Academics and NFL Fans Disagree About This Common Belief in Football

If you’ve ever watched a sporting event where one team or player seemed unstoppable, you might have thought that the team or player is a benefactor of momentum. It’s a common idea throughout sports and it’s brought up by players, NFL fans, and announcers alike.

But there’s a lot of debate over whether it actually exists. An object in motion may stay in motion, but is what NFL fans perceive as momentum really just a series of random occurrences? Let’s take a closer look at the case for and against momentum. 

The case for momentum

The concept of momentum is basically the idea that a team or player who’s performing well continues to play well due to his or her momentum. When a team or player feeds off momentum, their future performance is essentially fueled by their past success.

Winning leads to more winning, making plays leads to making more plays, etc. Kevin Burke wrote about it for The Sporting News

“While playing or watching sports, I often get a sense of momentum occurring; when “Big Mo” arrives, it seems quite evident. In reality, just because sport scientists can’t measure a phenomenon, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist — there simply may not be a good scientific technique for analyzing momentum in sports.”

The case against momentum

Famed author of Freakonomics Stephen Dubner posted about the “myth” of momentum in his Football Freakonomics blog series. Here’s what he had to say about the phenomenon

“And so it is, for the most part, with hot hands and hot streaks and hot quarterbacks. In our Momentum video, you’ll hear Toby Moscowitz, the academic co-author of Scorecasting, discuss how pretty much everyone in football believes in momentum. But, having looked at a lot of NFL data, Moscowitz reaches a sobering conclusion: “There is a much stronger belief in momentum than is warranted by what we see in the data.”

In other words, just because a team has driven down the field three times in rapid fashion to set up a dramatic comeback doesn’t necessarily mean the fourth drive is sprinkled with fairy dust.”

Dubner clearly comes down against momentum, no matter how many sports fans swear by it. It’s something that makes sense on paper, but when watching a game you seem to see it everywhere.

Does momentum really have an impact on sports? 

The experts may be right. Momentum may not have an actual direct impact on the athletes themselves. Like the concept of “clutch” hitters in baseball, it may be a concept that has more relevance in the minds of NFL fans than it does in reality. But that doesn’t mean it can’t impact the games indirectly. 

While fans don’t play the game, they nevertheless have an impact on the game. They cheer for the home team and boos the visitors. They buy tickets, watch the games at home, and purchase merchandise. Fans even sound off on social media about the performance of their favorite teams. These actions have a trickle-down effect on how they impact the games themselves. 

These types of actions have an impact on the players that play the game. Now, the specific impact may vary depending on the player — some players aren’t affected at all by the fans, others are too affected. But the fact remains that the actions of fans can influence their team, even if the influence is minimal. 

If fans perceive momentum as being a real thing, and it affects their actions, which in turn affects the team, doesn’t this mean momentum does have an impact? 

For example: let’s say a previously terrible NFL team wins 15 games in a row. Momentum may have nothing to do with their performance on the field. But their perceived momentum will clearly cause more fans to show up.

Those fans are likely to grow louder as the streak goes on. This could lead to the opposing team missing a kick or tackle at a key moment if one of their players gets phased by the crowd’s reaction. 

The bottom line is it’s borderline impossible to measure what kind of impact momentum has on professional sporting events. But if fans perceive momentum as having an impact, that may be enough.