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 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.
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.
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.
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.