The NFL occupies a unique position in American sports. The NFL dominates the sports calendar almost year-round. The Super Bowl is consistently the highest-rated televised sports event and even off-season happenings like the draft and free agency lead sports media.
The NFL is also the closest thing to a cultural unifier remaining in American society. About 100 million people watch the Super Bowl each year, fantasy football has become a tradition for many families, and the NFL QB is often the best-known local celebrity in most media markets.
That is all to say that the NFL is important in terms of its scale as a business and its role in American culture. It’s a fascinating and essential league to study. Today we look at NFL fandom: specifically, we investigate which franchises have the best fan bases (or brands).
The fan base rankings are a critical sports business story. Knowing where the passion lies and will lie in the future is vital for every sports league. Fandom is the driver of revenues for leagues. But beyond basic questions of which teams to put on TV, the analysis shed light on something fundamental about fandom. Fans choose to be fans because they want to belong to something. Being a Green Bay Packers fan is like being part of a cool club. Being a fan of the Washington NFL franchise also used to be being part of something aspirational. Now being a fan of the Commanders is character-building.
A ranking of the “best” fans is likely to inspire arguments (fans love their teams so much they are willing to argue about who is the most ardent fans) because we have no agreement on what being the best fan means. Is it being the loudest or being the most willing-to-be body slammed through a table while tailgating during a blizzard? Maybe. Passion is an important component of fandom, but passion is impossible to measure directly across 32 NFL franchises. But what about willingness to spend or to show up when a team is losing or following a team on social media? Fundamentally, we want to know which team has the most fans and the fans with the deepest emotional connection to their teams. Practically, we can look at measures of engagement (spending, attending, following) while controlling for variation in team performance (it’s easy to follow a winner) and market potential (New York has more economic potential than Jacksonville). We also add a small component related to each team’s ability to attract talent without breaking the bank.
We’ve crunched the numbers (20-plus years of data and multiple statistical models), and we have our NFL fan base rankings for 2023:
The Top Brands / Fan Bases
1) New England Patriots
The Patriots were an also-ran brand before Tom Brady, but they are now the class of the league. The Patriots sell out every game and charge the 4th highest ticket prices in the league (2nd highest cost of attendance). And they do this in the 11th largest metro area. The Patriots also have the largest social following on Twitter and Instagram in the league. It’s an impressive performance for a team that has been mediocre for the last three years.
We estimate that the Patriots fan equity results in an incremental Home Box Office ticket revenue of $944k per game versus a team with comparable observables (stadium capacity, population, median income, winning percentage, etc.). Note that brand equity affects many other aspects of revenue – merchandise sales, sponsorship revenues, local media rights, etc.…)
2) Green Bay Packers
The Packers drop from 1st last year to the number two position. Despite being in a microscopic market, Green Bay has it all – premium prices, great attendance, and a massive social media presence. The Packers have been built by Lombardi, Starr, Favre, and Rodgers. The Packers also enjoy a unique local small-town community culture, that even has a rivalry with the big-city Bears. In terms of economics, the Packers collect about $2.4 million per game at the gate compared to a generic team with the same profile.
3) Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys are always at the top of these rankings. Solid pricing, attendance, and great social metrics are fixtures for the Cowboys. The Cowboys are a fascinating fan base. Cowboy fans are regularly derided as superficial fans, but they spend, attend, and engage with social media. And these market metrics are very strong even when the Cowboys struggle on the field. Cowboy fandom may be more of a social fandom than some other teams in that being a Cowboy fan is more related to external connections than an internal connection to the team.
4) Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles are an interesting brand. The Eagles ranked 3rd in our revenue metric and 5th in social. It’s a solid performance. The Eagles are probably less of a national brand than the others in the top 5, but recent post-season success is helping to build the Eagles’ brand. The Eagles’ ranking is an example of why we look at the data. I think a survey of fans would place the Eagles as more like a top-ten brand than a top 5 brand, but the data lands the Eagles at 4.
5) Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are an iconic franchise along the lines of the Packers and Cowboys. The Steelers excel on social media, ranking 3rd on the social metric. The Steelers show a slight pricing weakness, with an average ticket price of just 10th in the league (about 10% less than the Packers). If anything, the Steelers seem a little under-ranked. Steelers fans regularly turn opposing stadiums black and gold, and there are Steelers bars everywhere. Maybe the Steelers intentionally underprice, or perhaps the Steelers really trail the Eagles.
Others of Note
6) Las Vegas Raiders
In general, moving a team is a terrible idea. Fan loyalty is built over generations, so moving or renaming is almost always a mistake. But in this case, the move to Vegas seems to have been a masterstroke. The Raiders now command the highest ticket prices in the league and also on the secondary market. The Raiders rank 1st on our Fan (Revenue) Equity metric bringing in an estimated $2.75 million dollars in home game ticket revenue over what our models suggest a 6-11 team in the 29th largest metro area should generate. But the Raiders don’t feel like an elite NFL brand. I think the issue is that the Las Vegas market is unlike any other. Las Vegas is a low median-income market, but the visiting population has plenty of discretionary income. A new stadium also helps. The Vegas Raiders are a marketing story to watch.
15) Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have been as successful as any team in the league over the past few years. And the Chiefs brand is on the upswing. But, despite the enormous on-field success, the Chiefs still price at about the middle of the league and have a social media following that ranks slightly below Carolina. Building brand equity is tough.
19) Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons are a mid-tier NFL brand. Atlanta is a top-10 market, and the Falcons fall a little short of the performance of other big-market clubs. But over the last decade, the Falcons have been on the upswing. The Mercedes Benz stadium and a rejuvenated Atlanta sports environment are the drivers.
25) Buffalo Bills
The Bills have great fans. The Bills mafia is spectacular, and the Bills’ community is special. The Bills are a true unifier in a city that faced tough challenges last season. Bills fandom may be more like college fandom than pro fandom, as it seems truly focused within the Buffalo community. The Bills are also on an upswing in the rankings as Josh Allen has made the team a perennial contender. The Bills may be following in the footsteps of the Chiefs. If Allen takes the team to multiple titles, we could see growth in social (which indicates national following) and improved revenue performance.
29) Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals are a team to watch. The Bengals have long been one of the least glamorous NFL franchises, but they may now have the most marketable player in the NFL in Joe Burrow. The Bengals have the lowest ticket prices in the league and a weak social following. This is a team that is in a “fan equity” building phase. We estimate that the Bengals’ home box office revenue is about $1.6 less than it should be each game.
32) Washington Commanders
The Washington football team used to be one of the top brands in the league. Cowboys-Redskins matchups on Monday Night Football and iconic players like Theismann, Riggins, Williams, and the Hogs made the Washington franchise a top-10 brand when I started these rankings. Now, the Commanders rank last on the revenue and social metrics. In dollar terms, I estimate that the Commanders are generating about $2.5 million less in ticket revenues per game than a neutral brand would.
Quarterbacks and Fandom
An essential observation from the list is that the NFL currently finds itself in a situation where the elite QB talent is not playing for the premier brands. Jalen Hurts may be an elite talent, but I think we need another season. The Eagles' willingness to make Hurts the second highest-paid QB (in 2023, at least) reflects both the critical nature of the QB position and the strangeness of the QB salary market.
The mismatch between fan equity and current QBs is interesting because elite QBs are the players that create the premier brands (Patriots = Brady, Cowboys = Staubach, and Aikman, Packers = Starr, Favre, Rodgers, Steelers = Bradshaw and Roethlisberger etc.). It’s a fascinating debate if this is a good or bad thing for the league. Are the league’s top brands in jeopardy, or is this an opportunity to build new powerhouse brands.
In this off-season, the main narratives have revolved around established QBs like Aaron Rodgers and Lamar Jackson and the selection of rookies like Bryce Young, CJ Stroud, Anthony Richardson, and Will Levis. You can’t miss the excitement when a team in a big market signs a player like Aaron Rodgers. Jets fans are instantly reinvigorated, and the media is suddenly focused on the Jets. Win a Super Bowl or two, and the Jets will be the hottest team in the league – prices will skyrocket, attendance will max out, and the Jets' social followings will explode. In contrast, building the Chiefs into an average NFL brand has taken more than half a decade of excellence.
