Time for our yearly look at NFL fandom.
Each year, I do a quantitative analysis of NFL fandom. The analysis is grounded in economic and marketing theory, and uses statistical tools to shed light on the question of which teams have the most loyal or “best” fans.
The fundamental question that guides the analysis is simple – Who has the best fans in the NFL? For the business folks, maybe we phrase this as – What are the best brands in the NFL? It’s a simple question that requires some complicated analyses. First, we have to decide what we mean by “best”. What makes for a great fan or brand? Fans that show up even when the team is losing? Fans that are willing to pay the highest prices? Fans that are willing to follow a team on social media? Fans that show up to see the team play in other markets? All good options.
Even after we agree on the question, answering it is also a challenge. How do we adjust for the fact that one team might have gone on a miraculous run that filled the stadium? Or perhaps another team suffered a slew of injuries? How do we compare fan behavior in a market like New York with fans in a place like Green Bay?
My approach to evaluating fan bases uses data on attendance, revenues, social media following and road attendance to develop statistical models of fan interest (more details here). The key is that the models are used to determine which city’s fans are more willing to spend or follow their teams after controlling for factors like market size and short-term changes in winning and losing.
Similar to past years, I use three measures of fan engagement: Fan Equity, Social Equity and Road Equity. Fan Equity focuses on home box office revenues (support via opening the wallet). Social Media Equity focuses on fan willingness to engage as part of a team’s community (support exhibited by joining social media communities). Road Equity focuses on how teams draw on the road after adjusting for team performance. These metrics provide a balanced analyses of fandom – a measure of willingness to spend, a measure unconstrained by stadium size and a measure of national appeal.
To get at an overall ranking, I use a statistical tool that looks at the correlation across the three metrics to create a “Brand Equity Factor”. Similar analyses are available for the NBA and MLB.
The top five fan bases (team brands if you prefer) are the Cowboys, Patriots, Eagles, Giants and Steelers. This is unchanged from the last two years – leaving me with little to say. The Cowboys have long been NFL royalty and the Patriots are now firmly established at the top of the league. It remains to be seen if the Patriots will remain near the top when Brady and Belichick move on.
In past years I have noted that the Eagles are a bit of a surprise. But the strong social and road scores keep the Eagles near the top. The Steelers could probably be a bit higher on the list. The Steelers tend to price near the middle of the league and this limits their Fan Equity score.
The Giants are an interesting case. They do well on Fan Equity (especially compared to the Jets) and the Road Equity score is impressive. The Social Equity score suggests that the Giants are more of a regional brand but when your region is NYC it’s not a major problem. The Road Equity score is an interesting one to debate. The teams in the NFC East all do well on this measure. I could adjust for divisional affiliation but the NFC East is, for whatever reason, the glamour division of the NFL. My feeling (like I said it’s debatable) is that the teams in that division should be given credit for the divisions appeal.
The next group of five includes the Packers, Broncos, Bears, 49ers and Saints. A lot of face validity to these results. The 49ers might raise some eyebrows, but it is a team that does very well in terms of attendance and pricing power. The Bears, Packers and Broncos are all strong brands with impressive histories. The Saints are the relative newcomer in the top ten. Like the Patriots, it will be interesting to see how Saints fandom responds when Drew Brees retires.
At the bottom of the rankings, we have the Bengals, Jaguars, Titans, Chiefs and Rams. Only minor changes from last year. The Browns have edged out of the bottom 5. These teams all suffer from the same issues – relatively weak pricing power and limited social followings.
The Chiefs are the team that will generate push back. The Chiefs have had some success and they have significant star power. The problem is that the Chiefs lack pricing power and do not have much of a social following (I use Twitter). However, the Chiefs and Browns are probably the best positioned teams to make moves up the charts the next few years.
For the Rams (and the Chargers), we should probably include an asterisk. Moving markets and playing in temporary stadiums can lead to questionable data. The Rams – like the Chiefs and Browns – are well positioned for on-field success over the next few years. The good news for these teams is that on-field success is the best way to create brand equity and fan loyalty. The bad news is that it takes a good amount of success to move the needle long-term.
The Business Implications: Why does this Matter?
This study is about measuring fandom intensity or engagement. The logical foundation is that we attribute over or under performance in revenues or social following to fan engagement. To do this, we have to control for factors like market size and winning. This is the key point. Fan engagement is a little different from brand equity (the value of a brand) because we are controlling for market differences. The preceding results are more about intensity or passion of a fan base rather than the value of the fan base.
Fandom intensity is an important and often overlooked part of brand equity. In a full brand equity analysis, I would want to combine structural elements of a market (population, income, arena, etc…) with a fan engagement factor to assess a team’s brand equity. The value of the fan base is probably best thought of as a product of the passion (or intensity or engagement) and the size of the fan base.
Why do we care about fan intensity?
A standard approach to value sports assets (teams, players and sponsorship deals) is to use comparables. The idea is that you evaluate a future deal based on the characteristics of similar past deals. It’s the same concept used in real estate where housing prices are usually dictated by factors such as square footage, number of bathrooms and the previous sales in the neighborhood.
In the world of sports, there are many deals that are valued based on the fans. Stadium naming rights and sponsorships are two prime examples.
But in the case of sports deals, it’s important to consider the passion of the fan base. Let’s consider a non-NFL example to illustrate the point. How might an analyst value similar deals (naming rights, sponsorships, etc…) related to the Clippers and Lakers. Both teams play in the same city so there is little difference in market related factors. If we tried to rely on current winning rates then the Clippers would appear to be the more valuable deal. The missing factor is that the Lakers have a fan base (created through a history of All Star Players and Championships) that is incredibly engaged with and attached to the Lakers brand. If we were valuing competing deals across the two clubs, it is critical that we also consider the passion (and staying power) of each team.
While I present my results as rankings, behind the scenes there are a set of numerical scores for each metric. These numerical scores provide a tool for valuing promotions and sponsorships. The numerical scores provide a basis for valuing the passion of fans across teams. The use of multiple metrics is again useful because each metric has a different behavioral interpretation.
Two quick examples.
The Fan Equity metric is a measure of willingness to spend. Critically, it is a measure of willingness to spend that controls for differences in market characteristics (population, income levels, etc…) and current team performance. In this year’s results, the Cowboys rank number 1 in Fan Equity and the Texans finish number 21. The (behind the scenes) analyses suggest that Dallas’ spend premium relative to the league average is positive 7.79% while Houston’s premium is .39%. This suggests that in a sponsorship deal where all things are equal (number of impressions, median income, etc…) that the sponsorship of the Cowboys would merit a 7.4% premium versus an identical partnership with the Texans. In some ways, this seems like a conservative estimate given the prominence of the Cowboys. But, NFL fandom is intense everywhere and the Fan Equity metric is geared towards local markets.
The Social Equity metric is a measure of transmission or amplification. In terms of Social Equity, the Cowboys rank 3rd and the Texans rank 12th. For this metric, the differences across teams are much more substantial. Relative to the league average the Cowboys have a social media equity index score of 87% (the Cowboys social amplification factor is 87% greater than the average team). The Texan’s index is 1% above the league average. The results suggest that the Cowboys would merit an 86% premium for a nationwide or social media oriented promotion versus the Texans. Again, these results are based on models that adjust or control for differences in team performance and market characteristics.
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