What if the Heisman Trophy Really Was A Popularity Contest?

Ballots for the Heisman Trophy were due yesterday.  Ostensibly, the Heisman Trophy “annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity”.  However, many have argued throughout the years that the Heisman is essentially a large popularity contest.  This view is supported by the millions of dollars annually spent by universities on publicity campaigns for their Heisman candidates.  There are 928 voters for the Heisman Trophy.  This includes members of the media, former winners, and 1 “fan vote” that represents the public at large.  We were curious to see what would happen if the general public was completely responsible for determining the winner of the Heisman Trophy.  As with past studies, we decided to use Twitter as a proxy for the views of the public.  Below, we present our methodology and results.

The first thing to consider is how does one define “Popularity” on Twitter.  Often, studies will use the volume/number of mentions on Twitter as a proxy for popularity.  However, this measure does not account for sentiment (positive, negative, or neutral), which could be important in the decision to vote for someone.  So, we constructed a daily “popularity” measure that is the product of the volume of tweets mentioning a candidate and the average sentiment of those tweets (Note: we tried several specifications of the “popularity” measure, but the rankings were robust).

Once we had a method for determining popularity, we decided to look at the six Heisman Trophy finalists: Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston, A.J. McCarron, Tre Mason, Jordan Lynch, and Andre Williams.  The pie chart on the left looks at the sum of the popularity measure for each candidate over the entire season (mid-August to Dec 9th).  Johnny Manziel is by far the leader of the pack.  This could potentially be attributed to the stellar start of his season, as well as his huge following.  Heisman-favorite Jameis Winston is in second place, and A.J. McCarron is third.  It’s incredible that Manziel leads Winston by more than a 2:1 margin.  We realize that Heisman voters mark their ballots for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, and we are simply looking at most “popular”.

We performed a similar analysis, looking at only the last month and looking at only the last week.   It’s remarkable to see the variation in “popularity” over time.  Tre Mason had a relative 5% popularity if you look at the full season, but 11% over the last month, and 24% over the last week.  In the analysis of popularity over the last week, James Winston barely edges out Manziel for 1st place.  To better understand the factors behind these movements in popularity, we would have to perform content analysis on the tweets to determine what topics were being discussed with respect to these athletes; that is left for a future study.

It is interesting to note that in the their final straw poll, Heisman Pundit has the following ranking: 1) Winston, 2) Lynch, 3) Manziel, 4) Mason, and 5) McCarron.  The “popularity” measure for over the last week gives the ranking: 1) Winston, 2) Manziel, 3) Mason, 4) McCarron, and 5) Lynch.  Jordan Lynch is the only player of these top 5 that plays for a “Non-AQ” school (Northern Illinois).  Perhaps Lynch in second place is evidence that voters look at performance on the field, and not just popularity, however if Heisman Pundit’s straw poll is correct, it seems a lot can be explained by recent popularity.

Mike Lewis & Manish Tripathi, Emory University 2013.