Who are the best fans in sports? The question is as old as sport itself. Municipal, state, regional, and oft times national pride is inexorably tied to the fortunes of respective rooting interests, be they professional, college, or high school. Not many societal institutions are as capable of stirring the emotions of whole demographics like sports can.
Now let me begin this spiel by throwing myself on my sword. I recently penned a rather caustic and irrational condemnation of Philadelphia sports fans. While I won’t go as far as an outright apology I will extend the proverbial olive branch and acquiesce to the fact my screed was entirely irrational and not based on anything resembling empirical data, for which I was duly excoriated. On the bright side, the article/op-ed piece did generate triple digit comments.
So, in an effort to be as objective and logical as humanly possible I’ve done minutes of research and prepared a by the numbers evaluation of who truly are the best fans in sports.
The first step in this or any other cogent debate is to decide on a set of parameters. And since this will be an empirical analysis we will try and focus on verifiable and objective research based on tangible data. So gone are the numerous yet subjective lists compiled every year by hundreds of sports enthusiasts who filter their evaluations of these types of “Best Of…” lists through a patina of bias that makes Pricilla Presley’s makeup look translucent. Instead, we will focus on measurables such as a variety of attendance figures like consecutive sellouts, year by year attendance numbers, and attendance as a percentage of capacity. Secondly, we will factor in franchise/team valuation, as this is a comprehensive measure of gate receipts, merchandise sales, television revenue, and overall health. Lastly we will look at a sundry of other measurable data to break any impasses.
A good jumping off point is to look at various attendance figures, a fairly concrete evaluation of overall fan loyalty.
If one goes by the numbers ( http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/spt/columnists/rgosselin/stories/081207dnsponflcenter.2ff4723.html) no team has garnered such a consistently avid following in the NFL as the Washington Redskins who’ve sold out every game since 1967. The Denver Broncos have a sold out streak dating back to 1970. The Pittsburgh Steelers streak goes back to 1972, the New York Giants goes back to 1974, and Green Bay Packers streak goes back nearly unbroken for 48 years. The wait for season tickets to Bronco games is 17 years, the Packers list is 35 years long. Even the New York Jets have sold out every game since 1978.
This type of rabid devotion extends to the college gridiron (http://web1.ncaa.org/d1mfb/Internet/attendance/IA_AVGATTENDANCE.pdf). The Nebraska Cornhuskers have sold out every home game since 1962. The last time the Michigan Wolverines played a home game in front of fewer than 100,000 was 1976, the SEC as an aggregate averages over 75,000 per game, and the Tennessee Volunteers average over 105,000 per game. As a percentage of stadium capacity no fans show out better than Nebraska, Oklahoma Sooners, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan, Penn State, Tennessee, Wisconsin Badgers, Florida Gators, Georgia Bulldogs, LSU Tigers, Alabama Crimson Tide, Notre Dame, Florida St. Seminoles, Virginia Tech, and the Oregon Ducks fans. All of the previously mentioned teams have average attendance percentages at or above 100% of stadium capacity, and have had such fanatical support for years.
Hockey’s denizens are a skosh less frenzied in their commitment but not much. The Colorado Avalanche had the longest sell out streak in NHL history, which ended October 17, 2006, a stunning 487 in total. The Minnesota Wild has sold out every game since their entry into the league. The Montreal Canadiens have led the NHL in attendance every year since the 2002-03 season.
Professional basketball mavens seem to be, according to the numbers, more mercurial in their loyalty than fans of the NFL & NHL. Sacramento Kings had a sellout streak that lasted from November of 1999 to November of 2007, 354 straight. Portland Trailblazers own the longest streak of consecutive sellouts in NBA history, 814 games from 1976 to 2003. Chicago Bulls had 610 consecutive sellouts during the Michael Jordan years. But league wide most franchises attendance figures fluctuate more than any other major North American sport, suggesting basketball fans tend to be less fervent and more fickle than their football and hockey counterparts. The same cannot be said for college basketball. Of the schools with the most ardent following as measured by attendance versus capacity ( http://www.ncaa.org/stats/m_basketball/attendance/2004_basketball_attend.pdf) the Kentucky Wildcats, Kansas Jayhawks, North Carolina Tarheels, Louisville Cardinals, Wisconsin, and the Duke Blue Devils are the ones who can match their football brethren in sheer consistent fanaticism.
Baseball in America has been a passion for over a century, and no team has as wide or arguably as loyal fans as the New York Yankees, who have led baseball in attendance every year since 2003. The Cleveland Indians own the longest sellout streak in MLB history, a streak which lasted 455 games between 1995-2001. As a percent of stadium capacity Yankees fans are once again the cream of the crop.
Soccer fans from Europe are equally supportive of their teams as any fan base in North American sports league. Manchester United averages 75,828 fans per game in a 76,212 seat stadium, a remarkable attendance versus capacity ratio of 99.4%...on average, per game, a number no other European club side can match. Real Madrid averages 73,000 in a 80,400 seat facility, a rather paltry ratio compared to the 98.2% that Bayern Munich boasts in a 69,900 seat stadium.
