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ESPN's Misleading Poll Results on Lebron James

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Polls are typically associated with political issues, candidates, and public behaviors, but there's also "politics" associated with reporting poll results. If there's one thing the public should denounce it's bad poll reporting because it leads to false information, a potentially false consensus, and lower trust in the source of the information.

Without question, ESPN's job is to entertain, not produce good scientific polling; but, their recent poll on the NBA and LeBron James is just plain bulls!@#t. The article and the lack of details about the poll present a classic example of biased reporting, polling on the cheap, and making what scientists call a Type I error (a.k.a., false-positive, or saying "I found something" when it's not really there).

According to the report, ESPN conducts a monthly telephone survey gauging topics like favorite NBA player, favorite overall athlete, and interest in the league. The main finding reads: "50% fewer respondents said James was their favorite NBA player." This entire lead rests on the following fact: LeBron James popularity fell from 9% (April 2010) to 4.5% (May 2011). The ESPN poll also found that James' "overall athlete" favorability dropped roughly 2 points, from 3.6% to 1.8%.

The 50% decline is true, but ...really? Are they kidding? That's not a drop, it's a bobble.

Indeed, the article characterizes the poll as unscientific (it never states why), but it appears that interviewers only called phone numbers in the Cleveland, New York, New Jersey, Boston, and Chicago areas. Yet, I'm skeptical mostly because other sources of public opinion suggest the exact opposite of the ESPN findings. Let's count the ways.

First, after trailing only Kobe Bryant in jersey sales over the past two seasons, this season James had the top selling jersey in the league.

Second, in 2011 James earned the 3rd most NBA All-Star fan votes behind Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard; James' Miami Heat teammate Dwayne Wade earned the 4th most votes. In 2010 James was the 2nd highest vote getter, and Wade was 3rd. These numbers do not suggest a serious drop-off in support for James or Wade, or the Miami Heat. In fact, while Bryant and Howard got more votes than James in 2011, their overall numbers actually decreased, albeit not at the same rate as James' and Wades'.

Third, a panel of 119 sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the United States and Canada made James the only unanimous first team All-NBA member. Fourth, NBA coaches voted James first team All-NBA Defense. There are many more stats on James relative to other NBA players that further suggest his brand is still strong.

These aggregates levels of support from NBA fans, media, and coaches suggest that James is both well-liked and well-respected. It's probably true that James is not as popular as he was in the past, but it that does not mean that he is not still popular and held in high regard. The poll report fails to make this clear.

A few more shots at the ESPN poll are warranted. Since ESPN's polls have no stated margin of error--likely because they are UNSCIENTIFIC--then one can't call the aforementioned 4.5 and 1.8 point changes in James' numbers meaningful (i.e., "statistically significant"). Why would ESPN (or the readers of the article) think the numbers are worthy of attention? Three words come to mind: big, pretty, numbers.

While the 2011 survey (N=6,007) is based on 1,996 fewer respondents than the 2010 survey (N=8,003), sample size alone is not the key to the accuracy of survey data, rather readers should ask whether the poll contacted a random sample of individuals (i.e., representative of the population of interest). Random sampling helps to minimize the bias in selecting survey respondents. So, regardless of how many persons are interviewed unscientific polls are not only inaccurate, they are not comparable.

The ESPN article makes the same mistake that most "reporters" make when discussing polling, they assume that any numbers they collected through polling have merit. You might Google/Bing "Literary Digest Poll" just in case you think this is a new issue.

Unfortunately for ESPN, the poll results in the article raise far more questions about their methods than they answer about James' popularity. We don't know the population the poll targeted, the response rate for the poll, the list of questions that were asked or how they were worded, the topline results for the entire list of questions, or even the dates of data collection. For all we know, ESPN is simply fudging their numbers to sell an idea (some might call this propaganda depending on the moment in World History).

In essence, ESPN is polling on the cheap; claiming they are doing research without doing "good research." Hell, the article doesn't event tell us "who" is the most favored athlete or NBA player.

The LeBron James as villain narrative gives the impression that ESPN is sticking to the entertainment game, rather than the good reporting game. This is a legitimate approach to take, but I'm going to call ESPN on its poll, mainly because there is enough "hate" and "dislike" in the public today, and we don't need ESPN to promote more of it through misleading poll findings.

This whole ESPN article reeks of ENTERTAINMENT (E) and PROGRAMMING (P), and not SPORTS (S); and the NETWORK (N) could do a lot better.

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