NFL Team Fandom Report: Ranking the NFL Brands
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.
The Kansas City Chiefs have the loudest stadium on record. The Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders are (or were) known for having hardcore sections of fans that dress in elaborate costumes. 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 non-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.
We discuss the full rankings in this podcast:
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.
Stream the "NFL Fandom Rankings" episode of our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
As we mentioned on the podcast, Yahoo Sports senior writer Jay Busbee will join us on Thursday, March 11th at 1 PM ET to discuss the art of storytelling as well as sports in the COVID age. Spots are free but limited.