As we enter the 2018 season, it’s time to take a look at MLB from a marketing perspective. Specifically, the goal today is to evaluate MLB teams in terms of fan loyalty and engagement. Who has the best fans in Major League Baseball? What are the best brands in MLB? These are simple questions without simple answers. 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 most? Fans that are willing to follow a team on the road or via social media?
Even after we agree on the question(s), 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? An analysis of fandom should account for short-term variations in on-field performance. There is also the matter of differences across markets. How do we compare fan behavior in a market like New York with fans in a place like Milwaukee? What if a team just opened a new stadium? Did the fans stream in to see the building or to see the team.
For the past few years, I have been studying fandom across professional and college sports. 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 cities fans are more willing to spend or follow their teams after controlling for factors like market size and short-term variations in performance. The goal is to provide as much of an “apples” to “apples” comparison as possible.
The Best Fans?
It is possible to rank fans on many different dimensions. And different dimensions can have different meanings and nuances. For today – I’m going to develop an “overall” ranking of fans based on three sub-rankings – Fan Equity, Social Equity and Road Equity. Fan Equity is a revenue premium based metric that compares team’s box office results with league standards. In other words, Fan Equity assesses how much fans are willing to spend relative to fans across the league. I think of this metric as about “attend and spend.” The KEY idea is that we measure “attend and spend” while controlling for team success and market characteristics like income and population.
- Fan Equity is a great metric for assessing the CURRENT level of passion or engagement in a local fan base.
Social Equity is focused on the team’s social media followings (Facebook and Twitter). Again, the rankings are based on how a team’s social media results compare across the league after controlling for team success and market. Social Equity is also attractive in that the metric does not require fans to spend or to live in a local market.
- The Social Equity metric provides insight into the team’s POTENTIAL fan passion.
The third metric is Road Equity. This metric is based on a statistical model that looks at how teams draw incremental fans when on the road. The KEY idea is that draw outside of the home market reveals something about a clubs national appeal. This passion can be positive (love the Cubs) or negative (hate the Yankees).
- Road Equity provides a metric of passion beyond the local market. A measure of NATIONAL brand equity.
I could go on. In the past I have developed additional metrics related to win sensitivity or price sensitivity. Willingness to attend even when the team loses probably says something about loyalty. Fans that don’t watch a loser might be termed bandwagon fans. Willingness to pay is a great marketing metric. Willingness to pay to see a team that isn’t winning is another great indication of loyalty. These metrics are available upon request (FYI, I don’t look at the comments so please email) but I want to keep this article brief.
So, we have three metrics with different pluses and minuses. In the quest to find an overall winner – I’m going to take the simplest approach and average the rankings. I don’t think this is the ideal approach, but it is simple. Simple is a great default.
Overall, the group of clubs that comprise the Top 6 contains little in the way of surprises. The Red Sox rank number one and are followed by the Yankees Giants, Dodgers, Cubs and Cardinals. The Red Sox are perennially strong and finished third last year. I sort of hate to say it, but Boston is probably the best sports town in America.
In general, the clubs at the top of the list share several traits. They are all able to motivate fans to “attend and spend” as they all possess great attendance numbers and are able to charge relatively high prices. More to the point, these teams are able to draw well and command price premiums when they are not winning. The last few years excepted, Cubs are the best example of this.
The list of winners probably raises an issue of “large” market bias. However, keep in mind that the methodology is designed to control for home market effects. The method is explicitly designed to control for differences in market demographics (and team performance). While the “winners” tend to come from the bigger and more lucrative markets, other major market teams do not fair particularly well (White Sox, Mets, A’s). There is also a more subtle point. The large market teams likely have the best fan bases because they often have significant histories of success and are often featured in the media. The topic of how these brands are built over time is another of my favorite things to talk about. But, it’s a topic for another day.
The bottom of the list features the Marlins, Athletics and White Sox. It is interesting that the bottom of the rankings includes teams from major markets such as the SF Bay Area, Chicago and Miami. Being in a major market might be a double edged sword. There are natural advantages in terms of building brand equity but there are also dangers. Failing to succeed in a “large” market might be the worst possible situation (fan expectations?)
The Marlins finish is a reflection of how the team struggles on multiple dimensions. Attendance is often in the bottom 5 of the league despite being located in a major metro area. Pricing is also below average for MLB.
From a branding perspective it is not surprising that we see one dominant brand in the cities with two clubs. Being a sports fan is about being part of a community. Many fans are drawn to the bigger and more dominant community – Yankees, Cubs, Giants or Dodgers rather than the Mets, White Sox, A’s or Angels.
There is also likely a story about consistency. I chose an old school logo for the Sox. I grew up in Chicago and the Cubs were always the same classic stadium and classic uniforms. The Sox seemed to change things every season – new colors and logos. I even have faint memories of the team wearing shorts on occasion.
The complete list follows. In addition to the overall ranking of fan bases, I also report rankings on the Fan Equity, Social Equity and Road Equity measures. Enjoy!