Judging whether or not a sports season has been “successful” is a subjective exercise that is frequently more influenced by the context of the conversation than the actual merits of the team or record.
It is as easy for fans and commentators to opine on whether or not a season was worthy of praise as it is to assert whether or not a dress on the internet is blue (it actually was blue and black).
Never afraid to dive into these deep analytical discussions, however, I am endeavoring to put some objective standards around the subject so as to create a “successful” season framework. There is also a survey at the end for you to chime in as well.
Records are a very important tool for comparing teams against each other during the course of a season, even though they form a fairly poor basis in and of themselves for evaluating a team’s overall success.
Sports analysts work themselves into a frenzy comparing one team’s record to another, but the truth is that a team’s record is only dispositive for determining standings within a conference and whether or not a football team qualifies for a bowl game.
The last two basketball seasons at North Carolina brought a national championship and a national runner-up, which is a historic two-year run. Without looking, what were those teams’ final records? You don’t know because it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t even really matter for national rankings as the end of each year always brings a debate over why this two-loss team is more deserving of a playoff spot than that one-loss team (or a non-major conference no-loss team). The same is true for NCAA basketball tournament seeding.
Records are just not that important in-season, and therefore, can’t be that important (absent being undefeated) for judging a season in its entirety.
Less than five minutes after a national championship ends, the predictions for next season begin. These attempts to be first out of the gate are generally termed “early,” “too early,” or “way too early,” which are really just different ways of saying “don’t hold it against me when I’m inevitably wrong because these are really just guesses.”
By the time the offseason ends, though, media, coaches, and commentators have all weighed in with detailed forecasts for each team including national standing, conference standing, and overall record.
Las Vegas also weighs in with national championship odds and over/unders for win totals. For the gamblers among us, correctly predicting the over is an absolute and profitable sign of a successful season. For those who enjoy “proving” their least favorite commentator wrong, winning more games than what was anticipated is pure joy.
Surpassing expectations poses the philosophical question of whether a successful season only requires the team to do better than everyone thought it would. Would Virginia’s season be considered a success if the team wins 2 games and comes in next-to-last in the Coastal Division instead of its predicted last place finish? Some Wahoos would certainly say that two wins would be a gift but most fans would not consider it a successful season.
Defeating a Rival
Can a single game or a couple of games alone determine if the season was successful regardless of whatever else happens during the year? There is no single greater thrill in a season, besides a championship, than defeating a bitter rival. Rivalry games serve as emotional peaks during the season for both players and fans. They make for great television and garner tremendous amounts of attention.
Think about the adverse; if the Heels lost to Duke at home and were therefore swept by the Blue Devils, would the 2016-17 basketball campaign have been a failure? Was the four-win 2007 football season a success simply because it included wins over NC State and Duke? Once a successful game becomes the premise for a successful season, then the fanaticism of rivalry has ignored the forest for the trees.
Winning the Final Game
In his book, The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis relays Daniel Kahneman’s “peak-end rule” theory. Boiled down, the concept is that the memory of a painful time can be lessened if the ending is comparatively less painful. As Kahneman’s colleague Donald Redelmeier summarized, “last impressions can be lasting impressions.” The same theory applies to sports.
A terrible year can be made better with a couple of late-season wins. Winning the last game can mean a bowl win, or a national championship, or at least a NIT championship. Wins at the end of the year engender hope for the offseason, which can paint a more rosy picture of the past season. Conversely, late losses are extremely memorable and can lead to an unduly negative view of the year as a whole.
While the way a team finishes may not be the sole factor of a successful season, it certainly affects the way that fans view that team.
Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio by stating, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” Many sports fans feel the same way.
In an age where metrics of every kind are used to predict outcomes and evaluate teams, perhaps the best measure of a successful season is simply gut instinct. The totality of a huge number of tangible and intangible factors may be required to properly evaluate the results of a season.
The problem with such a subjective test is that Kentucky fans are able to argue with equal ferocity that their season was as good as ours. That simply can’t be correct. Ever.
What is the proper measure of a successful season
This poll is closed
Late season wins
I know it when I see it
I have a great answer not on this list (please leave a comment)