A Different Look at "Fan Equity"

Kevin C. Cox

A recent study suggests that Falcons fans have the second-worst level of "fan equity" in the league, but the revenue-based model has some flaws.

In the latest installment of the tired perpetuation of the "Atlanta is a bad sports town" idea, two professors from Emory University, Mike Lewis and Manish Tripathi, shared the results of a study last week in which they determined that Falcons fans have the least "fan equity" of every team in the league, except for the Oakland Raiders.

The first question one must ask is, what exactly is fan equity? According to the authors of the study, it is a numerical representation of how passionate and invested a fan base is in their chosen team. Which leads us to the second question: can one truly, and accurately, measure something so subjective as fan loyalty?

The two professors, fans of the Redskins and the Steelers, respectively--so there shouldn't be any obvious inherent bias against the Falcons--used a statistical model involving box office revenue, market population and median income, and stadium capacity, as well as a team's record of success over the last five seasons. The purpose of the statistical model is to project revenues based on recent success, and teams were ranked according to how the projections aligned with their actual revenues. If you're going to try to measure fan enthusiasm, box office revenue is a good place to start, but a strong argument can be made that the study is too focused on revenues without enough acknowledgement of variables like ticket pricing, and no adjustment for the fans who aren't able to attend games by factoring in television data, including blackouts. The narrow nature of the data incorporated skews the results in favor of teams whose ticket prices are higher. Let's take a look at the top ten teams according to Lewis and Tripathi's data, compared to their respective rankings for ticket prices.

Rank Team 2012 Revenue Avg. 2012 Ticket Price Ticket Cost Rank
1 Dallas Cowboys $539 million $110.20 5
2 New England Patriots $408 million $117.84 2
3 New York Jets $321 million $117.94 1
4 New Orleans Saints $276 million $74.99* 15
5 New York Giants $338 million $111.69 3
6 Indianapolis Colts $276 million $85.34 7
7 Chicago Bears $298 million $110.91 4
8 Baltimore Ravens $292 million $91.92 6
9 Pittsburgh Steelers $266 million $74.32* 17
10 Tennessee Titans $270 million $64.61* 27

Revenue data from Forbes.com, ticket price data from FanCostExperience.com

* average price below NFL average

And, the data for the bottom ten teams:

Rank Team 2012 Revenue Avg. 2012 Ticket Price Ticket Cost Rank
23 Seattle Seahawks $270 million $67.26* 25
24 Buffalo Bills $256 million $58.36* 31
25 Miami Dolphins $268 million $71.14* 18
26 San Francisco 49ers $255 million $83.54 9
27 Jacksonville Jaguars $240 million $59.54* 30
28 Detroit Lions $248 million $67.60* 24
29 Tampa Bay Buccaneers $267 million $69.72* 19
30 Arizona Cardinals $253 million $68.00* 22
31 Atlanta Falcons $252 million $76.78* 16
32 Oakland Raiders $229 million $62.23* 28

Revenue data from Forbes.com, ticket price data from FanCostExperience.com

*average price below NFL average

One thing that stands out is a strong correlation between the average price per ticket, and whether a team was ranked toward the top or the bottom of the "fan equity" list. Just two teams in the top ten feature average ticket prices below the NFL average of $78.38, while all but one of the bottom ten teams have average ticket prices that are below the NFL average. Each team that ranks in the top seven for the highest average ticket prices in the league lands in the top ten of the "fan equity" results.

Another thing that can't be accounted for in the "fan equity" model, or any other model, is the number of ticket revenue generated on any given Sunday by fans of the visiting team, or casual observers, as opposed to engaged fans of the home team. A Bears fan wrote about his family's trip to Cowboys Stadium last season to watch the Bears take on the Cowboys, and his account is an excellent argument against the validity of this study. He observed many Bears fans, and many "fans" who appeared to be casual observers, and his hypothesis is that the cost of tickets is putting the NFL stadium experience out of reach for average fans. And, the revenue-based model seems to penalize teams which have maintained more fan-friendly ticket pricing.

