Statistics in Sports Broadcasts Add to Spectator Experience
Dustin Hahn found that as data used in NFL airings rose, so did the intensity of fandom.
Sports fandom can be an insatiable, consuming experience, with statistics serving as constant nourishment. The meals have grown in scope and scale over the years.
Dustin Hahn, assistant professor of film, television and digital media, is interested in sports fanaticism and statistics. The combination proved to be a natural segue into his research on NFL broadcasts. His 2018 study analyzed the type, frequency and presentation of numbers related to individual and team performance. Numbers are “objective, they’re simple, they can tell all sides of an issue,” he said.
Hahn and co-authors Glenn Cummins, professor of media and communication at Texas Tech University, and Matthew VanDyke, assistant professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Alabama, analyzed 16 NFL broadcasts in four time periods: four games from 1972-78, four from 1992-94, four from 2003-08 and four from 2013-16. They found changes in the way statistics were presented (whether verbalized or depicted on screen), the amount and type of statistics used, and the focus on individual or team numbers.
Much research has been devoted to how unique fan behavior is, but also how it affects their emotions.
The use of statistics has increased since the 1970s, Hahn said. In the 16 analyzed games, the researchers found 1,600 stats, an average of about 100 per game. Each time period saw an increase in frequency, for a 338.79 percent total increase from the first time period to the last.
The broadcasts emphasized individual statistics over team statistics, though this trend is slowing. Hahn said the focus on individual athletes is interesting because football is probably the most team-centered sport in the world.
Onscreen references have been increasing, Hahn said, even though spoken references still top visual numbers because of succinct on-air deliverability and the time and resources required to create graphics.
Hahn attributed the increase in statistics to two phenomena: “Technology has increased the ability to store numbers,” he said, and sports fans want to be well-informed.
A fan’s desire to be an expert, he said, can be linked to the popularity of fantasy sports. The use of statistics and advanced metrics also helps organizations evaluate athletes.
TCU Football has found beneficial uses for statistics, said Mark Cohen, associate athletics director for communications. “You have to be able to look at stats, to analyze, think of the numbers. It helps [you better] appreciate what the student-athletes are accomplishing.”
The proliferation of statistics not only helps with player evaluations, but it also helps market the football program and control the narrative with numbers. “We use stats a lot to find how we’re going to tell our story, how we’re going to promote ourselves,” Cohen explained.
Statistics color the way people watch sports and might affect the future of sports as an American enterprise now that gambling on events is legal, Hahn said.
“I think we’re going to see more numbers, more statistics used because people see that as a way of being more informed,” he said, adding that statistics in the age of sports betting could be geared to specific metrics on which people can place bets.
Hahn’s research points to fandom and why statistics can bolster a fan’s authority. “It gives you kind of one more way to think about and analyze and discuss with friends and colleagues and disagree with the commentator,” he said. “It’s a way that we can tout our own fanship.”
Statistics and authority give way to deeper psychological phenomena in sports fans, Hahn said. “People use much of their time, much of their money and devote a significant portion of their life in all avenues — emotionally, cognitive resources, everything — and it even affects their identity.
“Much research has been devoted to how unique fan behavior is, but also how it affects their emotions,” added Hahn, who described what he called “death salience,” or the notion that fans are more aware of their mortality when their team loses.
The professor said he also is interested in how sports can bring people together. “You ask people who are sports fans why they are a fan of their team, sometimes that’s geographical but oftentimes it’s family.”
Statistics provide “that conversational fodder and tie back to our identity,” Hahn said. “Sports fans pride themselves on what they know and gauge other people’s fanship on how much they know.”