ACC College Football Fandom Report: The Importance of Culture

Culture and fandom are connected.  The culture of a city or a university often includes a significant sports fandom sub-culture.  Because culture itself is largely driven by the shared knowledge and interests of a population.  The Cubs and the Bears are a big part of the city of Chicago.  The Cardinals might be the most universal shared passion in the city of Saint Louis.

At the college level, many universities with big time sports refer to themselves as the “blank” nation.  I worked at the University of Florida for a few years and this place was clearly the Gator nation.  In other words, the mascot or team name essentially became the focal point for the university community.  It makes sense.  The football team provides a good chunk of the common experiences and knowledge that creates a common University of Florida culture.

Why am I talking about the SEC in an article about the ACC?  “Fandom” is interesting because it goes beyond “consumer loyalty” and becomes a cultural force.  I think the SEC is probably the best example of where football fandom drives university culture.  Maybe this doesn’t happen as much in the ACC.  In other words, maybe the ACC institutions just don’t have the same football culture as the other Power 5 leagues.  The ACC might be the inverse of the Big 12.  The Big 12 has a strong football culture but a lousy media foot print.  The ACC has great media markets but far less football culture.

The economic analysis of college football brands highlights the relative weakness of the ACC (versus other leagues).  The rankings are based on relative economic performance relative to winning rates and investment.  The analysis gets beyond fair-weather fandom and schools buying their way into winning on field.

The ACC results are “interesting” and I think revealing.  The best football brands in the ACC are Georgia Tech, NC State, Syracuse, and Florida State.  Let me say that again – the best brands.  Not the best teams.

The ACC might be best viewed in terms of where the league has potential.  Georgia Tech is a clear number 2 in Atlanta, but Tech may have more potential as a brand than the rest of the ACC.  It’s in a football mad major metro area in a football mad state.  NC State is interesting because its local competitors are elite basketball schools.  NC State could be the premier football brand in North Carolina.  Syracuse is also all about potential.  New York is a pro market.  But if there is room for a college brand then Syracuse has a lot going for it.  Florida State is, historically, probably the class of the league.  They do well in terms of revenues but they invest heavily in their program.  FSU’s investment dwarfs what Georgia Tech or NC State invests.

The next group features Virginia Tech, Louisville, UNC, Duke and Pitt.  Louisville is one of the most interesting college sports brands.  Louisville is innovative and almost seems to operate with more of a pro model (in terms of marketing).  It’s also located in an almost pro like market.  But Louisville, also lacks some of the tradition that the best football brands possess.  It will be interesting to see how the Louisville brand develops over time.

The lower part of the league includes Wake Forest, Boston College, Clemson, Miami and Virginia.  I’ll admit that I’m mystified by Clemson.  Brand equity moves slowly and there is a bit of a lag in the department of education data.  The key to building brand equity is high level success.  Clemson might be the ACC’s best hope for a premium football brand.  Or maybe Clemson is just an outlier and doesn’t charge high enough prices.  Clemson might be the one school on the list that deserves a deeper dive (but I’m not getting paid for this so…). Then there is Miami.  Over the years, I have done rankings across all the pro leagues and the college ranks. Florida teams often lag the field.  Maybe it’s the weather.  Maybe it’s the demographics.  Whatever it is, Miami just doesn’t generate the economic returns of a premier college football brand.

While I expect to take some heat for these rankings (GaTech over Clemson), the ACC illustrates how the model works.  We are evaluating brands while controlling for on-field success and investment.  This means that schools can rank high if the support they enjoy exceeds the support they might reasonably expect based on performance.

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