The "fan equity" study focused on box office revenue, likely because incorporating total revenue opens up a theoretical can of worms. For example: should the Cowboys' position in these results benefit from the fact that it costs $75 to park at their stadium on game days, by far the most in the NFL? Or should the results be weighted in Dallas' favor due to the fact that they are the only team in the NFL that is permitted to license their own apparel? Box office revenue does include luxury suites revenue, and some teams are at a distinct disadvantage as far as that's concerned.

Rank Team Suites Available Club Seats Available Average Premium Ticket
1 Dallas Cowboys 300 14,102 $340.00
2 New England Patriots 80 6,460 $566.67
3 New York Jets 213 10,041 $301.36
4 New Orleans Saints 137 8,593 $177.61*
5 New York Giants 213 10,041 $464.75
6 Indianapolis Colts 140 7,264 $246.84
7 Chicago Bears 133 8,376 $389.00
8 Baltimore Ravens 122 8,108 $246.84
9 Pittsburgh Steelers 129 8,100 $218.65*
10 Tennessee Titans 171 11,682 $164.08*

Premium ticket cost data from FanCostExperience.com

*below league average of $243.70

And, the bottom ten teams:

Rank Team Suites Available Club Seats Available Average Premium Ticket
23 Seattle Seahawks 112 7,826 $158.63*
24 Buffalo Bills 132 8,831 $192.56*
25 Miami Dolphins 196 10,470 $200.00*
26 San Francisco 49ers 135 0 $275.00
27 Jacksonville Jaguars 89 11,692 $229.17*
28 Detroit Lions 127 7,312 $142.98*
29 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 197 12,053 234.13*
30 Arizona Cardinals 108 7,356 $199.31*
31 Atlanta Falcons 171 6,180 $249.60
32 Oakland Raiders 143 5,552 $139.93*

Premium ticket cost data from Fan Cost Experience.com

*below league average of $243.70

Again, the bulk of the teams ranked toward the bottom of the "fan equity" study have average premium ticket prices below the national average, while the majority of the teams in the top ten have average premium ticket costs above the league average. The argument can be made that the teams in the top tier have more fan equity because fans are willing to pay more to see their favorite team, but while premium seats, particularly luxury suites, generate a ton of revenue for teams, they're most frequently leased by corporations, not your average passionate, invested football fan. Corporations can afford it, the average fan cannot. A corporation doesn't feel physically ill and heartbroken for days (or months, maybe even years) when their team loses in the NFC Championship Game after coming so very close to a Super Bowl appearance. Instead, they enjoy a significant tax break for being able to show off their fancy suite to clients.

While the study did take stadium capacity into consideration in its model, it did not appear to account for any increase in total tickets sold over a period of time. Since the win-loss records they factored in encompassed the last five seasons, let's look at the ticket sales data, by the percentage of the stadium that was filled on any given Sunday, over the same period of time. Here's the top ten:

Rank Team Stadium Capacity 2008 % Capacity 2012 % Capacity

Increase / Decrease

1 Dallas Cowboys 80,000 96.2%* 110.7% +14.5%
2 New England Patriots 68,756 100% 100% 0%
3 New York Jets 82,566 95.1%* 95.9% +0.4%
4 New Orleans Saints 76,468 96.1% 99.9% +1.8%
5 New York Giants 82,566 95.8% 97.6% +1.8%
6 Indianapolis Colts 67,000 105.4% 103.5% -1.9%
7 Chicago Bears 61,500 100.9% 101.3% +0.4%
8 Baltimore Ravens 71,008 100.4% 100.4% 0
9 Pittsburgh Steelers 65,050 96.8% 94.1% -2.7%
10 Tennessee Titans 69,143 100% 100% 0

Attendance data from ESPN.com

* old stadium

And here's the bottom ten:

Rank Team Capacity 2008 % Capacity 2012 % Capacity Increase/ Decrease
23 Seattle Seahawks 67,000 101.5% 101.4% -0.1%
24 Buffalo Bills 73,079 97.7% 88.9% -8.8%
25 Miami Dolphins 76,100 87.1% 76.3% -10.8%
26 San Francisco 49ers 70,207 96.2% 99.3% +3.1%
27 Jacksonville Jaguars 73,000 97.0% 96.8% -0.2%
28 Detroit Lions 65,000 84.5% 98.9% +14.4%
29 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 65,856 98.3% 83.9% -14.4%
30 Arizona Cardinals 63,400 101.1% 96.0% -5.1%
31 Atlanta Falcons 71,228 89.9% 98.4% +8.5%
32 Oakland Raiders 63,132 91.8% 86.0% -5.8%

Attendance data from ESPN.com

It's important to note that Dallas, the Jets and the Giants all transitioned to new, larger-capacity stadiums during this five-season time frame, so their respective increases in attendance are technically larger than the percentage listed, because of an increase in stadium capacity.

