"Source: Facebook; stadium locations from
11/9/14, "The places where college football means the most
," NY Times, by
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."