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Best Fans 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.

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 on the list also hails from the Mountain West Conference.  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.

The “Best” Football Fan Bases in the ACC

While the ACC is best known as a basketball conference, the economics of college sports are primarily driven by football.  So, who in this “basketball” conference has the most loyal and supportive football fans?

Number one on the list are the Clemson Tigers.  In the past decade, Clemson has had very good attendance and revenues in comparison to what would be expected from a team then tends to be just above average on the field.  Clemson’s revenues are especially good given that they operate in the ACC (and lack the revenues from being part of the Big Ten network or an SEC television contract).  In comparison to other major ACC programs, Clemson has revenues that are in the range of 30%-60% higher.  Second on the list are the Virginia Tech Hokies.  Virginia Tech has revenues that are very similar to Clemson, but the Hokies have been significantly more successful on the field.  As a reminder, our approach controls for team quality when assessing fan support (it’s easy to be an Alabama fan but it takes character to be a Duke Football fan).

In third and fifth place, we have two new entrants to the conference.  Syracuse is ranked third, and Pitt comes in ranked fifth.  Syracuse finishes relatively high because their fans continue to support a team that has often struggled over the past decade. The high rank of these two entrants suggests that the ACC making very good expansion decisions.

The two Florida schools are interesting cases.  Prior to running the numbers, we would have thought that Miami and FSU would have been the leaders of the conference.  The issue is that despite the success these programs have experienced on the field, their revenues are not exceptional.  For example, Miami invests a great deal in their program, almost always participates in bowl games (and many major bowls), but attendance is regularly far short of capacity.

The University of Maryland being near the bottom of the rankings is another remarkable story.  The new entrants (Syracuse & Pitt) seem to be better football schools than Maryland, so by some measures the ACC has been a realignment winner.  On the other hand, the Big Ten wants Maryland (and Rutgers) not so much for the schools’ current fan bases but for the schools’ locations in major media markets.

The “Best” Football Fan Bases in the AAC

The American Athletic Conference (AAC) is the product of conference realignment, and a fascinating story.  The former Big East schools are desperately trying to construct a league that can keep the AAC in discussion of the Power 6 conferences rather than fading back into the pack.  To some degree, our analyses suggest that the AAC has made a few good moves.  We already rank the AAC as the number five conference, and there is reason to believe that the AAC has landed several programs with bright futures.

Number one on our list of the most supportive fan bases is SMU.  This is both a surprising result, and also a result that illustrates the benefit of our approach.  While the last few seasons have seen SMU take a step forward and qualify for bowl games, over the ten years of data, the team has tended to play sub .500 football.  The fan support provided to SMU relative to the on field performance has been outstanding. This issue is best illustrated via a comparison between SMU and Cincinnati.  Over the ten year period of our analysis, SMU was a four win per year team while Cincinnati was a seven or eight win team.  However, while Cincinnati won almost double the number of games as SMU, their revenues were about 20% less.  Our interpretation of these results is that SMU has a sleeping giant of a fan base, and it would like make sense for SMU to invest heavily in their program.

In second place, we have the Memphis Tigers.  Memphis is fairly similar to SMU in that they have very solid support (30K+ attendance) for a team that has been average on the field.  It is these two programs that tell us that the AAC may have a chance to remain a major conference.  We suspect that if SMU and Memphis become on-field successes their fans will be highly supportive.

One the bottom half of our rankings, we had a couple of surprises.  We have already mentioned the issue with Cincinnati.  UCONN has generated revenues similar to SMU but these have been generated with a better performing team, and as a member of the former Big East.  Likewise, Louisville was also a bit of a surprise.  And again, the issue was that the fan support is just not what we should suspect given the Cardinals’ on-field success.  The Louisville story is also interesting because in our analysis of the brand equity of college basketball teams, Louisville finished number one overall.  The UConn and Louisville results suggest that it is a challenge to build fan equity in football when you are historically a basketball school.

Ranking the Big 12

The Big 12 has undergone dramatic changes in the last two years, with the loss of Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M, and Missouri, and the addition of Texas Christian University and West Virginia.  While the overall strength of the conference has suffered from these moves, our analyses indicate that entry into the Big 12 has been a positive for TCU and West Virginia.  The conference remains precariously top-heavy, with the Texas Longhorns accounting for a significant portion of brand equity.

The University of Texas is number one on the list of most supportive fan bases in the Big 12.  This finding should not come as a shock to anyone familiar with college football; however what is surprising is how loyal/supportive Longhorn fans are compared to the rest of the Big 12.  Oklahoma, which is ranked second, won approximately the same number of games as Texas over the ten year period of the study.  Texas football, however, produced 65% more in revenues than the Sooners.

Despite being a new entrant into the Big 12, TCU ranks third in the study.  While TCU does not fill up the stadium as regularly as Texas or Oklahoma, it has enjoyed solid financial support given the size of its stadium and student body.  West Virginia, similarly, has received a high level of financial support despite not always selling out.

