Professional Sports Salaries and Fan Expectations

The other day a good friend sent me a link for an article about the LA Dodgers, Moneyball and how the tactful art of underspending may not be the most effective way of building a title contender.

While the points espoused in the article fall short of becoming gospel, it was successful in getting my statistical juices flowing. The article’s main theme, crudely stated, was essentially: more average money = more average wins. In baseball which has no hard salary cap, the potential exists for large pocketed clubs to overspend and create “stacked” programs, as do teams like the Yankees and Red Sox. In other sports, such as football and basketball, there are more concrete caps on spending.

Even in MLB, however, the Yankees and Red Sox have learned that outspending your neighbor doesn’t help you win more titles than the Jones’. In fact, I ran a quick correlation on spending and wins on the data from the aforementioned article and noted that there is only a 50 percent relationship between spending and wins. Further, there was only a 28 percent relationship between spending and playoff wins. Surely if I knew that spending $140M more than my average competitor in a certain year would only give me half of what I might need to win a championship, I might consider other avenues for focusing my attention.

But knowing what ISN’T a determinant for success in sports isn’t very helpful. One thing that may be helpful to note, however, is that salaries and contracts DO have a significant impact on a particular fan base’s expectations.

Whenever a fan base reads that Player X has signed a multi-million-dollar contract with their team, they almost instantly expect a larger contribution from that player relative to another player with a more “reasonable”, or average, salary. Accordingly, those same fans expect that “larger contribution” to translate ever so seamlessly into victories on the field of play. So, it follows that the more you spend, the more your fans’ expectations rise. The less you spend, the lower goes your fans’ expectations. Supply and demand rules the day.

ExpectationsSince expectations seem to dictate more than any other determinant—even greater than actual outcome, go figure—how a fan base feels about the outcome of their team’s season, its good then to figure out where those expectations come from. More importantly, though, is reviewing how NFL teams manage fan expectations and how they manage the challenges of their schedule amidst the good luck or misfortune that eventually finds them.

If salary manages expectations and wins manages inherent team ability—with an added adjustment for luck, See: Pythagorean Expectations—then we should be able to calculate which teams, over the last five years, did the best job of exceeding fan expectations.

Year Team Total $ vs.

League Average

Wins vs.

League average

WPCT Expectation




2011 New Orleans Saints -10.83 +5 81.3% 0.34 13-3 Won NFC South

Beat Lions in Wildcard 45-28

Lost to 49ers in Divisional 36-32

2013 Carolina Panthers -12.77 +4 75.0% 0.33 12-4 Won NFC South

Lost to 49ers in Divisional 23-10

2011 New England Patriots -7.62 +5 81.3% 0.31 13-3 Won AFC East

Beat Broncos in Divisional 45-10

Beat Ravens in Conference Championship 23-20

Lost SB 21-17 to Giants

2011 Green Bay Packers +1.42 +7 93.8% 0.29 15-1 Won NFC North

Lost to Giants in Divisional 37-20

2015 Carolina Panthers +4.04 +7 93.8% 0.28 15-1 Won NFC South

Beat Seahawks in Divisional 31-24

Beat Cardinals in Conference Championship 49-15

Lost to Broncos in SB 24-10

2014 Indianapolis Colts -8.13 +3 68.8% 0.26 11-5 Won AFC South

Beat Bengals in Wildcard 26-10

Beat Broncos in Divisional 24-13

Lost to Patriots in Conference Championship 45-7

2011 San Francisco 49ers +0.17 +5 81.3% 0.26 13-3 Won NFC West

Beat Saints in Divisional 36-32

Lost to Giants in Conference Championship 20-17

2012 Green Bay Packers -6.75 +3 68.8% 0.25 11-5 Won NFC North

Beat Vikings in Wildcard 24-10

Lost to 49ers in Divisional 45-31

2012 Atlanta Falcons +1.30 +5 81.3% 0.25

13-3 Won NFC South

Beat Seahawks in Divisional 30-28

Lost to 49ers in Conference Championship 28-24

Using “expectations v. ability” as a ratio, the top ten teams over the last five years have been calculated above.

While total salary isn’t a perfect measure of fan expectation—prior season performance comes into play, as well as overall organization success—it does help to measure the level of efficiency a team reached in a certain year. As the Dodger article implied, it isn’t how many dollars you spend but how many of those dollars you spend wisely.


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