Another thing that's worth noting: the Oakland Raiders, the only team ranked below the Atlanta Falcons in the "fan equity" study, are actually reducing the capacity of O.co Coliseum in Oakland to 53,000, which is significantly lower than Soldier Field in Chicago, currently the league's smallest stadium. The reason the Raiders are limiting their existing stadium's capacity is to avoid blackouts, and Oakland is pursuing the prospect of building a new, smaller stadium with a maximum capacity of approximately 50,000. Of course, Oakland's attendance in 2008 wasn't particularly great, and it has significantly declined over the past five seasons. So, they're ranked dead last in the league--and there's some justification--but isn't it a little puzzling how a Falcons team that has increased attendance at games by 8.5% over the past five seasons is ranked just above a team that is actively reducing their stadium capacity to avoid television blackouts?

To take the box office revenue data one step further, let's consider blackout data over the past five seasons. Games are blacked out by the NFL in a local television market when a team does not meet a certain threshold of tickets sold for said game. If games are being blacked out, it's an indication that the local fan base is not invested enough in the team to purchase a ticket and go to a game. On any given Sunday, you'll find Bucs fans lamenting a local blackout, yet they were ranked (slightly) more highly than the Falcons in the results of the "fan equity" study. This may be the biggest affront to reason in the results of this study, because it's difficult to accept that teams who regularly face local television blackouts would be ranked more highly than the Falcons, who don't. Let's look at recent blackout data, and see where teams who have faced local television blackouts rank on the "fan equity" list.

Rank Team 2012 Blackouts
29 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6
11 San Diego Chargers 4
24 Buffalo Bills 2
19 Cincinnati Bengals 1
32 Oakland Raiders 1
31 Atlanta Falcons 0

Atlanta, with zero blackouts in 2012, is ranked below four teams that experienced television blackouts last season. San Diego, ranked 11th on the "fan equity" results, had four blackouts.

The New York Jets are near the top of the "fan equity" list, but you can't really quantify fan frustration over the poor performance of that team over the past couple of seasons. Their most recognizable fan, Fireman Ed, actually stopped attending games due to the behavior of other Jets fans toward him and the players in response to their poor play. Does that sound like a team that should be ranked in the top ten for "fan equity" to you? The Jets are near the top because they have a fancy new stadium, and seats are expensive, and they generate a ton of box office revenue from corporations buying premium tickets.

On the other hand, Green Bay, a franchise with a storied legacy, a recent Super Bowl victory, and what most would consider to be demonstrable fan support--a years-long waiting list for season tickets, a unique ownership arrangement in that the team is publicly held by fans, the distinction of topping the list for local market television listings, staying near the top of the league in web traffic, and with a stadium that was recently voted the best fan experience in the league--comes in at 14 in the "fan equity" rankings. Green Bay comes in at less than a dollar above the league average price per ticket at $78.84. Their revenue doesn't permit them to crack the top ten.

And the Falcons, who set records for 2013 season ticket sales, and then sold out all of their single-game 2013 season home tickets in one solitary day, and have experienced a level of success over the past five seasons unparalleled in franchise history, are ranked 31st. I respect what the authors of this study were attempting to accomplish, and acknowledge that fan engagement is an element of the business of the NFL that is nearly impossible to quantify, but focusing so exclusively on box office revenue while not recognizing variables like premium seating and increased attendance over time skewed their results.

So where should the Falcons rank? I don't know, and it really doesn't matter. I get really tired of the whole "bad sports town" drama. But there is quantifiable data that points to increased fan engagement in Atlanta, and when you compare the Falcons with teams ranked near them on the "fan equity" list, Atlanta's increase in attendance at the Georgia Dome alone over the past five seasons alone is enough to move them, as well as the 49ers and the Lions, higher on the list.

What do you think about the study? Where should the Falcons be ranked?

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