To the public, athletes live pretty sweet lives – they get to play the sport they love, are cheered on by millions of people, and win or lose, they're taking home more money than most know what to do with. But just as fans get frustrated during losing streaks or upset when they discover their co-worker earns a bigger paycheck, professional athletes aren't always smiling. Bad records, trades, lower pay, and the immense pressure to be perfect can wreak havoc on an athlete's mental health and happiness.
Earning a high income may not be enough to make an athlete happy, but what about their team's record and the position they play? To determine which leagues, teams, and players are the happiest in professional sports, we collected roster photos from ESPN and ran them through Microsoft's Azure Cognitive Services API. Since the photos were likely taken before the 2019 season began, they could serve as a measure of how optimistic each team was about their performance in the weeks to come.
Keep reading to see where your favorite teams rank on our happiness scale and how that compares to their pay and performance throughout the season.
A city's greatness is often measured by its job opportunities, culture, and community. However, for pro athletes, happiness with a certain franchise may also be due, in part, to location.
Miami, Florida, ranked highest for the happiest sports teams, and despite a long-standing losing streak, the Miami Marlins were the happiest team in the happiest city. With big losses and practically empty stadiums, it seems the only thing making the Marlins happy is getting paid to play the game they love in a sunny locale. Boston, Massachusetts, ranked second for the happiest teams, on average. The Patriots were Boston's happiest team, fresh off a victory in football's biggest game in 2019.
Third-ranked Cleveland, Ohio, has fans who are bound to boost happiness scores. A recent study named Cleveland Browns fans as the best fandom in the world, beating supporters of single players and popular movies alike. However, the Cleveland Browns weren't the happiest team in the city – the Cleveland Cavaliers took that spot. On top of their large fan base, the Cavs ended Cleveland's 52-year championship drought in 2016, and advanced to the Finals again in 2018.
Based on the ranking of the happiest teams in the happiest cities, the NBA seems to be a pretty positive league. But looking at the leagues as a whole, the MLB had the happiest teams overall. Although MLB has hit its lowest point in history regarding popularity, the league's happiness may be impacted by the lack of a salary cap. It's not all about salary, though.
The NHL ranked as the unhappiest league, which could be due, in part, to players' appearances. Ice hockey is a notoriously difficult and physical sport, and the toughness of players could make them look less happy.
Despite ranking as one of the worst-performing teams in the entire league, the Seattle Mariners were the happiest team in the MLB. However, the highest-ranking team, 2017 World Series champions, and 2019 runners-up Houston Astros weren't too far behind.
While the Astros' success gives them plenty to be happy about, the Kansas City Royals struggled with morale. The Royals may have secured a win in the 2015 World Series, but individual player improvements were not enough to break a long losing streak during the 2019 season. Their poor record matched with low fan turnout likely puts a lot of pressure on the team's overall happiness – the lowest in all of baseball.
Overall team happiness may rely on a combination of success and fans, but dissecting team morale by position may depend on importance, popularity, and susceptibility to injury. Center, left, and right field were the happiest positions, while first base, the relief pitcher, and second base ranked the most unhappy. Interestingly, the debate on the toughest position in baseball tends to come down to the catcher or pitcher, and while there is no clear answer, both catchers and starting pitchers ranked in the middle of the happiness scale.
While money plays a role in satisfaction, it's certainly not the best predictor of happiness for pro athletes. However, the highest-paid player, Max Scherzer, also happened to score a 100% happiness rating. In contrast, Zack Greinke was among the top five highest-paid MLB athletes, yet had a 0% happiness rating.
Coming off a winning 2018 season, the Philadelphia Eagles were the happiest team in the NFL. They could be feeling the excitement of their powerful new lineup featuring Desean Jackson and Jordan Howard. It could also be due to feelings of relief concerning their relatively easy schedule in 2019.
In terms of the happiest football positions, quarterbacks came out on top – and it could have a bit to do with their paychecks. The three highest-paid NFL players were quarterbacks for the Steelers, Falcons, and Seahawks – and, coincidentally, they had extremely high happiness ratings. Happiness among NFL fans may be heavily tied to the success of their favorite teams, but the same doesn't always apply to NFL players. DeMarcus Lawrence and Trey Flowers did not display smiling faces in this year's roster photos despite being some of the highest-paid players in the league.
