Big Ten CFB Rankings & College versus Pro Fandom

The Big Ten rankings start with the University of Michigan.  A passionate fan base that fills a massive stadium even when losing to the teams ranks 2 (Ohio State) and 3 (Michigan State).  In positions 4 and 5, we have Nebraska and Penn State.  It’s an interesting aside that the Big Ten has most of its premium brands concentrated in one of its divisions (East).

In positions 6 through 10, we have Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Maryland.  Seems about right.  Full disclosure – I’m an Illini.  Next we have Northwestern.  I did my PhD at NU and I don’t think I ever met a true NU fan.  We then have Indiana (basketball school) and Rutgers.  Purdue rounds out the league.

I’ll be interested to hear the complaints about this ranking.  OSU never wants to be behind Michigan.  And I could see some objections to Penn State and Nebraska trailing Michigan State.  The relative rankings of some of the recent additions does raise some questions.  Were Rutgers and Maryland the right moves?  As the importance of cable television wains over the next decade, the East coast expansion strategy may be less relevant.

College versus Pro Fandom

At the level of the individual fan, I suspect that college fandom is often even deeper than professional fandom.  Students and Alumni are directly connected to their teams.  When college fans say “We” they are talking about an institution to which they permanently belong.  In the case of the “Pros”, the fan often “just lives there.”  This isn’t always the case and pro fandom can be intense and borderline crazy.  In the past when people tended to be less mobile (and ordinary fans were not priced out of stadiums), affinity for and connection to a team may have started before kindergarten and been a lifelong affair.

When I publish my NFL fan base rankings I get some very aggressive hatred (Go Raiders!).  There are towns where pro fandom dominates.  Chicago is one such town.  It’s a Cubs and Bears town (and sometimes Bulls).  And the college teams (at least when I used to live there) get a lot less media.  It’s an aside, but DePaul basketball would be a fascinating case study as a college team that had and lost a significant media presence.  I also believe that Illinois is something of a “sleeping” brand equity giant.  On the unfortunately rare occasion when Illinois sports are relevant they are able to have an impact in Chicago.  In sports brand development, winning big is key but consistency also matters.

Everyone in Chicago can affiliate with the Bears or Cubs but it almost feels a little artificial to root for a school that you did not attend.  But at the level of the individual fan being a graduate or a school results in a deeper affiliation than being a resident.  The marketing challenge is how to leverage this natural fan base to come up with an aspirational brand that attracts non-attendees (and potential future students).  The Chicago metro area has a population of more than 9.5 million while I’m guessing that the Urbana-Champaign alumni base is less than half a million spread out across the globe.

A problem with any discussion of fandom (on the internet) is that we are talking about the “average” fan.  And we always have the classic problem that fandom varies with team performance.  I’m an Illini so I can speak to how fan passion changes over time.  As a student in the 1980s the football team was solid and the basketball team was great.  The Flying Illini were the best team in the country in 1989.  Don’t care that they didn’t win it all. It was easy to be a fan of the Flying Illini.

But the 1990s brought a collapse of both the football and basketball programs and I admit I tuned out.  But then we had Bill Self, Frankie Williams, Dee Brown, Juice Williams, Ron Zook, an NCAA finals appearance and a trip to the Rose Bowl.  And I was back in.

Now we are back in the wasteland and I’m tuning in less and less every year.

But, if they turn it around, I’m almost sure that I’m back in.  I think what the college affiliation ultimately provides is a reduction in fair-weather fandom.  If the Illini go 500 in football, I’m tuning in to see the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl appearance.  And I’m in for the next year.

This goes to the heart of the pro versus college fandom issue.  With “my” school I’m more resilient to mediocre or even poor performance.  Even now I follow recruiting for both Illini sports and tune in to a lot of first halves.  It also takes less for me to become fully engaged.  A 7 and 5 year with competitive games and I’m watching everything I can find.  Being an Alumni is forever and it’s often a key part of someone’s identity.

For the overall college football fan rankings, click here.

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