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The “Best” Football Fan Bases in the Non-Automatic Qualifying Conferences

For our first look at the “best” college fans, we start with schools from Non-Automatic Qualifying (NAQ) conferences (as of the 2013 season affiliation).  As in our previous studies of fan/brand equity, we use a revenue premium model that measures fan support over the last ten years while controlling for team quality (click here for details).  The NAQs are an interesting group as there has been a significant scramble to join major conferences (e.g. TCU, Houston, Utah, etc…) over the past few seasons.  The current “NAQ” plan seems to be to try and build a strong brand in order to generate an invite to one of the more financially lucrative conferences.

This trend towards joining “stronger” conferences places NAQ programs in a curious position.  To get an invite, schools need to be successful and develop significant customer equity.  But as schools like Utah and TCU have found out, shifts to higher profile conferences can also result in less competitive teams.

The number one ranked school on our list was a surprise, as we identified San Diego State as having the most supportive fan base of the NAQ schools.  Surprise, we say?  Actually, this was more of a shocker, but this is the beauty of looking at the numbers.  The thing about San Diego State is that it receives fairly consistent support even when the team struggles.  The best and most illustrative comparison is between Boise State and San Diego State.  Over the last decade, Boise State has won about twice as many games as San Diego State, but only has a slight advantage in terms of attendance and revenues.  What does this mean?  It means that San Diego State has a very valuable asset in its customer base (and could likely benefit by investing more in the program).

The second place team BYU is a solid program both on the field and at the box office.  The ability to attract 60,000+ crowds makes BYU something of an outlier in the NAQ world.

Wyoming in third place was another surprise.  Again, we need to point out that we are controlling for team quality.  The key to Wyoming’s ranking is that revenues and attendance are solid despite some on-field struggles. On the plus side, this level of support for an often struggling Cowboy team suggests that Wyoming might benefit from investing into their program.  On the other hand, perhaps there are just fewer entertainment options in Laramie, and the quality of the team just doesn’t matter since people are looking for things to do.

The Idaho Vandals finished fourth in the rankings.  This is an easy entry to write.  Just replace Idaho wherever you see Wyoming in the paragraph above.  In the fifth position on the list we have the Marshall Thundering Herd.  Marshall is again a solid program that usually averages between 25,000 and 30,000 fans regardless of the team’s record.

As we computed our rankings for the NAQs and for the bigger conferences, the NAQs generated the least intuitive results (e.g. Where’s Boise State?).  As we drilled down, the story became clearer.  First, we are looking at the conferences where schools are currently, rather than where they have been.  This removes traditional powers like Utah and TCU.  The other eye opener came from looking at revenues and attendance figures.  Often the highest profile NAQs do not convert their success to revenues.  While Boise State is arguably one of the most successful programs at any level, the fan support is often not what one would suspect.  Boise State has 20,000+ students, a metro area population of more than 600,000, regularly wins more than 10 games and doesn’t sell out.

The Boise State story also says something about the economics of college sports.  In the absence of significant BCS revenue sharing and conference specific television deals it is hard to justify the investments needed to develop a high quality on-field product.  In other words, Boise fans should probably be grateful for the program they have, and should provide more support.

Mike Lewis & Manish Tripathi, Emory University 2013.

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