College Football Brands and Fans – 2018 Edition

College sports inspires amazing passion and loyalty.  But which team has the most passion and loyalty?  There are lots of ways to look at this question.  Who has the most fans?  The loudest fans?  The fans most willing to travel?  It’s a debate where the participants can’t agree on the criteria for success.

One way to proceed is to flip the question.  When we talk about fandom, we are really talking about the relationship between teams and fans.  If we focus on the team side the way forward becomes a bit clearer.  On some level, college (and pro) teams are brands just like Apple or Coca-Cola.  If we cast the question of fandom in terms of brand strength, then we can turn a bar room debate into a marketing science based analysis.

Today we are going to take a look at college football brand strength.  We will start with an overall look at FBS schools and then dig into each conference in later entries.  The highlight of today is a Top Ten list and a Bottom Five list.

Interestingly (a good wishy washy academic word), it’s the top ten list that’s going to cause the trouble. I can already hear the hatred coming.  Shockingly, I can also predict the zip code for the hate (35401).

In a futile attempt to limit the hate, I’m going to start with some comments about the methodology.  The basic idea is to rate the college football brands using some ideas from the field of marketing analytics.  In most categories, we can look directly at the market place and come up with judgments of the strongest or best brands.  It gets a little tricky in sports because there is so much variability in team quality over years.  This is the key point – if we want to assess brand strength then we need to look beyond the simple metrics.  A full stadium for a winning team means less than full stadium for a team that is struggling.

The way I get to the final rankings is too boring for most fans so I’ll just give a broad outline.  I start from the notion that college sports teams can be viewed as brands.  While sports fandom is intense, conceptually it isn’t that different from consumer loyalty to brands in categories ranging from cars to soft drinks.  When we think of the team as a brand, we can use theory and methods used in industry and academia to take an analytical look at fandom across schools.

For this year’s study, I rely on three different measures of brand strength.  The first measure is based on the idea of a “revenue premium”.  One way to look at brand strength is to compare the revenues produced by two brands with similar quality.  The idea is that if we control for quality differences then the difference in the revenue can be attributed to differences in preferences for each brand.  In other words, we want to rate marketing place performance while “controlling’ for variations in team performance and other factors such as size of the alumni base or stadium capacity.  I calculate these revenue premiums by comparing each school’s reported football revenues with the revenues predicted by a statistical model that includes factors such as stadium capacity, alumni base, won-loss record and other school level attributes.

The second metric is a measure of ROI (return on investment).  ROI is related to brand strength because a stronger brand yields many benefits in the market.  For example, in the case of college basketball (I want to avoid using college football examples for a moment), we might expect the blue blood programs to be more efficient operations in terms of recruiting investments.  A less prestigious program might spend years building a relationship with a prospect to lose out if a last minute offer arrives from a Kentucky or Kansas.

The third metric is simply the relative football revenues reported by each school. We can probably think of this as a measure of pure market share.  I like to include a top level estimate of revenue because this measure says something about the scale of each brand.  The revenue premium metric is more focused on the intensity of fandom and the ROI measure captures some notion of brand efficiency. Top level revenue is a nice compliment to these measures.

To generate a single ranking, I use a statistical technique that identifies a single latent variable that drives the three brand equity rankings.  I’m happy to discuss the method in depth.  But the results are likely of more interest.  So who are the winners and losers?

 

The Winners

There is a lot of passion across a lot of campuses.  But when you crunch the numbers, one brand stands out.  The University of Texas Longhorns dominate the rankings.  Texas reports the highest revenues, achieves the best ROI and wins the revenue premium competition.  Even when Texas struggles on the field the football program delivers amazing economic results.

Texas is followed by Tennessee, Notre Dame, LSU and Oklahoma to round out the top 5.  These are all solid programs.  Programs that regularly appear on national TV and in major bowl games.  Tennessee has struggled in recent years but they deliver financial results and amazing attendance.  Notre Dame is a true national brand and might “still” be the team that most fans associate with college football.  The LSU ranking might surprise some folks outside of the SEC but LSU is a program with crazy passionate fans.  Oklahoma like Notre Dame is college football royalty.

In positions 6 through 10, we have Georgia, Michigan, Oregon, Auburn and Florida.  This is almost a good list. But, as I noted above, one program, in particular, seems to be missing.  Alabama finishes 12th.  Auburn at 9 and no Alabama?!?!  The methodology is flawed!  Why does Emory pay you?  Have you ever been to an Alabama game?  And now I have probably insulted Ohio State.

I’ll get back to Alabama in a later entry.  But, the key point is that we are looking at market place performance after controlling for team success.  I think the omission of Alabama is particularly brutal because Auburn finishes in the top ten in position 9.  The question that needs to be asked (and we will keep this in the SEC) is what would happen if Tennessee had a run like Alabama’s.  Would the Volunteer fan base be as intense as the Crimson Tide?  How about LSU?  Or Georgia?  As someone who has lived in SEC territory for the better part of the last twenty years I think the answer is yes.

 

The Bottom of the Power 5

At the bottom of the Power 5 we have Purdue!  Working upwards we then have West Virginia, Rutgers, Virginia, and University of Miami.  It’s an interesting list.  Probably not too many objections to teams like Purdue and Rutgers.  Purdue is in a tough sport for a football program.  It’s located in a small state that has multiple college programs.  It is also more of a basketball school.

Miami?  Miami is a storied program but Miami’s reported football revenues are nowhere what would be expected based solely on the team’s history of major bowl games.  And this is the key. We are not looking at team success.  We are focused on market place metrics relative to team success and investment.

The bottom of the list does raise some interesting questions.  Why do these schools fail to perform on the fan metrics?  Is it winning?  Miami has been an elite program at times.  Is it a lack of stars?  Purdue has a history of great quarterbacks from Bob Griese to Drew Brees.  Is it something about campus culture?  But Virginia and Rutgers would seem to be very different places?

It’s complicated and while winning is probably the key to developing a fan base, the factors that result in a less engaged fan base can vary.  Too much competition?  The weather is too nice?  It’s a pro town?

In some ways this whole fan base analysis is a great marketing case study.  One obvious path to success but many potential ways to fail.  And even if you do the right thing and win, sometimes it’s just not enough.

 

The Top Non-Power 5

The non-power 5 rankings are interesting in a variety of ways.  A lot of conference expansion and realignment was driven by access to TV markets (the Big Ten adding Rutgers).  But brand strength is another critical aspect (the Big Ten adding Nebraska).  The non-Power 5 rankings can help identify potential additions to the elite conferences.  I could almost imagine an approach similar to the relegation system used in European soccer – but the movement in and out of the top leagues would be based on brand strength.

At the top of the non-Power 5 list we have Boise State.  Boise is followed by University of Central Florida, North Texas, Wyoming and BYU.  North Texas is the eye-opener for myself.  But this is the beauty of taking a quantitative approach.  We are able to identify possibilities that our intuition might miss.

To listen to the 2018 College Football Fan Rankings podcast episode – click on the logo below.

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