Baylor and Kansas are in the cellar of the Big 12 fan rankings.  Baylor is an interesting case.  In RG3’s last year at Baylor, the school performed very well in terms revenue.  However, prior to RG3, Baylor averaged fewer wins, and even fewer fans.  Kansas seems to struggle with a problem endemic to many “basketball” schools: the ability to achieve high brand equity in both basketball and football.

Ranking the Big 10: Buckeyes on Top

As a conference, the Big 10 finished second only to the SEC in overall football brand equity.  The conference added Nebraska in 2011, and will add Maryland and Rutgers in 2014.  The Big Ten has been very successful at creating a network that capitalizes on the appeal of its members.  This fan appeal is also manifested in the top three schools in our rankings; all three schools have football stadiums with capacities over 100,000, and are regularly sold out.

The Ohio State University finished in first place in our ranking of Big 10 fan bases.  In the ten year period of our study, the Buckeyes averaged 2.5 more wins per season than Penn State and Michigan, but also generated 20% more revenue.  Remarkably, Ohio State made this revenue with fewer fans in attendance, on average, than Penn State or Michigan.

Penn State very narrowly edged out Michigan for second place in our study.  Over the course of the study, Penn State and Michigan averaged almost the same number of wins (Michigan had more) and football revenue per year.  However, Penn State’s second place ranking may be short-lived.  The last couple of years have seen a decline in attendance.  This may, of course, in part be due to the recent scandal and sanctions at Penn State.

Indiana and Northwestern are at the bottom of the Big 10 fan base rankings.  Indiana seems to suffer from the same issue faced by Kansas or Duke.  That is, how do you build football brand equity in a “basketball school”?  Northwestern is an interesting case.  A comparison with in-state “rival” Illinois (ranked 8th) is quite revealing.  In the period our study, Northwestern averaged 1-2 more wins per season than Illinois.  However, Illinois average 88% of capacity attendance, while Northwestern averaged 62%.  Illinois also produced 30% more football revenue than the Wildcats.

Ranking the PAC 12 Fan Bases

For those of you following along with our conference by conference rankings of fan support, you may have noticed an omission.  We skipped over the PAC 12 in our countdown to the top conference.  But, before we talk about the SEC and the Overall Rankings next week, we did want to make some comments about the PAC 12.

Or maybe it is just one comment: We have trouble understanding this conference.

The method we use to rank fan base support uses something called a “revenue premium” model of brand equity.  The big idea is that we look at fan support while controlling for team quality and market potential.  Like any method, there is room to critique our approach.  As an aside, we do enjoy the helpful comments provided to us via Twitter about our combined intelligence and lack of sports knowledge.  As a second aside you should be aware that our sports pedigree includes Manish’s time playing several years of Tecmo Super Bowl (Wayne Haddix rules!) back in Maryland, and Mike’s experience playing a great deal of Madden on the Sega back in the early 90s.

The trouble with the PAC 12 is that its premier teams tend to have revenues that are far lower than teams of similar quality in other BCS conferences.  Oregon is the poster child for this issue.  This article from Rachel Bachmann highlights the difficulty in evaluating Oregon relative to its peer schools.  Over the last decade, the Ducks have been remarkably productive on the field, but the revenues are nowhere near that of the teams Oregon has been playing in BCS games.   As Bachman points out, Oregon’s revenues would place it near the bottom of the Big Ten or the SEC.

The second issue with Oregon is its stadium, and perhaps it’s pricing.  Oregon sells out (above capacity) regularly, but it plays in a ~50,000 seat stadium rather than a 90,000 or 100,000 seat stadium.  The strong demand data suggests that Oregon could easily improve revenues through a price hike (as a third aside, there is a lot of chatter this summer about efforts to grow revenues through dynamic pricing).  There are, of course, reasons not to raise prices.  Oregon may feel like it is in the process of still growing a loyal following.  They may be intentionally underpricing in order to invest in their future fan base.  Or maybe Oregon is the rare school that does not view the football program as a pure revenue generator (they seem to have other sources of revenue ).

So rather than provide an explicit ranking of the PAC 12 schools’ fan bases we decided to list the schools in different tiers.  As a fourth aside, we do realize this is a copout.

Tier 1: In tier one, we have the University of Washington, Arizona State University, Colorado and Utah*.  These schools make the list for different reasons.  Washington is the clear winner in terms of fan support relative to team performance, while Colorado and ASU have solid revenues given their on-field performance.  We have an asterisk next to Utah because it is hard to predict how its fan support will translate to the BCS.

Tier 2: In the second tier, we have USC, Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and Arizona.  The USC story has some similarity to the Oregon story.  It’s a great program, but a program that often doesn’t sell out.  As a fun fact, the West Coast USC actually generates slightly lower revenues than the East Coast USC.

