February 1, 2011

The State of the Football Union

Finding meaning in ESPN's SportsNation Super Bowl poll.

Matthew Goldenberg

Vegas oddsmakers have anointed the Green Bay Packers, who bested the NFC's top three seeds en route to the Super Bowl, as the odds-on favorites to beat Pittsburgh on Sunday. Most of America—or at least of those who like clicking on buttons online—agrees. Of the more than 360,000 people who have voted in the ESPN SportsNation poll, 59 percent believe the Packers will down Pittsburgh to win their first NFL title since 1996. Green Bay is the pick of a majority of voters in 46 states and the District of Columbia—an electoral landslide not seen since Reagan-Mondale in 1984.

Not surprisingly, the Packers draw the most support in their native Wisconsin, where 89 percent predict victory for the Green and Gold. But Cheesehead enthusiasm stops at some of the state's borders. Neighbors Illinois and Minnesota, home to the Bears and Vikings—the Pack's chief rivals—are two of just four states that think (or at least hope) the Pack may be in trouble, with a majority backing Pittsburgh in Illinois and a 50-50 split worthy of a recount in Minnesota. Pennsylvania (63 percent for Steelers) and backyard neighbor West Virginia (57 percent for Steelers) are, also unsurprisingly, the other two states favoring Pittsburgh. Why is support for the Steelers just 63 percent in their home state? Perhaps because many Pennsylvanians hail from the Philadelphia area, where there is no love lost for the men in black.

Interestingly, New England is the region most bullish on the Pack's chances. At least 72 percent of voters in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, and New Hampshire predict a Green Bay victory. Like Illinois's preference for Pittsburgh, these results probably suggest a case of schadenfreude—taking pleasure in another's failure, or, in this case, possible future failure. The Steelers and the Patriots have frequently battled for AFC supremacy over the last decade, and Patriots fans may prefer anyone but the Steelers (OK, or the Jets) to win the Super Bowl. Another explanation, though somewhat dubious, is that Green Bay (even without an injured Aaron Rogers) played the Pats much tighter than did the Steelers earlier in the season. That memory may have been fresh in New England voters' minds when they clicked on the site. (Or, and this is the obligatory caveat, perhaps these results don't mean much because these are opt-in polls without representative sampling. Then again, there are no obvious reasons these drawbacks would afflict results from, say, New Hampshire more than those from Illinois.)

Other highlights of the map:

Louisiana stands out from its Southern neighbors for its higher level of support (64 percent) for Green Bay. Perhaps this is because Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn led LSU to the 2008 national championship before being drafted by Green Bay.

The Pacific Northwest, and especially Washington (73 percent), also predicts a Packers victory at rates significantly higher than the national average. This could be NFC loyalty (Seahawks) or perhaps some kinship left over from the Mike Holmgren years.

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Article by Matthew Goldenberg

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