Loyalty By the Numbers: Emory Study of NFL Fan Loyalty Stirs up Emotions

Aug. 23, 2013

NFL fans

By Steve Frandzel

Dallas Cowboys fans are the most loyal among professional football fans in the nation, while Atlanta Falcons fans rank a dismal thirty-first out of thirty-two NFL markets. Only Oakland Raiders fans exceed their lack of devotion.

The findings come from a recently study conducted by Manish Tripathi, assistant professor of marketing, and Michael Lewis, associate professor of marketing, who head Emory’s sports marketing analytics program. The rankings resulted from a statistical analysis that factored in not only game-day attendance (which would skew results toward more populous cities), but also box office revenues relative to on-field success, market population, stadium capacity, median income, and other variables.

“We wanted to control for these factors and apply marketing concepts and analytics to sports,” Tripathi told The Academic Exchange. “We get kind of sick of hearing about who has the best fans. Whenever you read any analysis loyalty, it’s always what someone thinks or feels, or it’s a survey. We’re using real, publicly available data to understand fandom.”

They gathered data for teams from the past decade or so, then predicted the expected revenues for each one and compared that figure to actual revenue. “The difference between those results is a measure of brand equity,” explained Tripathi, which equates to fan base support in their model.

Their work was quickly picked up by media such as USA Today, Yahoo Sports, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, local radio and TV stations in Washington, DC, and even the Daily Mail, a British daily newspaper. Their worked also ticked off many people. Tripathi quickly lost count of the messages via Twitter he received (he and Lewis learned a long time ago to exclude comments from their website). While some critics quibbled rationally about study methodology or other material aspects of the work, many assumed a less cordial tone – about what you’d expect from enraged football fans whose loyalty to their beloved home team has been questioned.

In a follow-up post on the sports analytics website, the professors wrote that “The Cowboys, Patriots, Jets, and Saints headed this list, and every other city in America let us know that our study was garbage.” They good-naturedly defended their findings and pointed out that there’s no way that bias could have entered into their calculations: Tripathi is a lifelong Washington Redskins fan and “is terribly disturbed by the results of the study” (Washington fans ranked thirteenth). Lewis grew up rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose fans ranked a respectable ninth. He called the results “a bit painful.” Tripathi told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that “we both hate the Cowboys.”

What explains the steady allegiance of Cowboy fans despite mediocre team performance over the past few years? Tripathi posited several factors, including a long legacy of team success, a football-mad Texas culture, a new high-tech stadium, and high ticket prices.

On the flipside, the Falcons contend with Southeastern Conference college football, which inflames far greater passion among many area football fans than the professional teams do. “The University of Georgia and other SEC schools are big brands in the South,” said Tripathi. In addition, many inhabitants of the Atlanta metropolitan area are transplants and retain their existing team loyalties. And, save for the past several years, the Falcons' record of success is, alas, spotty at best. 

To view the entire study report, click here.

To see coverage of the study in other media outlets:

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