The unhappiest NFL team was the Oakland Raiders. Based on the assumed correlation between success and happiness, the Raiders are recovering from a bad 2018 record, winning just four games the entire season and falling to second to last in the NFL power rankings.
Despite a dramatic and underwhelming 2018 season, in which head coach Tyronn Lue was fired, and star LeBron James departed once again, this time for Los Angeles, the Cleveland Cavaliers showed signs of resilience by coming out on top in terms of team happiness in 2019.
The Washington Wizards ranked second in terms of happiness. Just before the start of the 2019 season, they ponied up a $72 million contract extension for Bradley Beal, securing a key team leader on their roster for the next two years. The Wizards may also have gotten a confidence boost from the hope that John Wall will return to the floor after major Achilles tendon injuries in the 2018-19 season. Interestingly, even though he spent much of the 2019-20 season on the sidelines, John Wall still received the highest-possible happiness rating and the third-highest salary in the league.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Houston Rockets ranked as the unhappiest team despite their winning record last season. Their 2019 season has been fraught with international ire from the Chinese government, starting with the general manager's controversial stand with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Stephen Curry, one of the most well-known and successful players in the NBA, took the top spot in terms of salary and happiness. Conversely, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul scored a mere 0% and 0.1% happiness rating, respectively, despite having some of the highest salaries in the league.
The NHL may be the unhappiest league overall based on our photo analysis, but some teams still found reasons to smile, with the Anaheim Ducks coming out on top despite their mediocre conference ranking during the 2018-2019 season. Considering the Ducks are a relatively young franchise, are associated with Disney, and won the Stanley Cup in 2007, their lackluster record may not be enough to dampen their spirits.
On the flip side, the Winnipeg Jets were the unhappiest team. While the Jets had a solid 2018-2019 season, making it to the Western Conference playoffs, their ultimate playoff defeat to the St. Louis Blues might have put a dent in the team's morale.
While it's not clear exactly what makes these teams tick, salary doesn't seem to have much of an effect. Of the top-paid athletes in the NHL, only two of them had a high happiness rating. Mitchell Marner, the top-paid NHL athlete, and Carey Price showed off big smiles in their current roster photos. However, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Erik Karlsson scored 0% on the happiness scale despite their hefty paychecks.
As fans, we only see a fraction of professional athletes' lives. They get paid the big bucks for playing the sport they love, and win or lose, millions of people stand by them. But happiness runs much deeper than fame and fortune. Teams' records, fan bases, and even positions all play a role in the happiness of players, and unhappiness appears more common than fans may think. While the NHL was the unhappiest league overall, the top-paid athletes in hockey, basketball, and baseball also struggled to keep their spirits up (at least on team picture day).
Happiness may be multifaceted, but fan support seems to play a significant role. Professional athletes give their all every game, trying to collect as many wins as possible. Sometimes, it's up to the fans to show up, support the team, and make sure their favorite players are feeling the love.
When teams feel supported by their fans, their performance may get a boost. Whether you're a basketball lover or a baseball fanatic, TickPick makes it easy to snag tickets and show your support in the stands. With no hidden fees or commission fees, the price you see is the price you pay. To learn more, visit us online today.
For this study, we analyzed the current roster photos of all NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL athletes from ESPN.com. These included only the players on the rosters at the time of analysis, October of 2019. This amounted to more than 4,000 photos. At this time, all of the leagues' 2019 seasons were underway. We analyzed the photos using Microsoft Azure's Cognitive Services face verification API. This tool uses an algorithm to determine the confidence that each face in the photo is displaying a certain emotion. During analysis, each photo received a confidence value for happiness that ranged between 0 and 1, with 1 being the most confident that the photo displayed a happy person.
We also relied on athletes' salary data from a variety of sources. The data were gathered in November of 2019:
Players who were on the ESPN.com roster but who did not have salary information were not included in the analysis or team averages. Those who joined teams or came off the injured list after the time of analysis were not included above.
Of course, smiling in a photo does not necessarily mean you are truly happy, so this analysis is meant to be purely exploratory and based on means alone. Salary data collected from the above sources may differ from other databases.
Most competition between sports fans revolves around whose team is better. But what about which team is happier? If you know someone who would be interested in our findings, feel free to share this project with them. The graphics and content found here are available for noncommercial reuse. All we ask is that you include a link back to this page to ensure readers get all the information and our contributors receive proper credit.