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.