NFL Fan Base and Brand Rankings 2017

NFL Fandom Report 2017: The “Best” NFL Fans

Who has the best fans in the NFL?  What are the best brands in the NFL? These are simple questions without simple answers.  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 the road or social media?

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 is to use data to develop statistical models of fan interest (more details here).  The key is that these 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.

In past years, two measures of engagement have been featured: Fan Equity and Social Media Equity.  Fan Equity focuses on home box office revenues (support via opening the wallet) and Social Media Equity focuses on fan willingness to engage as part of a team’s community (support exhibited by joining social media communities).  This year I am adding a third measure Road Equity.  Road Equity focuses on how teams draw on the road after adjusting for team performance.   These metrics provide a balance – 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’m going to use the simplest possible method.  We are just going to average the across the three metrics.  (similar analyses are available for the NBA and MLB).

The Winners

The top five fan bases (team brands if you prefer) are the Cowboys, Patriots, Eagles, Giants and Steelers.  The Cowboys excel on all the metrics.  They win in terms of Fan Equity (a revenue premium measure of brand strength), Road Equity and finish second in social media.  The underlying data (I will spare everybody the statistical models) reveals why Dallas does so well.  The Cowboy’s average home attendance (reported by ESPN) is more than 10,000 higher than the next team.  The Cowboys average ticket price is also well above average and they have the second most Twitter followers after the Patriots.  The other thing to note is that the Cowboys achieve these year in and year out , even in years when the team is not great.  

There are likely some objections to the list.  Patriot fans are bandwagon fans!  The Steelers are too low!  The Eagles above the Packers or Bears?!   Way too much to get into in a short blog post but a couple of comments.

First, Patriot fans may be bandwagon fans.  But at this point it is tough to tell.  The team has been excellent and the fans have been supportive for a long time.  And even when things tend to go wrong for the Patriots they come out ahead.  I believe that the deflate gate controversy had a significant positive impact on the Patriots’ social media following.

The Steelers are low in Fan Equity and higher on the other metrics.  We can trace this to the Steelers pricing.  The Steelers seem to price on the low side of what is possible.

The Eagle do surprise me.  They do get a bump from playing in the NFC East interms of the Road Equity metric.  The NFC East is a strong collection of brands that benefit each other.  It is not easy to disentangle these effects.  And perhaps we shouldn’t since we can make a case that the rivalries that benefit these teams are because of the interest in the individual brands.

The Losers

At the other extreme we have the Bengals, Jaguars, Titans, Rams and Chiefs.  Some of these are no surprises.  At the top of the list we have the NFL’s royalty.  No one has ever placed the Bengals, Jaguars or titans in that category.

The teams at the bottom of the rankings all suffer from relatively low attendance, have below average pricing power and have limited social followings.  The Rams are a special case.  While not a great brand in past years, the move to LA tends to punish the Rams because their results have not kept pace with the higher income and population levels in LA.

The Chiefs are the tough one on this list.  The Chiefs fill their stadium but at relatively low price.  Keep in mind that the analysis includes factors such as population and median income.  In addition, Kansas City was ranked 29th in terms of Road Attendance last year and the social media following (Twitter) is middle of the road.  The fundamental issue is that that the Chiefs produce these below average fan-based results while performing well above average on the field.

The Complete List

The complete list follows.  In addition to the overall ranking of fan bases, I also report rankings on the social and road measures.  Following the table, I provide a bit more detail regarding each of the metrics.

Three metrics are used to get a complete picture of fans.  But there are other ways to look at fan behavior and brand strength.  For example, we could look at pricing power (which teams are able to extract significant price premiums) or bandwagon fan behavior (which fans are most sensitive to winning).  I’m happy to provide these additional rankings if there is interest.

Fan Equity

Winners: Cowboys, Patriots and 49ers

Losers: Rams, Raiders, Jags

Fan Equity looks at home revenues relative to expected revenue based on team performance and market characteristics.  The goal of the metric is to measure over or under performance relative to other teams in the league.  In other words, statistical models are used to create an apples-to-apples type comparison to avoid distortions due to long-term differences in market size or short-term differences in winning rates.

The 49ers are the interesting winner on this metric.  After the last couple of years, it is doubtful that people are thinking about the 49ers having a rabid fan base.  However, the 49ers are a great example of how the approach works.  On the field the 49ers have been terrible.  But despite the on-field struggles the 49ers still pack in the fans and charge high prices.  This is evidence of a very strong brand because even while losing the 49ers fans still attend and spend.  In terms of the overall rankings the 49ers don’t do all that great because the team does not perform as well as a road or social media draw.