Tier 3: In third tier we have Cal, Stanford and Washington State.  Here, the biggest surprise to some may be Stanford, given its string of BCS bowl games, and fourth place ranking in the pre-season USA TODAY coaches poll.  However, it is important to note two things: 1) Before Coach Harbaugh, Stanford was terrible, and the fan support was negligible, and 2) Although Stanford has been to three straight BCS bowls, the fan support has been trailing the rate of success.  This is the first year where they have sold out their season tickets.

Ranking the SEC Fan Bases

As a rule, when we begin any analysis we start with no prior expectations about the results.  We let theory and numbers guide our findings.  However, living in the South, it is hard not to witness the extreme passion and loyalty of SEC fans on a daily basis.  The SEC football season is year-round (season, recruiting, spring football).  Therefore, we were not surprised when the SEC was the top rated conference in our college football Revenue Premium Brand Equity rankings.   Given the passion of SEC fans, we expect that our SEC conference rankings will engender a lot of “constructive discussion”.

The University of Georgia has the number one ranked football fan base in the SEC according to our study.  It should be pointed out that this study covers a ten year period, and that the top four ranked schools in the SEC are also among the top ranked football fan bases in the country.  So, what separates Georgia from Alabama?   Over the period of our study, both Georgia and Alabama averaged between 9 and 10 wins a season.  However, Georgia averaged 12% more in revenues per year than Alabama.  Alabama also had a couple of years in the beginning of our sample (2002 & 2004) where the home games were not all filled to capacity.  Thus, over the period of our study, when we control for team performance and other institutional factors, the Georgia fan base is just a bit more loyal and devoted.

Auburn University finished in third place, being just edged out by its friendly neighbor, Alabama.  The Crimson Tide generated slightly more revenue per year on average than the Tigers, despite averaging almost the identical number of wins.  Also, while Alabama’s revenues are growing, Auburn has been facing a decline.   The University of Florida finished fourth in our study.   The Gators actually average 6.9% more revenue per year than Auburn, however they also averaged 0.5 more wins per season during the period of our study.  Remember, our conjecture is that it is easier for a fan to shell out for a team when the team is winning games, thus we control for team performance.

Vanderbilt is ranked 11th in our study.  We would like to point out that the last couple of years have been positive for the Commodores, and although lagged, the revenues for the football program seem to be improving.  Ole Miss and Mississippi State are at the bottom of the study of SEC fan bases.  During the period of our study, Ole Miss and Mississippi State actually averaged more wins per season than Vanderbilt.  However, Ole Miss generated roughly the same amount of revenue as Vandy, and Mississippi State generated 20% less.

OVERALL RANKINGS

Over the last two weeks, we have been reporting our football fan base rankings conference by conference.  Today, we turn to our overall ranking.  We started the list with an analysis of the brand/customer equity of the major conferences.  The Big Ten and the SEC are the leading conferences largely because they have strong TV deals.  That being said, the number one team on our list is not a member of either the Big Ten or the SEC.

Number one on the list is the University of Texas.  The Longhorns have some built in advantages that make it such a powerhouse.  Texas is the flagship school in a highly populated state with an incredible football culture.  Texas is also interesting because it is such a frequent target in realignment discussions.   Texas would bring the most valuable fan base to any conference.   In fact, Texas football is such a valuable property that we doubt that they will move anytime soon.  Texas is a strong enough brand to keep the Big Twelve a viable conference.  This means that Texas has an immense amount of bargaining power within the Big Twelve; which would be lost in a move to the Big Ten or the SEC.

Number 2 on the list is a bit of a surprise.  Based on the numbers, we found Georgia to have the second highest customer equity.  We go into more detail about Georgia football in our SEC writeup.

Number three on the list is the Big Ten’s Ohio State Buckeyes.  Ohio State has many of the same advantages as Texas, as they are the flagship school in a highly populated and football crazy state.

Numbers 4 and 5 on the list also hail from the Big Ten.  We have Penn State in 4th place and Michigan in 5th.  These are two interesting cases, since PSU is obviously in a transitional stage, and may fade a bit over the next couple of years, while Michigan is making moves to become even more profitable.  In positions 6 through 8, we have Alabama, Auburn and Florida.  Our rankings seem to confirm that the SEC and Big Ten are college football’s top conferences.

The 9th place team is one that we haven’t talked about in any of our previous rankings, Notre Dame.  Our guess is that Notre Dame fans will feel slighted by their 9th place ranking.  But, at the end of the day, our approach is driven by acombination of revenue and team quality data.  What we find is that Notre Dame is a great college football brand, but far from the dominant brand their fans believe it to be.

In tenth place we have the lone West Coast team in the rankings.  The Washington Huskies were the surprise leader in the Pac 12, beating out teams like USC and Oregon.

Mike Lewis & Manish Tripathi, Emory University 2013.