Ranking NFL fanbases always has some key challenges, but our findings suggest some huge surprises and old standbys to believe in.
The Super Bowl is the closest thing we have to an official holiday celebrating sports, marketing, and popular culture. It is the biggest sporting event on the calendar, and its cultural impact makes the game an opportunity to build brands, both in the marketplace and on the field.
Winning the game can change the mindset of a city, turning it into a sports-focused community. And which teams win can have consequences for the league itself.
Today, we rank NFL teams’ fandom using quantitative methods and then explore what the results mean for the league in 2021 and the next few years.
Ranking NFL Brands and Fans
NFL fans have immense passion and enthusiasm for their teams. Claims that one team has better fans than another can be fighting words.
At first, fans getting angry about who loves their team the most may seem crazy. But, there is a logic for these feelings. Being a fan of a team can be an essential part of an individual’s self-identity. Being a fan is about being a part of a community. Ranking one fanbase above another can be an assault on fans’ self-perceptions.
There is also the issue of how to evaluate fandom. At its heart, fandom is based on an emotional connection to a team. Emotions are hard to measure and are influenced by short-term changes in team performance.
In terms of market outcomes, the Cowboys almost always draw the most fans. Depending on the platform, either the Cowboys or the Patriots have the most social media followers. How about willingness to pay high prices? The cost of attendance varies significantly across the league.
The Fan Cost Index suggests that it costs more than twice as much to attend an Los Angeles Chargers game as a Cincinnati Bengals event.
Rating fandom across teams is further complicated by team performance changing annually. It is easy to root on a championship run, but it takes great character to support a cellar dweller.
Market metrics like attendance and prices may also be misleading because teams play in very different markets.
The New York metro area has a population exceeding 19 million, while the Jacksonville market includes only about 1.5 million individuals. Median incomes also differ wildly, with salaries in markets like Washington D.C. far exceeding median pay in Pittsburgh.
I am a marketing and analytics professor at Emory University in Atlanta, and for several years have studied fandom. Part of this research program is developing analytics for measuring fandom. My approach uses multiple fan response metrics and uses statistical models to control for the effects of team performance and market differences.
I use home box office revenue to measure local fan interest and social media following as an indicator of national following. I control for short-term fluctuations in team record using winning rates, making the playoffs, and other team performance variables. I control for market differences using data on populations, median income, and other demographics. I use 20 years of data for the revenue model and seven years of data for the social media analysis.
I generate rankings on the revenue and social measures by comparing teams’ actual performance versus the model’s predictions. The approach is similar in spirit to revenue and price premium tools used to measure brand equity or brand value.
I combine the two rankings to get an overall ranking. Combining the rankings is useful because each metric has different strengths and weaknesses. The home revenue premium ranking shows how much support the team receives in its home market. It’s a crucial measure because it captures how fans vote with their wallets.
On the downside, revenue premium results are constrained by stadium size, and some owners (e.g., Pittsburgh) seem to practice restraint when setting prices.
The social media metric captures fandom beyond the home market and casual fans that are not willing or able to spend on tickets. Social media following might be flawed because it is an indirect measure of marketing success and because fans often fail to unfollow when they lose interest. For a basketball example of lack of unfollowing, the Cleveland Cavaliers have about 3.3 million more Instagram Followers than the Boston Celtics.
The combination of the two metrics provides a balanced ranking system.
The Top Fanbases
It turns out the Dallas Cowboys are America’s team.
In 2019, the Cowboys led the league in attendance while being utterly average on the field. They charge high prices and are either No. 1 or 2 on social media, depending on the platform. In other words, the Cowboys enjoy massive popularity even when they are mediocre. The Cowboys are followed by the Patriots, Packers, Broncos, and Steelers.
This list highlights something obvious. NFL brands are built through winning championships. Every team in the top five has won at least three Super Bowls. Clubs with multiple championships dominate the top 10. The only exception is the Carolina Panthers at No. 9. The Panthers’ place on the list seems to be mainly driven by a creative and successful social media function during the Cam Newton era.
One of the fascinating things about the NFL is that brand power and fan loyalty can persist for decades. The Cowboys’ last Super Bowl victory was in the 1995 season. But, the names of Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Troy Aikman, and Emmitt Smith are top of mind for Dallas football fans.
In some ways, the Patriots are the new kid on the block of star teams. It is a fanbase built by a quarterback who left.
The next couple of years will be interesting to see if the Patriots stay near the top of the rankings.
The Wrong Side of the Rankings
The Bottom 5 features the Jaguars, Chiefs, Buccaneers, Titans, and Rams.
The Chiefs will be the controversial name on this list. Arrowhead sells out, the crowd is loud, and the city obviously loves the team. But, Kansas City charges prices near the bottom of the league. These low prices suggest a lack of pricing power. The Chiefs also have below or average social media followings across the various platforms. The social media results are especially telling since the Chiefs have been the most dynamic team in the league for the past two seasons.
The result is Kansas City achieves relatively lower revenues and social media success while putting a fantastic product on the field. The good news (though I’m sure KC fans have stopped reading and are composing pithy hate mail) is Kansas City is now doing the thing that creates brand equity. Winning championships with teams that feature Hall of Fame players. Think about where the Patriots were before the Tom Brady era.
The Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars are brands on the verge of something new. There is a current battle for the heart of LA football. Like Highlander, there only ever seems to be one iconic team in a city in any sport. In the NBA, the Knicks have dominated New York, and the Lakers are the Los Angeles team.
The Jaguars are also at an inflection point with a new coach and the opportunity to draft a generational prospect at quarterback. The Jaguars suddenly have a shot at transforming their brand.
The overall rankings and the ranking on Fan Equity (revenue performance) and Social Equity (social media performance) are given in the table. Another topic worth looking at is when teams have very different ranks on the two measures.
The Saints are solid on Fan Equity and struggle on Social. It’s a team with a great local brand that has limited national appeal. In contrast, the Seahawks are top 10 on social but only 13th on Fan Equity. This could be the consequence of having had recent stars with a nationwide appeal, such as Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, and Richard Sherman.
The Rankings in Context: The NFL in the Era of Covid
The numbers are the numbers. What do they mean for the business of the NFL in 2021 and beyond?
COVID 19 restrictions and social justice movements were the sports marketing story of 2020. Sports were disrupted, and leagues scrambled to create protocols and systems to restart the games. When sports came back, it was in bubbles and mostly empty stadiums and arenas. Sports also returned with social justice messages and anthem protests.
As expected, teams and leagues were hit hard by lost ticket, concession, and sponsorship revenues associated with live events. A surprising twist has been the loss of TV viewership. The NBA and NHL suffered historically low ratings for their championship series.
The NFL was down by about seven percent during the regular season.
There are multiple explanations for the loss of interest in sports. COVID 19 restrictions disrupted the regular sports calendar, and there is survey evidence that social justice protests have alienated a segment of fans.
I think the primary culprit (and an underappreciated one) is the loss of fan community. Sports like basketball and hockey generate excitement and fan passion through communal experiences, whether fans watch in arenas or sports bars. We also lost the office and school environments where fans share sports news around the “water cooler.”
So why are ratings down? The most likely answer is that TV ratings are down for multiple reasons: disruption to viewing habits, a politicized culture, and a loss of fan community.
The fandom rankings also reveal another explanation for the viewership drop. The NFL season featured down years for many of the league’s biggest brands and significant success for many of the league’s weaker brands. The top two brands missed the playoffs, while two of the bottom five made it to the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl LV featured a storyline that a Hollywood screenwriter might have created. The aging all-time great, facing off against the league’s brightest young star. Would Tom Brady defy time and further cement his claim as the GOAT, or would the game see a changing of the guard with Patrick Mahomes separating himself from the next generation of NFL quarterbacks?
Brady more than answered, and conversations about the “Greatest Of All Time” are going to seem unnecessary for years to come. There are relatively few athletes’ brands that transcend teams. LeBron and Michael come to mind. Brady is now in that class as well.
Tampa Bay’s presence in the Stanley Cup Final, World Series, and Super Bowl may have depressed ratings, but is Tampa the newest “City of Champions?” How much of the Brady legacy will permanently enhance the Buccaneers’ brand.
For Kansas City, it is a bittersweet moment. The Chiefs are already the betting favorite for next season’s Super Bowl, so the future is bright. The team and its star are still in a position to become special, but the key to creating NFL brands is winning championships. Coming up even a little short has massive long-term consequences.
The fan rankings suggest the NFL is in for a challenging next few years. Sports and culture are in turmoil, and we don’t know how sports and fandom will look post-COVID. Will we see more segmentation and less general appeal? Will fandom become more athlete and less team-oriented? Lots of unknowns.
During this transitional period, the league is also likely to see a disconnect between its star players and iconic teams. The league has a new crop of quarterback stars, but they play in markets like Kansas City, Buffalo, and Baltimore. In contrast, for many of the league’s iconic franchises like the Steelers, Cowboys, Patriots, Giants, and Bears, the quarterback situation is uncertain or soon to become uncertain.
Team Brands and League Fandom
The near-term conclusion is that the league faces a period of marketing insecurity. It may be a short-term issue if the elite talent is temporarily concentrated at the league’s lesser brands. Of course, it could be a longer-term issue if top talent like Patrick Mahomes chooses to remain in secondary markets. What if the next great group of teams features Mahomes’ Chiefs, Burrow’s Bengals, and Lawrence’s Jaguars.
It does not mean that the competition will not be stellar. It is also possible that we see the rise of new powerhouse brands. Maybe we see the Chief and Jaguars brands take off in a new era of social media-driven fan culture. But, it is a much easier business for the NFL if the Cowboys, Bears, and Giants are competing for championships with the Patriots, Steelers, and Jets.
The bigger fan and marketing story of all this goes back to the fundamentals of how leagues choose to organize themselves. The NFL shares more revenues than other leagues and has a salary cap, college draft, and free agency. These league rules make it possible for smaller markets to remain competitive.
The upside of these policies is that fans in smaller markets like Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and Kansas City can enjoy long-term success. The downside is that the forces that push talent to the glamorous markets and teams like New York or Los Angeles don’t work as well in the NFL.
It might be a situation where the rules are great for the fans – especially those in small markets. But the league itself is leaving dollars on the table. Patrick Mahomes at the Jets and Trevor Lawrence at the Rams is a fascinating scenario. But the beauty of all this is that it’s a great story either way.
It’s the beauty of sports and the beauty of sports business.