Is it really that hard to win on the West Coast?

In the NFL the notion has been floated about that for eastern teams, performing well on the West Coast is a difficult task. But do San Diego, Seattle, Oakland and San Francisco really hold an edge over eastern teams above and beyond normal home field advantage? Is there some sort of jet lag/extensive travel voodoo that sinks teams from the Eastern Time Zone? Let’s take a look.

Over the past 10 years, the home team for all NFL regular season games has gone 1462-1096, winning just over 57% of the time.

If West Coast teams do indeed have an added advantage, that red portion of the pie representing away wins should get even smaller when illustrating the records of West Coast home teams versus eastern opponents. Does it?

What you actually see is the red slice getting bigger. West Coast teams have won 53.7% of their games (79-68) against eastern teams, WORSE than home teams in the NFL as a whole have fared over the last decade.

Digging into the numbers more specifically, Oakland and San Francisco drag things down. San Francisco was 18-19 (48.6%) in such contests and Oakland was only 15-22 (40.5%). On the flip side, San Diego and Seattle were better than the national average. San Diego went 24-15 (61.5) and Seattle 22-12 (64.7%).

Ultimately Oakland and San Francisco have fielded bad teams in general over the past decade; they are a collective 81 games below .500. Seattle and San Diego went 40 games ABOVE .500. If you’re a lousy team, the comforts of home won’t always make much difference. And perhaps eastern teams fail so often in San Diego and Seattle simply because the Chargers and Seahawks have been winners over the past 10 years.

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The good and the bad of social media

The influence of social media is everywhere nowadays. Athletes have their own Twitter handles and Facebook pages. Teams are using social media to connect with and inform fans. Blogs and message boards are springing up from both experts and fans, providing a forum where sometimes thousands of comments are shared on any given topic. ESPN produces the SportsNation television show to specifically discuss fan feedback on topics of import. Social media has the power to unite fans and allow them to connect with each other, locally or thousands of miles apart. It has the power to inform and educate. However, it can also be damning. Providing an athlete with a keyboard has occasionally led to disastrous results.

I remember what sucked me into the world of social media: SouthFloridaBulls.com. The crowning feature of the site (devoted to the University of South Florida) was the message boards. I started lurking around the boards around the end of 2001 or beginning of 2002. In March of 2002, the Conference USA men’s basketball tournament was held in Cincinnati, and as a Bearcats fan that gave me the opportunity to meet some of the board members in person.

Eventually I made the choice to go to school there, and these folks became friends and a part of the reason USF gave me the best two years of my collegiate career. I went on exotic (?) trips to Greenville, North Carolina and Hattiesburg, Mississippi with some of these guys to see the Bulls play, and attended dozens of home games in a variety of sports. I still keep in contact with several of the people I first met on that board, and my experience just helps demonstrate that social media can very much help people connect.

Sports message boards and blogs can provide so much more than just the opportunity for fans to scream “INDIANA NUMBER 1 YEAH BABYYYYY!” Major articles on espn.com and other major outlets can garner THOUSANDS of comments. Some of the comments will inevitably be crude, but they also can provide a voice for thoughtful discussion.

Red Reporter (RR), a blog for Reds fans, is capable of drawing a thousand comments or more for a game thread, or hundreds of comments worth of trade discussion. Eventually as people stick around the site you’re capable of learning a little more about their personal lives. RR is preparing to host its eighth annual Game 2 outing, where board members meet in person for the follow-up game to Opening Day. This is another case of the internet bridging the gap with reality.

For those that can’t make it to games or events like that, those that live hundreds or thousands miles away, sites like RR can provide a taste of home. A sense of community develops when the same people stick around and comment. If someone wants to discuss the uselessness of the Reds bench in 2012, they can. But they can also get to know people and form more meaningful connections. This isn’t unique to RR; there are lots of places on the internet where sports fans can find a haven of sorts.

If sports teams are smart, they’ll realize that they too can help foster a connection between themselves and their fans through social media. In that regard I think my favorite team, the Reds, have done a pretty good job. They maintain an active presence on Twitter and Facebook year round, posting mundane-but-useful info (player signings, ticket deals, promotions), but also more informal posts like a photo of the truck getting packed up and ready to go for the start of spring training. The fact that the Reds do something like Facebook-post a photo in the dead of winter of a snow-covered Great American Ballpark is cool. It’s just nice to have a year round presence from your favorite team.

