People often split up NFL fanbases by state. As in: Michigan=Lions, Wisconsin=Packers, Illinois=Bears. There are two reasons for this. First, it's easy. We're used to looking at maps and dividing stuff up along state lines (like electoral votes). Second, most major college sports are dominated by large state schools, with rivalries that often do follow these lines.
One thing that TV schedulers do well—and they do a lot of stuff wrong—is recognize that this often isn't the case for professional sports. Largely ignoring state boundaries, they more often assume that people root for teams they're close to. This works pretty well in most cases, but when this assumption is wrong, well, that's when people start getting screwed.
Before we get to which market got screwed the worst this season, consider the map below, which shows NFL team territories if every fan rooted for the team closest to him or her (as the crow flies). Obviously this map isn't a perfectly accurate depiction of NFL fanbases, but it's a good jumping-off point for looking at the process that went into dividing the country into NFL TV markets.
As we saw week after week, the places most likely to get screwed were equidistant from two crappy teams and ended up with games for both. It's not hard to pick out 2012's crappy teams: 10 finished with double-digit losses, and these same 10 had the league's lowest point differentials. Recoloring our map to highlight these 10 losers—with the six borders between two bad teams marked—we get this:
So which market on one of these borders got screwed in 2012? We can rule out anyone on Border #1, because pretty much nobody lives in that part of the country. This leaves us with five borders that cut through the following seven TV markets:
Border #2: Toledo, Ohio.
Border #3: Erie, Pa.
Border #4: Binghamton, Syracuse, and Watertown, N.Y.
Border #5: Scranton, Pa. and Binghamton, N.Y. (again)
Border #6: Scranton and New York City
Fans who root for bad teams and get to watch those teams aren't exactly getting "screwed" (by the schedulers at least), so we can eliminate NYC, since there are a lot of Jets fans there. Likewise we can use the ambitious Common Census NFL Maps—which attempt to map out team territories based on actual polling results from fans—to eliminate two more:
The "rooting for the team you're closest to" model works very well for Toledo, whose rooting interest appears to be split between the Lions and the Browns. Watertown (in upstate N.Y) appears to be apathetic/unpopulated. Finally, Syracuse gets off on a weird technicality. Because a tiny piece of
Onondaga County Syracuse's TV market is within 75 miles of the Bills' stadium, when the Bills get blacked out (as they were twice this year), the Syracuse market is not allowed to show them on TV. Sweet perk for Syracuse! That leaves us with these three contenders:
- 1. Erie, Pa.: Officially a Bills secondary market, meaning it's typically required to show all road games. Equidistant from the Browns. Despite being closer to these two cities, the Common Census maps shows that Erie is primarily Steelers country.
- 2. Binghamton, N.Y.: Not a secondary market. Equidistant from the Bills, Jets/Giants, and Eagles. Common Census tags them as Giants fans mostly.
- 3. Scranton, Pa.: Officially an Eagles secondary market, but equidistant from the Bills and Jets/Giants. Common Census can't make up its mind on this one.
Let's break these guys down.
Bronze: Scranton, Pa.
Fifty-two percent of Scranton's Sunday afternoon games included one of the 10 shitty 2012 teams, and the city was forced to watch nine Jets games (64 percent of the Jets' afternoon games) and 11 Eagles games (92 percent). On the plus side, a bunch of people in Scranton probably like the Eagles! They were particularly screwed in Weeks 1, 3, 6, 8, and 17.
Silver: Binghamton, N.Y.
Like Scranton, 52 percent of Binghamton's Sunday afternoon games involved at least one shitty team, and fans were forced to watch 11 Bills games (69 percent of Buffalo's Sunday afternoon total), 10 Jets games (71 percent), and six Eagles games (50 percent). Also like Scranton, the city was mercifully allowed to watch the team it actually liked, picking up 11 Giants games (92 percent). Binghamton was particularly screwed in Weeks 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 13, and 17.
Gold: Erie, Pa.
Sweet, sweet victory! Fifty-four percent of Erie's Sunday afternoon games involved one of 2012's shitty teams, including 10 Bills games (63 percent of Buffalo's Sunday afternoon games) and nine Browns games (56 percent). Despite being further west, Erie still managed to pick up four Eagles games (33 percent) and four Jets games (29 percent); what's more, Erie wandered a little close to the Midwest and got hit with three Lions games (25 percent). To top it all off, the city got only nine Steelers games, just 75 percent of the team's Sunday afternoon total.
Relive a few of the worst games Erie was forced to watch, shown below in a victory-lap GIF.
Special thanks to JP Kirby and his followers at the506.com for their incredible maps, which are a lot harder to put together than you might think.