Bias in Football & Marketing
A high school football coach in Arkansas has a radical approach to the sport. Can marketers learn from him?
For anyone new here, I’m the founder of Woo Punch, a brand consultancy rooted in evidence-based brand design. I write about the evidence that debunks brand purpose, differentiation, brand love, loyalty marketing, customer personas, color psychology, mission statements, customer engagement, AdTech, and “hustle culture.”
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MEET COACH KEVIN KELLEY
In Little Rock, Arkansas (my hometown), nestled in a quiet neighborhood, is a private high school called Pulaski Academy. I grew up knowing “PA” as the pretentious school in town, looking down on the rest of us. However, the rest of the country knows Pulaski Academy for an entirely different reason. Their High School football coach, Kevin Kelley.
If you want to advance your football career past high school as a kicker, Pulaski Academy is the wrong school for you. That’s because Kevin Kelley never punts or kicks field goals.
When faced with 4th down and close to the goal posts, most teams try and kick the ball through the posts for 3 points and a field goal. In the same situation, but far away from the goal posts, most teams kick the ball back to the opposing team for a punt.
When allowed a kickoff, most teams kick the ball off. However, the Pulaski Academy Bruins always attempt onside kicks.
Conventional coaches accuse Kevin Kelley of gambling, but is he?
Imagine you are playing a game of poker, and the statistical probabilities of each hand’s success are displayed in front of you. You look at the numbers and make your moves accordingly.
The outcome is still unpredictable, but looking at the numbers gives you a considerable advantage with each hand.
In 2003 (right before starting his first season with the Bruins), Kevin Kelley watched a 15-minute grainy VHS tape of a Harvard professor (Kevin Kelley doesn’t seem to remember his name) explaining he had analyzed 3,000 games and concluded that teams should never punt the football.
Kevin Kelley took that grainy VHS tape seriously and gradually started punting less and less over the next couple of years. In the last 13 years, the Bruins have only punted the ball 8 total times. Even though we don’t know the name of this alleged “Harvard professor,” in 2005, David Romer, a professor at the University of California - Berkley, concluded the same after analyzing 700 NFL games (the highest level of football).
Romer suggested that football teams should never punt the football when facing 4th and 4 or less, regardless of where they are on the field. Kevin Kelley claims that if you fail on 4th down at your 5-yard line, the other team has a 92% chance of scoring a touchdown.
However, if you punt in that situation, the other team’s chances of scoring a touchdown are still very high, at 77%. For Kelley, that’s not a significant decline in risk. Especially when his team converts half of their 4th down attempts on average.
In 2006, Kevin Kelley started experimenting with onside kicks. He has found that when the Bruins have recovered at least one onside kick, they have won 117 games and only lost 3. Furthermore, they have never lost after 52 games when they have recovered two or more.
If the Bruins can score 4 times, they will likely recover at least one onside kick at a recovery rate of 1 in 5. Kevin Kelley likes those odds.
The other advantage of onside kicks is psychological. Because onside kicks are rare, most teams don’t practice recovering them. However, when facing Pulaski Academy, the opposing team is forced to spend valuable practice time working on recovering the Bruin’s onside kicks. That’s valuable time that they aren’t practicing fundamentals.
At the end of the day, Kevin Kelley’s unconventional strategy would be useless if his team wasn’t winning football games.
But they do win. A lot.
Kevin Kelley has won 87% of his 225 games over 17 years.
To put that in perspective, out of hundreds of thousands of high school football coaches since the 1930s, Kevin Kelley has the 15th-ranked win percentage of all time.
He’s led the Bruins to the playoffs every year as their coach, taken them to 12 state championships, and won 9 of those. He’s a legend. He isn’t just a big fish in a little pond, either. Arkansas usually ranks 14th out of 48 states for college football recruits. The Bruins also frequently travel to their neighboring state of Texas (ranked #2) to play some of the best teams in the country.
In 2011, they played Highland Park in Dallas. Highland Park hadn’t lost a game on their home field in 17 years (and 84 games). Most Highland Park players weren’t even born the last time their team lost a game at home.
That day, they would be on the wrong side of history.
The Bruins won. 40-13.
So why haven’t other teams adopted Kevin Kelley’s winning strategy? Coach Kelley isn’t just some obscure coach in Arkansas.
He was named the USA Today High School coach of the year in 2016 and featured on ESPN in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, The Wall Street Journal, and Time Magazine. His team was even incorporated into the script of the hit HBO show, Billions.
Coach Kelley is a friend and advisor to Nick Saban (the record holder for the most national titles in college football) and Bill Belichick (the record holder for the most national championships in the NFL). They are arguably the two greatest football coaches of all time.
Bill Belichick said of Kelley that he was “...probably the top high school coach in the country” and that he “has great respect for Coach Kelley.”
So, why aren’t other coaches going for it more on 4th down?
LOSS-AVERSION IN FOOTBALL
For the answer, let’s look at a cognitive bias called “loss-aversion.” Loss-aversion is the tendency for human beings to prefer avoiding the pain of a loss over the pleasure of a gain.