The Reds also have a prolific Twitter member on staff in the person of Jamie Ramsey, Assistant Director of Media Relations. Sure he offers Reds news, but his tweets are generally informal and can range from music to his views on other sport related stuff. The critical thing is that he’s accessible and responds to his followers. It gives a humanizing aspect to a corporate front office. In addition his column, Better Off Red, is quite popular. It provides fans another outlet for discussion. His Better Off Red game watch parties have let blog fans connect personally. When Redsfest was held at Duke Energy Center, there was even a Better Off Red section.

The Reds have managed to incorporate Twitter into their ticket promotions. They have hosted multiple “Tweetup” games. As an example I’ll use the September 21st Tweetup game against the L.A. Dodgers. For $27 you got to sit in a Field Box seat (normally $34) along with other fans and media members and tweet in-game about the Reds. The Reds threw in a special t-shirt and $10 in concessions for good measure. The Reds got bodies in the seats, the fans received a good deal and perhaps the chance to meet some new people; wins all around.

Fans can form a connection with their favorite athletes like never before through social media. This is particularly true of Twitter, where there are some pretty gregarious players. The idea of Twitter is that you jot out a message in 140 characters or less. That means very little time commitment is required from players to send out a quick message updating fans on what they’re doing. Those tweets can give a little more insight into the life of a player off the field though. I’m a fan of things that let me view an athlete as more than just a set of stats on the back of a baseball card.

The kicker here though is that fans can directly reach out to an athlete. If I want to tell Brandon Phillips he had a great game I can go directly to Twitter and do it. He may not respond because he probably has a flood of messages coming in, but I will have made my point. Many athletes, including Phillips, DO respond to some of the messages coming their way. Phillips is famous for reaching out to fans through Twitter. He’s given away prizes and met some of his Twitter followers in person; he also doesn’t seem to shy away from a photo op with some of these people. Before social media if you wanted to contact a player you’d have to mail the team or hope the player made a public appearance. The equation is changed now through social media.

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. Now that athletes have the means to communicate directly with the public, some have not exercised the power wisely. In November the now much-maligned Lance Armstrong posted a photo (now deleted) of himself lying on a couch underneath his 7 framed Tour de France yellow jerseys. Obviously this was meant as a proverbial middle finger to his detractors. Fast forward to January when Armstrong confessed to extensive doping, and that photo now seems the height of arrogance.

Sports news is littered with stories of athletes who have made quick remarks on Twitter and caused offense or opened themselves up to ridicule. On October 5th, Ohio State third-string quarterback Cardale Jones tweeted the following:

“Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS”

Even if you agree with his sentiment and feel that college football is just a big business whose job is to churn out NFL players and make money, the fact remains that he lacked the foresight to realize his words would bring unwanted attention to himself. His Twitter account was deleted quickly afterwards, but it was too late. Fans and sport pundits had their ammunition. This is the danger of social media for athletes: once you post something controversial it only takes one follower to see it and spread it. Deleting your account can’t take it back. Some leagues have imposed token fines for things like gay slurs on Twitter, but it is safe to say that some new controversy will spring up in the future. It has happened too often to believe a new incident is far away.

Social media opens up the sports world in whole new ways for fans, teams and players. Fans can have more of a dialogue with their favorite players as opposed to one-way hero worship. Teams can show fans that they’re interested in engaging with them in new ways, and not just during the course of a season. Media outlets like espn.com and cbssports.com provide places for fans to discuss important news, while team-specific blogs and boards can literally bring people together. Players can talk about their lives and show their appreciation for fans, with the caveat that they watch what they say in an unregulated environment, or face the consequences.

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Will the Reds make it back-to-back playoff appearances?

The Bengals finally broke their dubious streak of not having been to the playoffs in consecutive years. The Reds are now on the clock. They haven’t made it to the playoffs in back-to-back years since *gulp* 1975-1976. I wanted to look at how often teams that had made the playoffs followed it up with a return visit the next year.

