Emory University Study Ranks Packers Fans 14th-Best In NFL; Why They've Got It Wrong

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

A recent study at Emory University says that Packers fans are only the fourteenth-best in the NFL. Could there be a shred of truth to this assertion? (Answer: Probably not.)

You get a feeling that a list that calls Cowboys fans the best in the NFL is aiming to inspire levity, especially when the greatest quarterback in franchise history called out the team's supporters en masse for not being wholeheartedly invested in the team's success, even in its finest days. But that's exactly what Emory University's Sports Marketing Analytics Team did as they attempted to determine the most dedicated, loyal bunch of die-hards, while placing the traditionally respected Steelers and Packers fans at ninth and fourteenth, respectively. Chances are, however, that they've got it wrong.

Before I launch into some sort of tirade against the hardworking folks at Emory who compiled the research to generate conclusions, they ought to be commended for trying to utilize an alternate measure of fan commitment; in their own words, "the...assumption is that teams are attempting to maximize revenues," and, thus, supporters vote with their wallets. Rather than take the conventional route and pick fanbases based on anecdotal evidence or simply attendance (a number which likely skews in favor of teams with larger stadiums and markets), Mike Lewis and Manish Tripathi, marketing professors at the college's Roberto Goizueta School of Business, have taken account more comprehensive factors. Unfortunately, and as the two acknowledge (but refuse to factor into their analysis), their methodology has several major issues.

Fallacy 1: Fans who spend more money care about their team more.

The Emory study is based off team revenue; that would include season tickets, game ticket sales, merchandise sales, concessions sales at games and pretty much any other way the team brings in the cash. Their loyalty factor is, in essence, how revenue is impacted when the team's results differ significantly from its projected record. Looking at the top five teams in Emory's rankings (Dallas, New England, both New York teams, and New Orleans), it's easy to see that a team's market is everything in these rankings. The Cowboys' fan base has been discussed, New England's supporters left a Pats-Saints game at Gillette Stadium last year when they thought all was lost, and New York is a baseball town with a massive influx of Giants and Jets supporters when the teams succeed. New Orleans is perhaps the only conventionally loyal fanbase in the top five, and even they failed to show up to games during the dark days of the Saints franchise.

What these teams all have in common, though, is that their fans are more than happy to dole out the cash for jerseys when times are good and to purchase tickets as a prestige item. Tripathi and Lewis' claim that "New England has an all-around strong fan base" would likely be disputed by NFL beat writers and fans of other teams around the league. In a business capital like New York, Dallas or Boston, executives can show off their wealth by buying luxury boxes and season tickets. By rating teams based on how much their fans spend, Tripathi and Lewis have found not the most loyal fanbases, but  perhaps the ones with the deepest pockets.

Fallacy 2: If an NFL team prices tickets below the league average and doesn't have attendance issues, they're not doing it right.

This is perhaps where 'the love of the game' and business clash the most. In their brief highlight of Green Bay, the authors have this to say about the Packers.

How can these fans be any more loyal?  This leads to the question of why don’t teams like the Packers price higher.  I can think of a couple of potential answers.  One, perhaps they don’t have enough information or expertise to maximize revenues.  Demand forecasting for an NFL stadium is a non-trivial task.  Historical data is of limited use because demand for certain types of seats is censored.  The variation in the quality of tickets is also a problem as revenue maximizing teams would also need to understand the cross-elasticities across ticket types.

In other words, the writers believe that the Packers haven't analyzed their data well enough to charge their clients sufficiently. According to Tiqiq, the Packers had the eighth-highest average ticket prices in the league to start last season, but perhaps based on performance, it would be appropriate for the Packers to leapfrog disappointing teams such as the Giants and Cowboys in those rankings. The only reason that a team like Green Bay with a quality product would keep their tickets at current prices, the authors speculate, would be that the team wants to establish its brand, something that the Packers have certainly done by this point many times over. In other words, why the Packers keep their tickets affordable is a mystery to the good folks at Emory.

Fallacy 3: When a fan pays for his ticket and buys concessions, he has finished establishing his worth as a supporter of his team.

While I am open to new measures of support, I simply can't lend any credence to one that stops accounting for a fan's worth when he's done financially backing his team (something that the writers forget Packers fans do more than any other group in the league every time they purchase essentially valueless stock.) No analysis of Nielsen ratings? Not a glance at the season ticket waiting list? Heck, nothing on the stadium decibel levels, which wouldn't really help us, but would do wonders for Seahawks and Chiefs fans?

Let's theoretically create a fanbase that Lewis and Tripathi would love. This team has a large stadium, so it seats plenty of fans, and it's situated in a large market, where, although a majority of citizens aren't followers of the team, it gets enough support to fill the stands. The newly-minted rich show off their wealth by spending obscene money on luxury boxes. The fans buy concessions, and everyone's happy enough. When the game starts, everyone turns around and leaves the stadium. Sound like an exaggerated version of a familiar concept? The factors that Tripathi and Lewis favor are nice, but they ignore a fan's true purpose and value: to cheer on his team, something that Packers fans have done exceptionally well for the past thirty years in particular.

Conclusion

The truth is, I admire what Emory's Sports Marketing Analytics Team has attempted to do. They've looked at a rankings category that always produces controversy because of exactly how qualitative it is, and they've tried to quantify it by looking at what they believe are the essential statistics of fandom. Like any effort to bridge the gap between the two hemispheres, however, it has essential shortcomings, and those are the very reasons historically loyal fanbases such as Pittsburgh's and ours find themselves replaced by the well-to-do whose prestige is dependent on outspending their friends. It's not just an unfair fight. It's the wrong one.

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