Fan and Brand Analytics: The Methodology
We began our analyses of fan bases almost a decade ago. The idea was to use data and analytics to answer the classic question of who are the best fans in each league. On one level, it’s a strange question because the term “best fans” is subjective, and to many folks, it’s not even clear that the question matters. Why does it matter if Bears fans are more loyal or passionate than Vikings fans?
My answer is that it matters enormously, and it matters in multiple ways. First, it matters to fans because fandom is a source of social identity. Being a fan is often a foundational element of a person’s self-identity. People want and need to have pride in the groups to which they belong.
It also matters to the marketing ecosphere that surrounds sports. Sports teams (brands) with more intense fan bases can leverage fan interest into higher prices and more lucrative sponsorship opportunities. When brands sponsor teams, they should consider how many eyeballs see their in-stadium signage and the passion behind those eyeballs. Brand power should also influence decisions about media deals. Which teams should be slotted in the prime-time games when the schedule is formulated before the season starts?
The analysis uses the concept of brand equity. Brand equity is the idea that brands provide economic value to firms because they inspire loyalty or allow firms to charge premium prices. In the case of high brand equity teams, fans are willing to pay higher ticket prices and show up even when the team is losing.
The latter point about “even when losing” is key to understanding sports brands. The critical idea that underlies the analytics is that we need to “control” for many things to isolate the fan engagement.
The statistical analyses are straightforward. We use about 20 years of data (10 years for social media metrics) to build economic models of each league. Each season produces 32 observations of team’s decisions (payroll, prices, etc.) and 32 marketplace outcomes (Revenues, attendance, TV ratings, etc.). We examine each team’s brand equity by looking at how teams perform on marketing metrics and how the league level models predict teams with similar circumstances (wins, populations, etc) perform on average.
We look at brand equity using multiple metrics. There are several ways to characterize brand success, and they each have merits and shortcomings. We focus on three different measures of brand success – revenues, social media following, and player acquisition.
The Fan Equity metric uses home box office revenue as the market outcome. This metric captures fans' willingness to attend and spend and is probably the best overall metric. Sports is also an ideal category for analyzing brand revenue premiums because team quality is objective and readily observable. However, in sports, there are a couple of notable concerns. First, attendance is limited by stadium capacity. Second, the relatively high prices of NFL tickets mean that this metric doesn’t capture the segment of fans that can’t afford NFL tickets and seat licenses. The issue of ticket affordability also makes it a backward look at fandom because it primarily captures fandom amongst Baby Boomers, Gen X, and older Millennials. Younger Millennials and older Gen Z’s are, in general, not buying season tickets (yet?). Third, the Revenue Premium concept assumes that teams are profit maximizers. If a team holds prices down, then it can appear that a team is underperforming.
The Social Equity metric examines a team’s social media following (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook). Social media following captures interest from fans outside the team’s metro area and skews towards younger demographics. The procedure for calculating Social Equity is similar to Fan Equity. A model of league social media success is built using league-wide data. The model’s projections are compared with team’s actuals. The primary benefit of Social Equity is that it is an indicator of future fan base strength as it captures fandom across younger and less affluent segments. On the downside, social media followings tend to be sticky. In general, social media followings only grow as “unfollowing” is not commonplace.
Brand Equity can have multiple effects. In traditional consumer marketing brand equity is associated with increased loyalty, diminished price sensitivity, and distribution advantages (better shelf position and wider availability). Brand Equity can also have broader impacts and can even influence an organization's ability to acquire talent. The Talent Equity metric examines a team’s ability to outperform payroll investments. The logic of this metric is that teams with better fan bases and more marketing appeal may be better able to attract talent. This metric relies on an assumption of an efficient labor market for NFL talent. This metric may be criticized as being influenced by the skill of a team’s General Manager and Player Development staff.
The preceding discussion highlights the benefits and flaws of our three metrics. To mitigate concerns about the flaws, we combine the three metrics into an overall ranking using a weighting system that primarily emphasizes the Fan Equity (revenue premium) and Social Equity measures. The Talent Equity component is given only a small weight.
Watch/listen to our podcasts breaking down the 2023 NFL Fandom Rankings here.