What does loss-aversion have to do with football?
Pretend you’re Kevin Kelley, faced with a 4th and 4, at your 1-yard line, at the start of the game. If you fail to get 4 yards, the other team is only 1 yard away from a touchdown. However, they will probably still score a touchdown if you punt. So, statistically, you are deciding between losing the ball now or winning the game later.
Now pretend you’re Kevin Kelley facing a career decision.
If you trust the VHS tape you just watched, and the numbers are correct, your chances of becoming a legendary football coach increase. Conversely, you will likely be fired if you trust the VHS tape and the numbers are wrong. If you pretend you never saw the VHS tape, you will probably keep your job (especially if you won a state championship the year before as Kevin Kelley did), but you won’t become a legend.
This is the situation football coaches find themselves in. When a coach is already a legend, they can afford to ignore the data (like Bill Belichick reportedly does). But, when a coach is unproven, they are fools to ignore it.
WHAT ARE COACHES LOSS-AVERSE?
Few coaches in this position follow Kevin Kelley’s advice because they are playing the worst-case scenario in their head. Wouldn’t you do the same?
EVERY COACH’S BIGGEST FEAR
Put yourself in Kevin Kelley’s shoes during his first year with Pulaski Academy, right after watching a VHS tape that made you question everything you thought you knew about your beloved sport. You love your new job, it pays well, and your family loves the area.
It’s game day, and you are facing Cabot High School, the most formidable team in the state.
That same team beat you during your first year with PA, but only by 1 point. You could probably win the game if your team practiced hard and played it smart and safe. But, instead, you decide to lean into that VHS tape.
Right off the bat, you attempt an onside kick after winning the coin toss.
It doesn’t work.
Your foe marches down the short field and scores a touchdown. It’s 7-0.
Everyone is confused. Your boss is dumbfounded, the fans are confused, and the commentator berates you publicly. “It’s ok,” you tell yourself. “that Harvard professor seemed to know his stuff.”
After receiving the kickoff, you get your first set of downs for the game. You methodically march down the field to the 2-yard line. After 3 failed attempts to get into the end zone from the 2, you decide to go for it on 4th down.
You don’t get it. Everyone writes it off because most coaches might have done the same thing in that situation. Sometimes calculated risks are necessary to win games.
With the ball at the 2-yard line, the opposing team throws a bomb down the field. Then they run it for 20 yards. Before you know it, the ball is in the end zone. It’s 14-0. After scoring, they kick the ball off.
You march the ball down the field, but then you find yourself 20 yards from the end zone and facing a possible 30-yard field goal try on 4th and 10. You have a moderately easy shot at 3 points if you kick the field goal.
But you watched that damn VHS tape…
You second guess the video but then proceed with a passing play. The ball is intercepted. The other team takes the interception to the house. It’s 21-0 at the end of the 1st half. You get a call from your athletic director. He’s livid. So are the fans.
In the locker room, your players look defeated. They usually love you, but not at this moment. At this moment, they think they can make better decisions than you, as 16-year-olds. But hey, at least you get the ball to start the second half.
At the start of the second half, the opposing team kicks the ball off, and you get the ball to the 20-yard line before getting tackled. On your first play, your quarterback gets tackled, running backward, 10 yards. Before you know it, it’s 4th and 20 on your 10-yard line. You should punt the ball. Instead of only 10 yards, the other team will need 40 to score.
But you watched that f@#king VHS tape!
Some Harvard professor (you can’t remember his name) with no coaching experience told you that you should ignore all your football training.
So, you go for it.
It’s intercepted and ran into the end zone for yet another touchdown. It’s 28-0. By the end of the game, the fans are calling for your head. Your athletic director has no choice but to listen to them. He’s fearful of his job.
You are let go.
Eventually, word gets out around the country. You are now “the coach who goes for it every time.”
This scenario must have run through Kevin Kelley’s head before that fateful game against Cabot in 2011. But that didn’t happen.
Kevin Kelley recovered that first onside kick, then scored a touchdown.
Instead of kicking the ball to the opposing team after scoring, he attempted another onside kick.
He recovered that second onside kick. Then he scored another touchdown.
He would recover the next two onside kicks in a row and score a touchdown each time.
After 6 minutes, he was ahead by a whopping 28 points, more than most teams score in an entire game. The other team hadn’t even touched the ball.
The story was picked up by Sports Illustrated, The Huffington Post, Yahoo Sports, Business Insider, and USA Today. Word has gotten out around the country. Kevin Kelley was “the coach who goes for it every time.”
A mad genius.
Coach Kelley loves telling people about that game against Cabot in 2011.
At least he did before his team scored 40 points, in less than 4 minutes, in 2019!
In 2021, Kevin Kelley will coach college football for the first time. Was high school football just a fluke? Can Kevin Kelley’s philosophy work at the next level up? Time will tell.
