Over the last 9 months we have looked at fan support across the 4 major US professional sports leagues using a variety of financial and social media metrics. The thing that sets our evaluations of fan support apart is that we focus on observable, objective measures of support AND we control for factors related to market size and team quality. Our measures are therefore not biased towards large cities and we adjust for the bandwagon nature of fans in markets with teams that are currently winning.
To end the year, we are putting all of these rankings together in order to create a ranking of cities. For this list we combine our revenue premium based fan equity measure with our social media measure. To combine these we assume that a social media follower or like is worth $1. Today we begin our list of the best and worst one team sport towns (cities that have a professional team in only one of the four major sports). The set of single team sports towns includes Columbus, Jacksonville, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City and San Antonio.
The number one small market (only one professional team) sports city is Portland. Portland provides exceptional support to the Trail Blazers. In terms of the fan equity measure the Trail Blazers ranked 4th in the NBA and the social media ranking was 11th.
According to the US Census, the Portland metropolitan area is the 24th largest with a population of almost 2.3 million. But despite this mid-level population base the Trail Blazers had the 4th highest attendance in the NBA last season and the second highest in 2012. Notably, this support occurred despite the team missing the playoffs in each season. The attendance also was NOT generated by deep discounts as the Trail Blazers price at just below the league average.
Our analysis suggests that the Portland market has a great deal of potential. The population base is decent, median income is above average and the fans seem to be extremely supportive. We know that there has been some interest in trying to attract an MLB team to Portland. With the number of struggling franchises across all the major leagues, it is somewhat surprising to us that Portland isn’t mentioned more frequently.
The Sacramento market’s 2nd place ranking was a bit of a surprise. Sacramento just doesn’t ever seem to be top of mind when we think about sports cities. The most recent time Sacramento has really been in the news was during the controversy surrounding the proposed sale of the team to a Seattle based group.
The Kings have struggled in recent years. The last two years’ annual attendance rankings have been 30th and 27th. But we need to consider that these attendance numbers have occurred in seasons when the team has played well below .500 basketball. If we go back a few years to when the Kings were winning, the team was able to generate consistent sell-outs. When we run our analysis over a ten year period the Kings end up with a fan equity ranking of 6th. What this means is that Sacramento fans are well above average in terms of supporting their team. If the Kings are reasonably successful then our data suggests that the fans will turn out.
The Sacramento market has a population of more than 2 million and a respectable median income of more than $46,000. These demographics are favorable to many small markets so it is a bit surprising that Sacramento has been in danger of becoming a “zero” team market.
#3 Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City is our number three “one sport” city. Salt Lake City is a small market with a population of just 1.1 million but the metro area’s median income is a solid $48K (ranking 21st).
The Jazz rank 11th in our NBA fan equity ranking and 19th in the social media ranking. These rankings are not surprising. The Jazz has been a very successful franchise with notable players such as John Stockton and Karl Malone. But recent seasons may not be meeting fan expectations causing the relatively poor social media results.
Based on the metro area population we don’t know that the city could support multiple pro franchises but Salt Lake City is a tremendous “one sport” city.
#4 San Antonio
Now we are getting into the “good” one team cities, but my guess is that folks in San Antonio will be upset by a 4th place finish. This is the beauty (or enraging) part of our rankings. When we assess revenue or social media we explicitly control for team performance. This is important because it is obviously easier and more enjoyable to be a fan of a team that is winning. It is also likely that fans are willing to pay more for a winning team. The goal of our rankings is to get at the underlying passion and support of each city’s fans.
The Spurs ranked 10th in our NBA fan equity measure and only 24th in social media. This is a very solid showing on the fan equity metric. In terms of social media, San Antonio is an under performer. Based on the San Antonio market’s demographics and the Spurs on-court success our model suggests that the Spurs should have an additional 1.7 million Facebook Likes and Twitter followers. In other words, in comparison to other NBA teams’ social media communities the Spurs fall short of what is expected for a market with San Antonio’s population and the Spurs’ winning rate.
The number 5 city on the list is Orlando. While many observers might question the intensity of the Magic fans, the numbers tell an interesting story. For example, last season the Magic won only 24% of their games. However, despite this futility, the team reported a 93.4% attendance rate.
