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Ranking the “Best” Fan Bases in College Football

Over the next week or so, we will be publishing analyses of the “best” fan bases in college football.  Our plan is to go conference by conference, and talk about which teams have the most loyal fans.  Our approach is data and statistically driven, as we will be looking at how fans support their teams after controlling for how well the team performs.  The series will conclude with an overall ranking of teams.

Before we get to the team rankings we wanted to start with an analysis of conferences.  Beyond regional pride, our conference rankings are related to the topic of conference realignment.  Conferences are the sum of their parts with some added bonus due to the synergies the overall group creates.  Our fan equity analyses therefore provide a means for anticipating how new or changed conferences will compare with each other.

For those that have previously seen our other brand equity analyses, we should note that our conference-level analysis takes a slightly different approach.  For the fan analyses, we build a statistical model that predicts team revenues as a function of metrics related to team performance such as winning percentage and bowl participation.  We then compare actual revenues to what is predicted based purely on team performance (and other factors such as number of students, capacity, etc…).  Click here for an explanation of why we use this “revenue premium” approach to brand equity measurement.

For the conference analysis, we take a similar, but more financially oriented approach.  This analysis also begins with a statistical model of team revenues, but now the explanatory variables primarily involve team expenditures.  Team-level brand equity is then taken as the difference between actual revenues and revenues predicted based on expenditures.  The logic of this approach is that teams with more powerful brands should be able to more efficiently increase revenues.  As an example, imagine a comparison between the University of Notre Dame and perhaps Rutgers.  If these teams spent the same amount in a given year, we would still expect Notre Dame to have significantly greater revenues simply because ND has such a large and loyal following.

We rely on this ROI (Return on Investment) oriented measure for the conference ranking because we have a significant interest in conference realignment.  In this era of realignment, it seems obvious that conference membership decisions are almost entirely driven by financial considerations. In other words, while we feel that fan support should be measured relative to team performance, when it comes to conferences we believe that schools should be evaluated based on ROI.

Finally on to the rankings…

In an altogether unsurprising result, the SEC is ranked number one, followed by the Big Ten in the second position.  The SEC ranking is notable in that while we all know that the SEC has dominated on the field; our results also suggest that the conference schools are extremely efficient in translating the intensity of fans into dollars.  On the realignment front, it seems certain that Missouri and Texas A&M were largely driven by the financial attractiveness of the conference.  It remains to be seen if these schools have traded cash for also-ran status.

In second place, we have the Big Ten Conference.  The Big Ten is in many ways a leader in the space, as they have been successful in creating a network that leverages the appeal of its members.  The Big Ten has also been notable in its efforts to attract teams that expand the conference’s access to media markets.

In a distant third place we have the Big 12.  The Big 12 is interesting in that it has, and had, several very well-known brands such as Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.  Of course, the Big 12 has also been the major conference that has seen the most attrition as Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, and Texas A&M have all moved to seemingly greener pastures.  Despite this attrition, the conference does well in our rankings, and out-performs two of the other Big 5 conferences.  The big question for the Big 12 is whether it will be sustainable in the long-term.  The Big 12 has two key weaknesses.  First, it’s unclear if it covers enough major markets to successfully develop a media strategy that will allow the conference schools to be competitive with other better-located conferences.  The second issue is that the Big 12 is very top heavy.  Texas is the obvious (financial) jewel of the league.  Will Texas share or will the Longhorns go their own way?

In fourth place, we have the PAC 12.  The PAC 12 is promising case in that it seems to be well positioned for the future.  In terms of teams, it contains both historical powers like USC and up and coming teams like Oregon.  The conference also covers major media markets, but its west coast time zone may be a limitation.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in our analysis was that the new American Athletic Conference (AAC) ranked higher than the ACC.  This is a non-intuitive finding as we expected that historically successful programs such as Florida State and Miami would lead the ACC past an AAC led by Louisville and Cincinnati.  The reason for this result is actually quite simple.  The ACC schools have invested in football at about the same level as the Big 12 and PAC 12 schools, but with lower resulting revenues.

NEXT: RANKING THE NON-BCS CONFERENCE SCHOOLS

Mike Lewis & Manish Tripathi, Emory University, 2013.

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