Update: It didn’t go well. To be fair, Presbyterian College was terrible when he got there, and most of his issues involved recruiting players with hardly any scholarship money. COVID didn’t help either. He moved back to Little Rock and is currently taking a break from football to pursue some business interests. I hope he’s taking the same data-driven approach to marketing!
LOSS-AVERSION IN MARKETING
Today, Coach Kelley screams at his TV when he watches his favorite NFL team, the New England Patriots, led by his pal Bill Belichick, “play it safe” on 4th down.
I’m screaming at the TV too. Only, I’m screaming at marketing gurus.
I haven’t seen a grainy VHS tape, but I have seen countless empirical studies that directly debunk conventional marketing wisdom. Unfortunately, like football coaches, marketers are also loss-averse.
A wave of gurus over the last 20 years has sold new conventional wisdom that traditional advertising is “dead.”
Yet, most traditional advertising channels (TV, radio, Out of Home) have been consistently proven, even during COVID, to be far more effective than digital channels (social media, SEO, email, paid search) for long-term growth. As a result of this new trend away from traditional advertising, most marketers have begun the equivalent of punting.
Marketers now prefer to avoid the social pain of being perceived as old-fashioned and the monetary pain of the upfront costs associated with traditional channels over the opportunity for massive growth.
In their defense, marketers at small businesses and startups are often left with no choice in the beginning. With a small marketing budget (or no budget), TV, radio, and Out of Home ads aren’t always an option. But, many Fortune 500 companies (with massive budgets) have cut their traditional ad spending, in favor of digital, over the last 20 years.
In 2013, P&G moved a third of its advertising dollars online, saying, “we need to be where the consumer is.” By 2017, they must have realized that was a bad idea. They discontinued all precision-targeted advertising on Facebook, cut over $200 million on “largely ineffective” digital ads, and increased their TV ad spend by 11%, to $429 million.
Football coaches and marketers don’t just fall prey to loss-aversion. As human beings, we fall prey to countless other cognitive biases.
OTHER MARKETING BIASES
For example, most football coaches fall prey to the Halo Effect, the tendency for an impression created in one area to influence opinion in another. As a result, when up-and-coming football coaches need to form their philosophies around football, they naturally turn to the doctrines of legendary coaches with halos around their heads.
They assume that if Nick Saban and Bill Belichick are legends, their punting philosophies must be solid. In reality, despite having flawed punting strategies, Saban and Belichick could have become legends.
Up-and-coming marketers fall into the same trap. They assume that successful marketing gurus must be right about marketing if they’re millionaires.
In reality, many gurus inherited money; some were in the right place at the right time, others are so overconfident that we believe them, and most affirm what intuitively feels true. In other words, these marketing gurus are often successful despite their flawed marketing philosophies, not because of them.
In addition to loss-aversion and the Halo Effect, other common biases that mislead marketers include:
Questionable Cause Fallacy
Two events occurring together are taken to have established a cause-and-effect relationship.
When looking at the data, marketers falsely assume that brands grow by increasing loyalty. The opposite is true. Increased loyalty results from brand growth, not the other way around.1
The tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information acquired.
The fallacy of “differentiate or die” has been taught in business schools worldwide for decades, yet there is no proof that differentiation is effective.2 Regardless, most marketers accept this fallacy as gospel, mainly because it’s one of the first marketing philosophies they were exposed to.
The tendency to look closely at the information we believe to be true and ignore anything else.
Often, marketers will look closely for signs that great brands are aligned with their marketing philosophies while ignoring the signs that they aren’t.
Target marketing evangelists look closely for signs that Apple, Coca-Cola, and Nike target particular customers while ignoring that all three brands have been mass-marketed for decades.
The logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not.
Many marketers attach specific characteristics to successful brands as the reason for their success without acknowledging the millions of failed brands with those same characteristics.
When Kevin Kelley watched that VHS tape in 2003, he didn’t just have to reprogram his own biases. He had to reprogram the biases of everyone involved with the Pulaski Academy football team.
Think about that for a second. Unfortunately, Kevin Kelley had to become a bearer of a lot of bad news.
He had to tell his kicker that he wouldn’t have a future in football as long as he stayed with the Bruins. He had to break the news to his Defensive Coordinator, who could have easily felt slighted, now that he would be relied on significantly less. And he had to break the news to his boss that he was about to use the Pulaski Academy Bruins as guinea pigs for his experiment.
Kevin Kelley sacrificed a lot in pursuit of the truth. How much would you sacrifice?
If you’re a legendary football coach or a millionaire marketing guru, you can afford to ignore research that challenges your core beliefs. But, if you want to accomplish something great in pursuit of the truth, look for those grainy VHS tapes, and start reprogramming your biases.
Thanks for reading Branding Bullsh*t! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Want to chat about your brand? Schedule a free intro call.
 Evidence Concerning the Importance of Perceived Brand Differentiation - Romanuik, Jenni, Byron Sharp, and Andrew Ehrenberg (2007)