The American Athletic Conference: Surprising Results that Portend a Bright Future

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.

The American Athletic Conference (AAC) is the product of conference realignment, and a fascinating story.  The former Big East schools are desperately trying to construct a league that can keep the AAC in discussion of the Power 6 conferences rather than fading back into the pack.  To some degree, our analyses suggest that the AAC has made a few good moves.  We already rank the AAC as the number five conference, and there is reason to believe that the AAC has landed several programs with bright futures.

Number one on our list of the most supportive fan bases is SMU.  This is both a surprising result, and also a result that illustrates the benefit of our approach.  While the last few seasons have seen SMU take a step forward and qualify for bowl games, over the ten years of data, the team has tended to play sub .500 football.  The fan support provided to SMU relative to the on field performance has been outstanding. This issue is best illustrated via a comparison between SMU and Cincinnati.  Over the ten year period of our analysis, SMU was a four win per year team while Cincinnati was a seven or eight win team.  However, while Cincinnati won almost double the number of games as SMU, their revenues were about 20% less.  Our interpretation of these results is that SMU has a sleeping giant of a fan base, and it would like make sense for SMU to invest heavily in their program.

In second place, we have the Memphis Tigers.  Memphis is fairly similar to SMU in that they have very solid support (30K+ attendance) for a team that has been average on the field.  It is these two programs that tell us that the AAC may have a chance to remain a major conference.  We suspect that if SMU and Memphis become on-field successes their fans will be highly supportive.

One the bottom half of our rankings, we had a couple of surprises.  We have already mentioned the issue with Cincinnati.  UCONN has generated revenues similar to SMU but these have been generated with a better performing team, and as a member of the former Big East.  Likewise, Louisville was also a bit of a surprise.  And again, the issue was that the fan support is just not what we should suspect given the Cardinals’ on-field success.  The Louisville story is also interesting because in our analysis of the brand equity of college basketball teams, Louisville finished number one overall.  The UConn and Louisville results suggest that it is a challenge to build fan equity in football when you are historically a basketball school.

Mike Lewis & Manish Tripathi, Emory University 2013.

PREVIOUS: RANKING THE ACC

NEXT: RANKING THE BIG 12


Ranking the “Best” Fan Bases in College Football

Over the next week or so, we will be publishing analyses of the “best” fan bases in college football.  Our plan is to go conference by conference, and talk about which teams have the most loyal fans.  Our approach is data and statistically driven, as we will be looking at how fans support their teams after controlling for how well the team performs.  The series will conclude with an overall ranking of teams.

Before we get to the team rankings we wanted to start with an analysis of conferences.  Beyond regional pride, our conference rankings are related to the topic of conference realignment.  Conferences are the sum of their parts with some added bonus due to the synergies the overall group creates.  Our fan equity analyses therefore provide a means for anticipating how new or changed conferences will compare with each other.

For those that have previously seen our other brand equity analyses, we should note that our conference-level analysis takes a slightly different approach.  For the fan analyses, we build a statistical model that predicts team revenues as a function of metrics related to team performance such as winning percentage and bowl participation.  We then compare actual revenues to what is predicted based purely on team performance (and other factors such as number of students, capacity, etc…).  Click here for an explanation of why we use this “revenue premium” approach to brand equity measurement.

For the conference analysis, we take a similar, but more financially oriented approach.  This analysis also begins with a statistical model of team revenues, but now the explanatory variables primarily involve team expenditures.  Team-level brand equity is then taken as the difference between actual revenues and revenues predicted based on expenditures.  The logic of this approach is that teams with more powerful brands should be able to more efficiently increase revenues.  As an example, imagine a comparison between the University of Notre Dame and perhaps Rutgers.  If these teams spent the same amount in a given year, we would still expect Notre Dame to have significantly greater revenues simply because ND has such a large and loyal following.

We rely on this ROI (Return on Investment) oriented measure for the conference ranking because we have a significant interest in conference realignment.  In this era of realignment, it seems obvious that conference membership decisions are almost entirely driven by financial considerations. In other words, while we feel that fan support should be measured relative to team performance, when it comes to conferences we believe that schools should be evaluated based on ROI.

Finally on to the rankings…

In an altogether unsurprising result, the SEC is ranked number one, followed by the Big Ten in the second position.  The SEC ranking is notable in that while we all know that the SEC has dominated on the field; our results also suggest that the conference schools are extremely efficient in translating the intensity of fans into dollars.  On the realignment front, it seems certain that Missouri and Texas A&M were largely driven by the financial attractiveness of the conference.  It remains to be seen if these schools have traded cash for also-ran status.

In second place, we have the Big Ten Conference.  The Big Ten is in many ways a leader in the space, as they have been successful in creating a network that leverages the appeal of its members.  The Big Ten has also been notable in its efforts to attract teams that expand the conference’s access to media markets.

In a distant third place we have the Big 12.  The Big 12 is interesting in that it has, and had, several very well-known brands such as Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.  Of course, the Big 12 has also been the major conference that has seen the most attrition as Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, and Texas A&M have all moved to seemingly greener pastures.  Despite this attrition, the conference does well in our rankings, and out-performs two of the other Big 5 conferences.  The big question for the Big 12 is whether it will be sustainable in the long-term.  The Big 12 has two key weaknesses.  First, it’s unclear if it covers enough major markets to successfully develop a media strategy that will allow the conference schools to be competitive with other better-located conferences.  The second issue is that the Big 12 is very top heavy.  Texas is the obvious (financial) jewel of the league.  Will Texas share or will the Longhorns go their own way?

In fourth place, we have the PAC 12.  The PAC 12 is promising case in that it seems to be well positioned for the future.  In terms of teams, it contains both historical powers like USC and up and coming teams like Oregon.  The conference also covers major media markets, but its west coast time zone may be a limitation.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in our analysis was that the new American Athletic Conference (AAC) ranked higher than the ACC.  This is a non-intuitive finding as we expected that historically successful programs such as Florida State and Miami would lead the ACC past an AAC led by Louisville and Cincinnati.  The reason for this result is actually quite simple.  The ACC schools have invested in football at about the same level as the Big 12 and PAC 12 schools, but with lower resulting revenues.

NEXT: RANKING THE NON-BCS CONFERENCE SCHOOLS

Mike Lewis & Manish Tripathi, Emory University, 2013.