New Colorado State University Study Answers, ‘Does the NFL Preseason Matter?’

The National Football League will kick-off the regular season this week while a new Colorado State University study is asking if what we’ve been watching the past several weeks forecasts the success of our favorite football teams during the upcoming season.

In the study, “Practice or Profits: Does the NFL Preseason Matter?” CSU economists Nancy Jianakoplos and Martin Shields look at whether the outcomes of the NFL preseason games are predictors of regular season performance.

Using data from the 2002-2010 NFL seasons, Jianakoplos and Shields find that neither the team’s preseason record nor a win in the third preseason game is an indicator of regular season winning percentage. This results contrast with previous findings that preseason game performance did provide an indicator of regular season performance for the 1970-1991 NFL seasons. Their study concludes that around 1994, preseason NFL games no longer predicted regular season performance.

“Evidence from the study suggested that preseason winning percentages did provide significant information about regular season winning percentages from 1970-1991,” Jianakoplos said. “While we found preseason wins during those years did indicate regular season success, we found from 2002-2010 preseason winning percentages or wins in the third game of the preseason did not predict regular season success.”

The analysis however did not demonstrate explicitly why preseason performance no longer matters. The researchers point to answers being found in quantifiable differences in offseason player training.

Another factor may be the result of changes in player compensation resulting from the 1993 Collective Bargaining Agreement. NFL players are much more highly compensated today than in the past. The cost increase of veteran players could impact preseason coaching decisions regarding playing time for veterans versus free agents and rookies. The risk of injuring highly paid veteran players in the preseason may have contributed to the decline in the importance of winning NFL preseason games.

“These results serve to confirm the view of many fans and even the commissioner of the NFL, who have expressed discontent with the quality of the preseason NFL performance,” Shields said. “Although preseason games may provide opportunities for players new to the NFL to gain game-time experience and offer the coaching staff more information on performance capabilities of new players, winning preseason games does not directly translate into better overall team performance in the regular season.”

Jianakoplos and Shields also noted that the preseason does offer the owners additional revenue but also puts the players at added risk for injury.

The study was published in the Journal of Sports Economics and the article can be found at