Since 1996 there have been 138 playoff teams in baseball. Of those, 70 were holdovers from the previous year. (50.7%). Essentially it’s a coin flip on whether any given playoff team returns the next year. The numbers for the other three major sports leagues:

  • NFL (1996 onwards): 204 teams made the playoffs, 104 were returnees (51.0%)
  • NHL (1996-97 onwards, minus the strike season of 1994-95): 240 playoff teams, 175 returnees (72.9%)
  • NBA: (1996-97 onwards): 256 playoff teams, 192 returnees (75.0%)

So essentially, year to year half of the NFL and MLB playoff field is made up of new teams, whereas only a quarter of the teams are new in the NBA and NHL. The obvious explanation is that in the NHL and NBA more than half of the leagues’ teams make the playoffs each year. More playoff entrants = easier to make an immediate return. Baseball, even with two new wild card teams, is most selective about who it lets in. Only a third of teams make it. The NFL lets more teams in than MLB, but a team’s schedule difficulty and fortunes can vary wildly from one year to the next. An easy schedule one year can be fatally hard the next. Some teams in football and baseball have figured out how to make extended runs though. The Yankees went to the playoffs 13 consecutive times from 1995-2007 and the Indianapolis Colts managed to overcome parity by going 9 straight times from 2002-10.

If the fact that returning to the playoffs is only a 50/50 proposition for the Reds is concerning to you, there is some slightly better news. Since the wild card era began in 1995, 41 teams have made the playoffs by winning 97 or more games in a season. Of those, 24 returned the following year, a rate of 58.5%. A 58.5% return rate for dominant teams is still pretty low, but at least it’s a little better chance than a coin flip. Other facts:

  • On average, those 41 teams followed up their 97+ win campaigns with 93.4 wins the next year
  • The 17 teams to miss out on a return to the playoffs won an average of 83.9 games. So while there were no playoffs, they could still generally call themselves winners.
  • Houston and San Diego suffered the biggest dropoffs in the measured timespan. Houston went from winning 97 games in 1999 to 72 in 2000. San Diego won 98 in 1998 and only 74 the following year.
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Tough sledding for the Bengals playoff hopes

The Bengals started 3-5 this season, with uninspiring losses to teams like Cleveland and Miami. They have picked themselves up off the mat by winning 5 of 6 and currently lead the Pittsburgh Steelers by a game for the 6th and final playoff spot in the AFC. A win this afternoon over those Steelers puts the Bengals in the postseason. So that got me wondering: how often has a team lost 4 in a row and made the playoffs?

Since the NFL expanded to two wild cards per conference in 1978, 33 NFL seasons have passed. I’m excluding 1982, when striking caused an 9 game season and a 16-team playoff. In that span, 374 teams have made the playoffs.

  • 87 teams have made the playoffs while enduring at least a 3 game losing streak (23.3% of all playoff teams).
  • 20 of those teams have had a losing streak of 4 games, and 2 have even had 5 game streaks (The 1986 New York Jets had a 5 game streak to end the season where they were outscored 183-61. Yikes. The 1997 Vikings also lost 5 in a row).
  • The 22 teams with 4 or 5 game losing streaks have constituted 5.9% of the playoff field in 33 seasons, so playoff destiny is in the Bengals’ hands….but they might want to forget about what history says.

So what about if the Bengals make it in? How much playoff damage have these major slumpers caused? The postseason record of the 22 teams that lost 4 or 5 games in a row in the expanded wild card era is 13-21 (38.2%). 19 of those 22 won no more than one game before bowing out (and most none), but there were three exceptions:

  • The 1989 Los Angeles Rams made it to the NFC Conference Championship before bowing out
  • The 2002 Oakland Raiders fell in Super Bowl XXXVII to Tampa Bay
  • The 2011 New York Giants knocked off New England in Super Bowl XLVI

Those Giants are the only Super Bowl winners since 1978 to have taken a month off from winning games in the regular season. They entered the postseason as a 9-7 wild card and the rest is history.

Super Bowl Winners since 1978 by Longest Regular Season Losing Streak:

  • 1 loss: 16 teams
  • 2 losses: 13 teams
  • 3 losses: 3 teams
  • 4 losses: 1 team

Predictably, most of the big winners never lost more than a couple games in a row in the regular season.

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