capped off with the hope that St. Louis might at least manage to embarrass the Seahawks before the inevitable Seattle playoff run. As I looked at a 4-6 Packers squad in Week 11,1 I was ready to spend an offseason finding reasons to feel better about their prospects in 2017. But I love watching an Aaron Rodgers offense execute, and disappointing, injury-plagued seasons happen. Was I really a fan? Maybe, maybe not. But I wasn’t planning to walk away.
And then … they were winning. And I realized, oh, yeah, I guess this is a possible outcome too. When Green Bay finished the regular season on a six-win tear (which included a 38-10 drubbing of the Seahawks) that put it in the playoffs, I was pumped. I was yelling at the TV. I was watching high-stakes, late-season football, the very best kind.
I recognize, of course, that I didn’t experience this the same way lifelong Pack fans did.2 But last weekend, I planned my Sunday around Packers-Giants. My stomach dropped when Jordy Nelson took that shot to the ribs. I fretted over the team’s slow offensive start. By the end of the game, even the Chiefs fan in my house was cheering touchdown passes.
This Sunday, when Rodgers and crew head to Dallas to play the eternally hateable Cowboys, I’ll be watching. I’ll be yelling. Am I really a fan? I think it’ll be tough for anyone to tell the difference.
Check out our latest NFL playoff predictions.