Ranking the SEC Football Fan Bases

The SEC is the dominate college football league at the moment.  Okay for the last 20-25 years.

The rankings prove the point with 5 of the top 10 teams coming from the SEC.  If we go farther down the list, the SEC has 7 of the top 12 or 9 of the top 18.  In terms of the league itself, Tennessee is the winner followed by LSU, Georgia, Auburn, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama.

The middle group of the league includes Texas AM, Ole Miss, and South Carolina.  The bottom group features Kentucky, Mississippi State, Missouri and Vanderbilt.

The best way to look at the SEC is in terms of these groupings.  Seven truly elite college football brands and a second tier that includes a very solid group of brands.

That’s all fine.  But after all these years I know what readers are thinking…  Especially readers in Alabama.

These rankings are crap!  The methodology is flawed!  You are looking at the wrong metrics.  What about applications and alumni engagement?! Professors don’t know anything about sports!  Emory should be embarrassed to have this guy on faculty!

Fair enough.

I will happily accept the statement that Alabama currently has the best college football program in the nation.  So why doesn’t Alabama lead these rankings?  One way to look at this is through a thought experiment.  What if we could transfer Alabama’s recent success to another team – What would happen?  What if Notre Dame or Texas or Tennessee had Alabama’s level of success?  How about Ole Miss or Oklahoma State?  It’s tough to say but that’s what I’m trying to get at by throwing a bunch of theory, data and statistical analysis at this topic.

I’d also like to add that there is no criticism of Alabama.  The “football” strategy might be optimal given Alabama’s position in the educational marketplace.  The football team is a great marketing asset and brings a lot of attention to the school.  Much is made of Nick Saban’s salary but if the investment was redirected away from the football program, where would it go?  Alabama has a great asset in its football brand.  It has the brand equity that comes from having a winning tradition.  And it makes sense for Alabama to use this asset.

At its core is this equity any greater than a lot of schools?  If the next coach at Alabama starts to have 7 or 6 win seasons is the passion still there?

The PAC 12 CFB Fan Rankings & Fair Weather Fandom

Sports and Weather?

Why is fandom a regional phenomenon?  I spend a lot of time analyzing fandom across leagues and cities.  I can’t help but to observe patterns (discovering patterns is actually kind of the point).  For example, if you ask me to compare the fan bases in Boston versus Tampa or Chicago versus Atlanta, I can tell you the better team brand without even knowing the sport.

Why some regions have better fan support than others, is a question for another day. Is it about team histories?  I’m sympathetic to this idea as I do believe that sports brands are built on a generational time frame?  Is it the demographics?  Maybe. I don’t want to touch the racial angle but we know that a city full of transplants is likely to have less intense fandom.  How about the weather?   Does Florida or Southern California weather deter fandom?  It probably doesn’t help. It’s the why go to the game when you can go to the beach explanation.  Fair weather fandom is more prevalent when the weather is, well, fair.

It is a tough problem because all of these factors matter.  And these factors probably interact (having a short history and nice weather is probably a double whammy).

The PAC 12 is the league that makes sense if it’s about the weather.  We have Oregon at the top followed by Washington, Utah, Washington State and Oregon State.  This seems to be the colder half of the league.  It might not be the best known of the football programs but it seems to be the best customer bases.

Oregon is interesting because it’s mostly known for innovative uniforms and Phil Knight.  Sort of classic branding.  Also some (relatively) recent success despite a few tough recent years.  It’s interesting because sports brands are usually built based on long-term success.  Washington is a solid program across the board.  The next three teams’ programs suggest that the league is a bit skewed.  It appears that the programs with the most potential tend to be the least prominent.

At the other end of the scale we have Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, USC and UCLA as the bottom 5.  These schools are also located in the most appealing tourist destinations in the conference.

USC is the head turner.  An amazing tradition.  Championships and Heisman trophies.  But when you crunch the numbers the fans don’t show up like they do at places like Ohio State, Alabama and Texas.

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.

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.

2014 SEC College Football Fan Equity

For more of our studies, follow us on Twitter @sportsmktprof

For our Overall Top 10 & rankings explanation, please click here

For the Best & Worst of the Power Conferences, please click here

For our Non-Power Conference Top 10, please click here

The discussion of the conferences with highest fan equity begins and ends with the Southeastern Conference (SEC).  Six of the top twelve overall college football teams in our rankings are from the SEC.  For the second straight year, UGA tops our ranking of SEC college football fan equity. [For more on the overall study and methodology, please click here]

2014 SEC College Football Fan Equity

When we examine the SEC Fan Equity rankings from last year, the top 5 teams are the same except for Arkansas replacing Texas A&M.  The teams near the bottom are also relatively unchanged.   For those who are wondering why Georgia is ahead of Alabama, our explanation from last year still applies:

“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.”

So why did Arkansas move up the rankings?  We believe that this could in part be due to enthusiasm resulting from the hiring of Coach Bielema.  Revenues were up for the Razorbacks last year and attendance remained relatively unchanged, despite winning less than the previous year.

Mike Lewis & Manish Tripathi, Emory University 2014.

2014 College Football Fan Equity Rankings: Texas, Notre Dame, & UGA are on Top

For more of our studies, follow us on Twitter @sportsmktprof

For the Best & Worst of the Power Conferences, please click here

For our Non-Power Conference Top 10, please click here

For our SEC Rankings, please click here.

After a summer of examining fan quality in the NBA, NHL, MLB, NFL, and College Basketball, finally we get to the most important sport in the South, College Football.  The winner this year (and last year) and probably into the distant future in our ranking of college football fan bases is the University of Texas.  It’s not close.   Following Texas, we have a top 5 of Notre Dame, Georgia, Florida, and Auburn.

2014 College Football Fan Equity RankingsOne notable loser from our previous rankings is Penn State.  The Nittany Lions dropped from the top ten to number sixteen.  And what about other power schools like Alabama and LSU?  They finished 11th and 12th, respectively.

Our approach is data and statistically driven, as we look at how fans support their teams after controlling for how well the team performs on the field, the market it plays in, and school characteristics.  For the fan equity analysis, we build a statistical model using publicly available data from the last fourteen years that predicts team revenues as a function of metrics related to team performance such as winning percentage, bowl participation, and other factors such as number of students, stadium capacity, etc.  We then compare actual revenues over the last few years to what is predicted by our model.  Please click here for an explanation of why we use this approach to fan equity measurement.   Click here for more information on the methodologies behind our studies of fan quality in general. 

Mike Lewis & Manish Tripathi, Emory University 2014.

College Football Brand Equity Rankings: The Overall List

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 a combination 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.

PREVIOUS: RANKING THE SEC

Ranking PAC 12 Football Fan Bases

We are presenting a series ranking the “best” fan bases in college football.  The study uses data from the past ten years and the rankings are based on Revenue Premium Brand Equity.  For more information on the analysis/methodology, please click here.

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 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.

Mike Lewis & Manish Tripathi, Emory University 2013.

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NEXT: RANKING THE SEC