In terms of business concepts, this “Fan Equity” measure is similar to a “revenue premium” measure of brand equity.  It captures the differentials in fan’s willingness to financially support teams of similar quality.  From a business or marketing perspective this is a gold standard of metrics as it directly relates to how a strong brand translates to revenues and profits.

One important thing to note is that some teams may not be trying to maximize revenues.  Perhaps the team is trying to build a fan base by keeping prices low.  Or a team my price on the low side based on some notion of loyalty to its community.   In these cases the Fan equity metric may understate the engagement of fans.

Social Media Equity

Winners: Patriots, Cowboys and Broncos

Losers: Chiefs, Rams and Cardinals

Social Media Equity is also an example of a “premium” based measure of brand equity.  It differs from the Fan Equity in that it focuses on how many fans a team has online rather than fans’ willingness to pay higher prices.  Similar to Fan Equity, Social Media Equity is also constructed using statistical models that control for performance and market differences.

In terms of business application, the social media metric has several implications both on its own merits and in conjunction with the Fan Equity measure.  For example, the lack of local constraints, means that the Social Equity measure is more of a national level measure.  so while the Fan Equity metric focuses on local box office revenues, the social metric provides insight into how a team’s fandom extends beyond a metro area.

Social Media Equity may also serve as a leading indicator of a team’s future fortunes.  For a team to grow revenues it is often necessary to implement controversial price increases.  Convincing fans to sign expensive contracts to buy season tickets can also be a challenge.  Increasing prices and acquiring season ticket holders can therefore take time, while social media communities can grow quickly.  Some preliminary analysis suggests that vibrant social communities are positively correlated with future revenue growth.

A comparison of Fan Equity and Social Media can also be useful.  If Social Media equity exceeds Fan Equity it is evidence that the team has some marketing potential that is not being exploited.  For example, one issue that is common in sports is that it is difficult to estimate the price elasticity of demand because demand is often highest for the best teams and best seats.  The unconstrained nature of social media can provide an important data point for assessing whether a team has additional pricing flexibility.

Road Equity

Winners: Cowboys, Eagles and Raiders

Losers: Texans, Titans and Seahawks

Another way to look at fan quality is to look at how a team draws on the Road.  In the NBA these effects are pronounced.  Lebron or a retiring Kobe coming to town can often lead to sell outs.  At the college level some teams are known to travel very well.  A fan base that travels is almost by definition incredible passionate.

This one has a bit of a muddled interpretation.  If a team has great road attendance is it because the fans are following the team or because they have a national following?  In other words, do the local fans travel or does a team with high road attendance have a national following.  When the Steelers turned the Georgia Dome Yellow and Black was it because Steelers fans came down from Pittsburg or because the Steelers have fans everywhere.

Furthermore, if it is a national following is it because the team is popular across the country or because a lot of folks have moved from places like Pittsburgh or Buffalo to the Sun Belt.  A national following is a great characteristic that might suggest that a team’s brand is on an upswing.  Or it might be that the city itself is on a downward trajectory.

 

 

Amateur Sports and Brands

HBO Sports recently created a detailed report on the IOC.  The RIO Olympics do not come off well.  Pollution, doping, corruption and athlete exploitation are at the top of the list.  It is a fascinating story that seems to play out with each Olympic Games.

This issue of fair compensation for the athletes is high on the list. The number discussed in the report was $4 billion.  The question is whether and how this money from rights fees and sponsors should be allocated to the athletes.  Is (and should) there be an Olympic Ed O’Bannon?

In many respects this starts to sound like the debates about college sports in the US.  These debates are usually cast in terms of fairness.   to the athletes versus arguments about the purity of the sport or appropriateness of academic institutions running pro teams.

These debates are at best incomplete without considering the role of marketing and brands.  While college football players supply the product, the brands owned by the colleges or the Olympics is what drives fan interest.  Leonard Fournette is a Heisman favorite and a huge star.  But does he draw fans to LSU.  the truth is he probably doesn’t (in the short-term).  In the long-term its stars like Fournette that create the brand equity. 

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Likewise, in the case of the Olympics – we could ask how much interest in driven by the current athletes?  and how much is driven by the attachment people have to the Olympics (the brand).

