Truth is, they serve no utility
Anyone who works for a website will tell you that one of the biggest challenges is keeping things fresh. No matter how great the content is, if readers look at the site and see the same features at the top of the screen over and over again, they will look elsewhere.
It can be tough. Some days nothing interesting happens. Occasionally, life gets in the way. Sometimes you are 80 percent of the way through a great article predicting that Kyrie Irving will get traded to Denver when news breaks that he is going to the Celtics. (I tried plugging in Isaiah Thomas’ name everywhere Gary Harris’ name appeared in the article, but it didn’t work.)
So you find ways to compensate. There are old standbys that we can always come up with a thousand words on. Whether the college football playoff works (no) or whether the Redskins and Indians logos are insensitive (yes, and why are the Braves off the hook?), we look for content in any form. Some people make up controversies, like whether LeBron is leaving Cleveland. Sometimes they just throw crap on the wall and hope it takes up enough space to look like they tried. That is how somebody came up with Power Rankings.
The Falcons and Chiefs are great, and the Jets suck. How many people are into sports really need these articles to tell them that? What exactly do you know after reading this article that you didn’t know before you sat down on the toilet? ESPN says in the intro that their Power Rankings are the result of a compilation of the opinions of eighty writers, editors, and TV personalities. So, essentially, this is Yelp for football teams. If you and your wife are conflicted between Lions and Panthers, know that Detroit is one spot ahead of Carolina. That should settle it, at least for this week.
The Steelers beat a team ranked #12 before the game by seventeen points, but dropped from first to fourth. The Seahawks did not score a touchdown until the final minutes at home against a team that was ranked 29th going in, and dropped one spot. They are one spot ahead of the Ravens, who have surrendered ten points this season and have eight sacks and ten turnovers forced. ESPN states that fans should interpret these rankings as the higher ranked team would be favored against a lower ranked team. Until the Seahawks offensive line finds a clue as to how to protect Russell Wilson, he would find more protection standing behind the people lining up to bet against his team if it was favored against the Ravens.
It’s not just that the rankings make no sense. It’s that they serve no purpose. The fact that I spent time analyzing them annoys me because it gives them the credence of meriting my time. Unless you just returned from a lengthy stay at a monastery and want to find out the status of things in the NFL without putting more than two minutes of effort into it, there’s nothing there for you. One hand clapping is more useful than Power Rankings. Whipped cream would be more substantial. Want proof? If these ranking meant anything, it wouldn’t be possible for Denver to go up eight spots after winning one game. Either their ranking last week was ludicrous, or everyone is overreacting to what happened this week. No matter which way you look at it, you wasted your time at least once reading one of these articles.
It’s not just the NFL and ESPN. There are hundreds of these. Nebraska lost to Northern Illinois this week. Do we need Big Ten Power Rankings to tell us there’s something wrong with Nebraska? If Power Rankings had any pretense of being helpful, they would have told us Nebraska sucked before that game. Or at least told their athletic director before he gave the coach a contract extension.
There are some folks at ESPN doing good analysis of which teams are more likely to sustain hot starts and recover from bad starts. John Hollinger and then Kevin Pelton gave us useful playoff and championship odds based on how teams match the profiles of past winners. Bill Barnwell will tell you which stats are most predictive in determining which NFL teams will get better or worse. I can use that. These articles take a bit of work to understand, and maybe ESPN thinks we need the Cliff Notes version. If that doesn’t insult your intelligence, maybe it should.