Emory Sports Marketing Analytics recently went about the task of empirically determining which college football programs have the "best" fan bases. The analysis goes conference by conference to determine which college football programs have the most loyal fans.
Fan bases are evaluated using a statistical model that predicts team revenues as a function of metrics related to team performance (winning percentage, bowl participation), then compares that to what is predicted based purely on team performance. This "revenue premium" is then used to rank conferences and fan bases.
The conference "fan base" rankings aren't surprising until you get to the bottom, where the ACC ranks below the American Athletic Conference.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in our analysis was that the new American Athletic Conference (AAC) ranked higher than the ACC. This is a non-intuitive finding as we expected that historically successful programs such as Florida State and Miami would lead the ACC past an AAC led by Louisville and Cincinnati. The reason for this result is actually quite simple. The ACC schools have invested in football at about the same level as the Big 12 and PAC 12 schools, but with lower resulting revenues.
The complete conference rankings go:
2. Big Ten
3. Big 12
5. American Athletic
Unsurprisingly, the SEC leads the way and actually got a pretty significant boost from the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M. The Big Ten is in second, followed by the Big 12, PAC-12, American Athletic and the ACC.
When it comes to the ACC's individual program rankings, these, well, get a little crazy:
1. Clemson Tigers
2. Virginia Tech Hokies
3. Syracuse Orange
4. North Carolina Tar Heels
5. Pittsburgh Panthers
6. Virginia Cavaliers
7. Florida St. Seminoles
8. Miami Hurricanes
9. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
10. N.C. State Wolfpack
11. Duke Blue Devils
12. Boston College Eagles
13. Maryland Terrapins
14. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Clemson tops the rankings based on strong attendance and revenue figures in the face of middling results over the time period studied (the past 10 seasons). Clemson's revenues were 30-60% higher than other major ACC programs. Virginia Tech ranks second. While the Hokies revenue figures don't approach Clemson levels, the program has enjoyed more success in the ACC over the past ten seasons.
In third and fifth place are the ACC's newcomers Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Both expansion programs rank high on this list as fans continue to support the program despite middling on-field results over the past 10 seasons. More than that though, I have to think that the revenue disparity between the ACC and the Big East (see above) plays a significant role in over-inflating both Pittsburgh and Syracuse's fan bases worth.
Florida State and Miami rank in the middle of the conference. Both are hurt by total revenue and in Miami's case specifically, by poor attendance.
Boston College's fan base ranked 12th overall, one spot behind Duke (?) and ahead of only Maryland and Wake Forest. This shouldn't be too big of a surprise though. In an analysis that factors in revenue as a primary driver of fan base loyalty, BC is hampered in part by the capacity of Alumni Stadium. In fact, the bottom four programs on this list have stadium's ranked in the bottom five of the conference in terms of seating capacity.
With TV money and bowl revenue split equally among conference members, revenue from ticket sales becomes a clear differentiator between conference programs.
It's an interesting study, but I personally don't put much stock in these figures. While other survey methods may not prove as valuable as Emory's revenue-based approach, I'm skeptical that "revenue premium" effectively captures fan loyalty. I also think there are significant complications in comparing two programs -- Pittsburgh and Syracuse -- that competed in different leagues and had very different revenue levels over the past ten seasons.