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I think (in the US) the Olympic brand is about Carl Lewis, Bruce Jenner, Mary Lou Retton, Jesse Owens, Cassius Clay or many others.  It remains to be seen who from the current crop breaks out.

The real problem, I believe is one of equity.  This is true in both college sports and the Olympics.  The fundamental issue is who gets to harvest the value of the brands.  The problem – to many folks – is that this seems to just end up being the people that control the institutions at any one moment.  The athletes that have built the brands (the stars of the past) and the athletes that create the product (this years athletes) tend to get left out in the cold.

 

NFL Bandwagon Fans and the Business of Fan Rankings

The Business behind Fan Base Analysis: Sponsorship Insights

Today’s post is a follow up to the NFL fan base rankings post.  The annual NFL Fan base ranking involves a combination of data analysis and marketing ideas (brand equity).  I do them as a single ranking to make it easily digestible and to encourage conversation.  Or in the case of Raider Fans – to generate threats.  Today, I go beyond a single ranking and present multiple fan base metrics.  The goal is to provide a richer description of how teams’ fans compare.  Specifically, we present rankings focused on brand equity, social media, road attendance and “bandwagon” behavior.

The fan analysis material is meant to be both instructive and to provide material for debate.  Sports brands are unique in the degree of loyalty that exists between fans and teams.  The reaction to the fan base rankings highlights the intensity of the relationships as people take it very personally when their fandom is questioned.  It’s interesting that it matters to fans not only that their team is competitive but that their passion for their team also exceeds the opposition’s.  As such it’s crucial for teams to thoroughly understand the strengths and weaknesses of their fan bases.

Something that tends to get lost in the discussion of fan base rankings is that the results have very significant business implications.  The fan equity and other measures that we discuss today tell an essential story about fans in each city.  If I am a brand looking to sponsor a stadium or a fast food company looking to do a deal with a team, then I very much want to know about the underlying long-term passion and behaviors of the fan base.

A common approach for valuing sports properties is the use of comparables.  The basic idea is that some entity, like a team or player, can be valued by looking at similar teams or players.  For example, a way to value a team is to look at previous sales and then make some adjustments for differences in population or income across markets.  Stadium naming deals are often similarly driven by past deals.

The Fan Equity work and rankings below provide extra factors that can be added to analyses based on comparables.  The rankings can be used to go beyond demographics driven comparisons to include a measure of engagement or loyalty.

In what follows, I provide a few insights about each of the metrics and then a Table that provides a complete breakdown.  I also discuss the business relevance of each of metric.  There are a number of caveats that should be offered such as the importance of looking at multiple metrics or noting that the results rely on public data.  But these explanations are a bit tedious and the key point is that the metrics should be carefully interpreted.

One important factor that should be stressed is that all of the measures are based on market place behaviors of fans like attending games and following on social media rather than consumer opinions collected via surveys.

The rankings should be interpreted with care.  A high ranking on the brand equity measures is something to strive for while a high ranking in the bandwagon category is something to avoid.


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Fan Equity

The Winners: Cowboys, Patriots and Ravens

The Losers: Jaguars, Raiders and Dolphins

Fan Equity is the core of the Dynamic Fan Equity (DFE) metric used to summarize fan bases.  It looks at home revenues relative to expected revenue based on team performance and market characteristics.  The goal of the metric is to measure over (or under) performance relative to other teams in the league.  In other words, statistical models are used to create an apples to apples type comparison to avoid distortions due to long-term differences in market size or short-term differences in winning rates.

In terms of business concepts, this measure is similar to a “revenue premium” measure of brand equity.  It captures the differentials in fans willingness to financially support teams of similar quality.  From a business or marketing perspective this is a gold standard of metrics as it directly relates to how a strong brand translates to revenues and profits.

However, the Fan Equity context is sports, and that does make things different.  At a basic level sports organizations have dual objectives.  They care about winning and profit.  That is important because sometimes teams aren’t trying to maximize revenues (Packers, Steelers, etc…).   When this is the case the Fan Equity metric understates the engagement of fans.

What is the importance of Fan Equity for sponsorship?  Fan Equity shows the relative commitment to spend to support the team.  If we make the assumption that paying a premium (remember the model controls for the income differences across markets) is correlated with passion then teams with higher fan equity have fans that are more deeply bonded to the team.  These teams should receive a bump in terms of sponsorship deals.