Orlando also has a relatively rich history for a newer team. In addition to two conference titles, the team has featured notable players such as Shaquille O’Neal, Tracy McGrady and Dwight Howard.
Within the NBA, the Magic rank 17th in terms of fan equity and 21st in social media equity. As we noted below, Florida teams tend to struggle in our rankings. Demographically Orlando is a decent market with a population of over 2.2 million. However, while the Magic doesn’t compete with other pro teams, the Magic does face tough competition. In the case of Orlando, pro sports compete with the weather, golf and the mouse.
#6 Oklahoma City
Oklahoma at number 6 may be a bit of a surprise. The Thunder has enjoyed recent success, Kevin Durant is a marquee player and over the past few years the team has usually played before a packed arena. But the sellouts have only been achieved as the team has become a winner.
Our analysis explicitly controls for bandwagon fans. After controlling for winning percentage and market characteristics we find that the Thunder ranks 19th in terms of revenue based fan equity and 15th in social media equity.
From a marketing perspective, the Oklahoma City NBA franchise made an interesting decision to drop ties to the team’s previous incarnation. Typically, the belief is that the previous brand contains some value. By keeping names like the Jazz or Colts some connection to historical achievements is often retained. We should note that we don’t know why the Sonics name was dropped – perhaps this was negotiated with the city of Seattle.
On the plus side, our analyses also confirm that the key to building fan equity is a tradition of winning. The Thunder has not gotten over the hump but they have made strides. We also suspect that the social media results are a leading indicator for fan equity.
Columbus finishes #7 on the list of one team towns. Columbus is the 32nd largest metropolitan area by population and the 57th ranked based on median income. In terms of our rankings the Blue Jackets ranked 23rd in the NHL based on revenue premium based fan equity and 29th for social media equity.
The Blue Jackets were founded in 2000 and they therefore lack the multi-generation history of other franchises. The team has also struggled on the ice as it took 9 years for the team to reach the NHL playoffs. As such it’s not surprising that Blue Jackets are below average in terms of fan support. Of course, the real issue with the Columbus market is that it is dominated by Ohio State sports.
The state of Florida is an interesting situation for professional leagues. The state population has boomed and college sports have great following. However, almost all professional franchises have struggled and many believe that the pro leagues have created too many Florida teams. In terms of key demographics, Jacksonville ranks 82 in median income and 40th in population. This is a bad combination of population and income given that the average ticket price in the NFL exceeds $80.
Within the NFL, the Jaguars ranked 27th in terms of revenue premium based fan equity but the team did score a much healthier ranking of 17th for our social media measure. It’s not surprising that Jacksonville ranks low as a market given these marginal demographics, a lack of franchise history and stiff competition from college teams.
On the plus side, Tebow is still available.
In last place on our list we have the city of Memphis. The Grizzlies are the only pro game in town. Within our NBA rankings the Grizzlies were ranked 25th in terms of revenue premium based brand equity and 20th in terms of social media equity. Of the nine onesport markets, Memphis was ranked last in terms of revenue premium equity and 7th for social media equity.
Memphis as a market has some natural disadvantages for teams in terms of population base (ranked number #41) and income levels (ranked number 104). But even after controlling for these factors Memphis fans support levels are well below the levels provided by other cities. For example, the Grizzlies average ticket price of $29.49 is far less than the league average of $50.99). Even at these low levels attendance has been poor. Despite winning 56% of games in the 2010-2011 season, the Grizzlies only sold 74.4% of their available seats (ESPN.com). It was only last year when the Grizzlies broke the 90% capacity utilization rate and the team needed to win 68% of its game to do that well. In comparison, Orlando sold about 94% of seats with a winning percentage of 24%. In terms of social media, the Grizzlies have just over 407,000 Facebook Likes compared to Portland with 550,000 and Oklahoma City with about 2.3 million. For reference the Lakers have 17 million Facebook Likes.
But while Memphis ranks last on our list, there are a few positive indicators. Last year was the team’s most successful season and ESPN has ranked the Grizzlies organization as the top professional franchise. It is also true that the Grizzlies have only been in Memphis since 2001.
Mike Lewis & Manish Tripathi, Emory University 2013.