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Sunday, November 09, 2014

Where college football means the most-NY Times map

















"Source: Facebook; stadium locations from football-reference.com"

11/9/14, "The places where college football means the most," NY Times, by

It is hard to explain to someone who grew up in a big city in the Northeast just how big a deal college football is in the Southeast.

College sports, and particularly football, occupy a role at the center of daily life in the South — like in South Carolina, where one of us grew up — that is hard to imagine for many people who grew up in New York or Boston.

Last month we published The Upshot’s map of college football fandom, showing where people root for what college teams. That map offers great detail about what teams college football fans root for in a given location, but nothing about how concentrated college football fans are in that place.

Here, we are looking at another question: not which teams fans root for, but the proportion of the population in various places who are fans of any college football team. We asked Facebook to compile that information, and the results offer a portrait of America’s college-football obsession — or lack thereof. To be more specific:
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Alabama has the highest concentration of college football fans. This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, given that the University of Alabama has finished the season ranked No. 1 in the country in three of the last five seasons and that Auburn has finished twice in the top two. It will also not surprise anyone who has read “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer,” by Warren St. John. Almost 34 percent of Alabama Facebook users were fans of a college football team, more than five percentage points higher than in the state with the next-highest level.

It is difficult to separate correlation from causation from coincidence, however.

Is Alabama college football fandom more intense because its teams are so good? Or are its teams so good because there is such intense fan support, including of the financial variety? (Nick Saban may be the best coach in college football, but he doesn’t come cheap, with a reported $7 million annual salary.) Or have the passionate fans of Alabama been blessed with lucky several years?

We don’t have useful historical data, because widespread adoption of Facebook is too recent a phenomenon.

Regardless, the Facebook data offers circumstantial evidence that last year’s Iron Bowl rivalry game between then-No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Auburn, featuring arguably the greatest ending to a college football game of all time, created a perfect vortex of human emotion.

The South loves college football, but so do pockets of the Midwest.
Our original intuition — that college football means something entirely different in the South than the Northeast — holds up. The states with the lowest rates of college football fandom are five New England states (all but Connecticut) followed by New Jersey and New York. In those seven Northeast states, fewer than 4 percent of Facebook users were fans of a college football team, based on their likes.

Beyond Alabama, the South is heavily represented among states with the highest levels of college football fandom; in the top 10 are Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana.

But Big Ten country makes an impressive showing as well — at least the areas that have a Big Ten college with a strong football tradition. Nebraska, Iowa and Ohio also make the top 10 states for fan concentration, with Wisconsin and Michigan close behind.

Fandom is distributed a bit more irregularly in the Midwest than in the South. For example, Illinois is only No. 40 among states for football fandom despite the presence of the Fighting Illini and the Northwestern Wildcats. Minnesota, home of the Golden Gophers, beats only the Northeastern states in concentration of college football fans.

This data supports the idea that college football fan intensity is linked to football greatness over a long period. Nebraska has a tradition of football success that Illinois and Minnesota don’t, which may factor into high levels of fan attention in that state.

College football attracts the most fans in rural areas without professional teams. There is quite strong evidence in this data that devotion to college football increases the farther you get from large cities, especially large cities with professional sports teams like N.F.L. franchises.

The seven states where more than 25 percent of Facebook users are college football fans have between them exactly one major professional sports franchise: The Oklahoma City Thunder, the pro basketball team that has existed since only 2008 (after relocating from Seattle).

The pattern shows up even more clearly when you look at county-level data. Georgia is a prime example; it is thick in the intense band of Southeastern Conference fandom, surrounded by the football hotbeds Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee. The University of Georgia has both a tradition of excellence and has been highly ranked in recent years. Yet only 13 percent of Georgia Facebook users were fans of a college football team, roughly half that of South Carolina.

What’s going on? As it turns out, rural Georgia counties have similar college football intensity to neighboring South Carolina and Alabama. But the Atlanta metro area is the culprit, with only a 11 percent rate of fandom in DeKalb County and 15 percent in Fulton County.

There are two possibilities: One is that Atlanta residents have the N.F.L.'s Falcons to root for and so aren’t as attached to the Bulldogs. Another is that there are more transplants from other regions where college football is less of a passion. Both probably play a role.

Similarly, fandom in Florida is less concentrated in Miami than in the northern parts of the state.

In Cook County, home of Chicago, only 4 percent of residents indicated support for a college team. And the five counties in the United States with the lowest rates of college football fandom are the five boroughs of New York City. Manhattan manages 2 percent, and the other four are all below 2 percent.

Recent excellence (may) matter. You might expect that if a local team has been hugely successful in the recent past, it would attract more fans through a bandwagon effect. That may well be at work with Alabama. There is some evidence this is the case, but it is not conclusive.

One way to test that is by looking at fan intensity in places where the local team has had recent success but not a historical track record of excellence.

The University of Oregon has finished the season among the top 10 teams in five of the last six seasons, but previously was only sporadically ranked in the top 25. One might expect this recent success to coincide with a rise in interest in college football in Oregon. And you would be right. Some 20 percent of Oregon Facebook users were fans of college football, easily more than any of the surrounding states.

But there are some counterexamples.

Boise State has been one of the most exciting college teams of the last decade, finishing in the top 25 nine times since 2002 and going undefeated in 2006 and 2009, despite the program’s having little national success before that. But Idaho’s rate of fandom is actually a bit lower than that of neighboring Wyoming, where the University of Wyoming Cowboys have had a losing record in five of the last seven seasons.

And the University of Missouri has also had a track record of mediocrity before finishing the season in the top 25 in four of the last seven years. Yet Missouri continues to have a much lower concentration of college football fans than neighbors like Arkansas and Iowa.

It will be worth looking at data along these lines in the future to see if the rate of college football fandom rises in places with successful teams and falls in those where the home team has a weak spell.

Add it all up, and it is easy to explain why Alabama and Nebraska have the highest rates of college football fandom. They are both states without large cities and major professional sports franchises, in regions with a strong history of college football support, and with teams that have been excellent in the recent past.

And if there is any question of what parts of the country will have the most collective energy invested in the activities of a bunch of unpaid 18- to 22-year-old men crashing into one another this Saturday, we now have some answers."

"About the Data: It was provided by Facebook using estimates of support for the Football Bowl Subdivision programs, based on the share of Facebook users in a county who “like” a team. Facebook likes are an imperfect measure of fan intensity, including the fact that Facebook users may not be representative of the population at large. The results are also influenced by how intensely different universities cultivate their social media presence, and how widely Facebook is used by people in a given location."

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