 

Social Media Equity

Winners: Patriots, Cowboys and Broncos

Losers: Rams, Chiefs and Cardinals

An issue with the Fan Equity measure is that it can be constrained by capacity or by team pricing decisions.  If teams have a small stadium or are NOT pricing to maximize revenues then the Fan Equity measure can understate the team’s following.  In contrast to buying a ticket, following on social media is free and not impacted by geography.  It’s just as easy to follow the Seahawks as it is to follow the Falcons while sitting in Atlanta.

Social Media Equity is also an example of a “premium” based measure of brand equity.  It differs from the Fan Equity in that it focuses on how many fans a team has online rather than fans’ willingness to pay higher prices.  Social Media Equity is also constructed using statistical models that control for performance and market differences.

In terms of business application, the social media metric has several implications both on its own merits and in conjunction with the Fan Equity measure.  For example, the lack of local constraints, means that the Social Equity measure is more of a national level measure.  The Fan Equity metric focuses on local box office revenues while the social metric provides insight into how a team’s fandom extends beyond a metro area.

Social Media Equity may also serve as a leading indicator of a team’s future fortunes.  For a team to grow revenues it is often necessary to implement controversial price increases.  Convincing fans to sign expensive contracts to buy season tickets can also be a challenge.  Increasing prices and acquiring season ticket holders can therefore take time while social media communities can grow quickly.  Some preliminary analysis suggests that vibrant social communities are positively correlated with future revenue growth.

A comparison of Fan Equity and Social Media can also be useful.  If Social Media equity exceeds Fan Equity it is evidence that the team has some marketing potential that is not being exploited.  For example, one issue that is common in sports is that it is difficult to estimate the price elasticity of demand because demand is often highest for the best teams and best seats.  The unconstrained nature of social media can provide an important data point for assessing whether teams have additional pricing flexibility.

 

Road / Diaspora Equity

Winners: Eagles, Cowboys, Giants and the Bills in TOP TEN!

Losers: Chiefs, Cardinals and Texans

This is a new metric for the blog and a vocabulary lesson all in one.  One way to look at fan quality is to look at how a team draws on the Road.  For example, in the NBA these effects are pronounced.  Lebron or a retiring Kobe coming to town can often lead to sell outs.  College football is especially noted for traveling fans (SEC!).  A fan base that travels is almost by definition incredibly passionate.

This one has a bit of a muddled interpretation.  If a team has great road attendance is it because the fans are following the team or because they have a national following?  In other words, are fans traveling to the game or just showing up because it’s the Cowboys or Steelers?  Furthermore, if it is a national following is it because the team is popular across the country or because a lot of folks have moved from Pittsburgh or Buffalo to the Sun Belt?

Road Equity tells a story and suggests a need for additional research.  A national following is a great characteristic that might suggest that a team’s brand is on an upswing.  Or it might be that the city itself is on a downward trajectory.  Road equity might also be a matter of temporary factors (beyond winning) if fans are drawn to star or controversial players.

 

Band Wagon Fans

Biggest Bandwagon Fans: Cardinals and Cowboys

Loyal to a Fault: Bills, Lions and Redskins

This ranking looks at how responsive attendance is to winning.  This is a fun one because there are two really different interpretation of the results.  The more negative one is that a team whose fans show up less when the team is losing has a “fair weather” or “band wagon” fan base.  The other interpretation is that fans that are sensitive to winning are more demanding of quality.  The former seems most likely.

The rankings come directly from a statistical model of attendance.  The top ranked bandwagon fans are the ones whose attendance is most sensitive to winning.  Based on the data and models the Arizona Cardinal fans are the most “Bandwagon” of all the fan bases.  On the other extreme we have the Bills, Lions and Redskins fans as the most loyal.

From a sponsorship perspective, a high bandwagon ranking might make a sponsoring brand leery.  If fans only show up when a team is winning then the team might not have the relationship intensity with fans that a sponsor is trying to leverage.  An important reason for sports sponsorships is that brands want to be associated with teams that fans live and die with.  If a team is just entertainment then maybe a sponsorship is not going to generate the associations and connections desired.

There is complexity in the real world and all of these measures have limits.  The Cowboy fans are an interesting case study.  The Cowboys rank #2 in bandwagon fandom but they also rank very highly in the other brand equity measures.  Cowboy fans buy tickets and follow their team on social media.  The national stature of the Cowboys also brings in fans on the road.  But in terms of actually showing up at games it seems like the fans need a winner.  Loyalty in terms of spending but fair weather in terms of showing up.