Now let us switch gears and look at individual franchise valuation. According to Forbes Magazine (http://www.forbes.com/2007/09/13/nfl-team-valuations-biz-07nfl_cz_kb_mo_cs_0913nfl_land.html ), which uses a methodology that evaluates revenue stream, operating expenses, and debt obligation, the most valuable franchise in the NFL, and the world, is the Dallas Cowboys, with a worth of $1.5 billion. The next five most valuable in the NFL in order are the Washington Redskins ($1.4 billion), New England Patriots ($1.17 billion), Houston Texans ($1.05 billion), Philadelphia Eagles ($1.05 billion), and the Denver Broncos ($994 million). This is significant as the NFL is the richest professional sports league on earth, with an average franchise value of $957 million; it’s also the most profitable league in the world. The only MLB franchise that can crack the top ten in the NFL is the New York Yankees, a team worth a cool $1.3 billion (http://www.forbes.com/2008/04/16/baseball-team-values-bix-sports-baseball08-cx_mo_kb_0416baseball_land.html). The most valuable soccer teams according to Forbes ( http://www.forbes.com/lists/2007/34/biz_07soccer_Soccer-Team-Valuations_Rank.html) are Manchester United ($1.4 billion) and Real Madrid ($1.03 billion). Bayern Munich is valued at $838 million. Not a single NBA or NHL team is worth more than $640 million, a fact that indicates a lower level of affinity in general for the two sports leagues in America and world wide.
Evaluating the worth of college sports teams is a bit more dicey and speculative. But those scamps over at Forbes did just that. They compiled a list of the 20 most valuable football teams in the country ( http://www.forbes.com/sportsbusiness/2007/11/20/notre-dame-fooball-biz-sports-cx_ps_1120collegeball.html). No surprise that Notre Dame topped the list, after all they are the only team with their own television contract. What is surprising, or not, is that the top twenty teams are also at or near the top in average attendance. Michigan is the fifth most valuable college football team and first in average attendance in a 107,500 seat stadium, Florida is the sixth most valuable, LSU the seventh, and Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Ohio St., Oklahoma, Penn St., Nebraska, and Wisconsin are also on the Forbes list.
One method of generating revenue for both college and professional sports teams is merchandise sales. This is also a way to assess the level of devotion to one’s rooting interest, albeit a fairly spongy measure. According to The Collegiate Licensing Company ( http://www.clc.com/clcweb/publishing.nsf/Content/The+Collegiate+Licensing+Company+Names+Top+Selling+Universities+and+Manufacturers) the Texas Longhorns lead the nation’s colleges/universities in merchandise sales. Not coincidentally nearly every school with reliably spectacular attendance support for football and/or basketball is in the top 25 in the nation in merchandising revenue. Michigan, Florida, Oklahoma, Penn St., Florida St., LSU, Kentucky, Nebraska, Kansas, and Duke are all amongst the best selling merchandise and top draws at the gate for their respective sports teams. Professional sports leagues, particularly the big four of North America, generate $3 billion a year in merchandise sales. Of the top ten selling team merchandise in the U.S., seven are from the NFL, including Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and Dallas. But the highest selling merchandise internationally (http://www.forbes.com/2007/09/26/sports-brands-teams-biz-sports_cz_mo_0927sportsbrands.html) is generated by Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, New York Yankees, Arsenal, A.C. Milan, Dallas Cowboys, Barcelona, Boston Red Sox, and Washington Redskins. A stunning number was Yankees gear generates a full third of all the merchandise revenue of MLB. While merchandising is generally accounted for in a team’s revenue stream, analyzing such can be helpful in separating closely bunched team fan bases.
Unfortunately, as the top fans in this study are so closely bunched, we must draw inspiration from other, less precise evaluative techniques. Let’s quickly revisit attendance numbers. When looking at these figures one must factor in the locale from which the team draws its patrons. In short, selling out a facility every year since 1974 for a Giants team located in the largest metropolitan area in the U.S and forth largest in the world, is inherently less difficult than Green Bay selling out every game at Lambeau Field for 48 years in the smallest market in North American sports. When you look at the surrounding market and yearly attendance what teams like the Nebraska Huskers, Denver Broncos, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, and a handful of college teams have been able to do in terms of attendance is really quite remarkable.
But let’s dig a little deeper and look at some anecdotal but verifiable information. LSU plays its home games in Tiger Stadium, a 92,400 seat facility. Legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant said of Tiger Stadium, “Baton Rouge happens to be the worst place in the world for a visiting team. It's like being inside a drum.” After a game winning touchdown against Auburn in 1988 the ensuing crowd reaction at Tiger Stadium actually measured as a mild earthquake on the campus seismographs. Nebraska has sold out every game at Memorial Stadium for 46 years. For nearly half a century there has been virtually no empty seats at Huskers’ home games. It’s not unusual for Duke Blue Devils fans to camp out for weeks in front of Cameron Indoor Arena in order to get tickets to their beloved basketball games. Denver Broncos at Invesco Field in 2001 set a Guinness world record for the loudest crowd noise as 76,000 screamed to the tune of 128.7 decibels. Kansas City Chiefs fans at Arrowhead Stadium produced the loudest recorded crowd noise during game time in NFL history 116 decibels and have sold out every game since 1991.
When you look at the numbers as a whole it’s hard to differentiate between the top fan bases. Compelling arguments could be made for at least ten different teams having the best or most loyal followings in sports. But for the sake of argument, here’s the Top Ten…
- Nebraska-all you have to know about Husker football fans is that Memorial has been at or above 100% capacity every home game for 46 years…I repeat, 46 years. Memorial Stadium on Husker Saturdays is the third largest population center in the state, and has been for almost 50 years.
- LSU-what puts LSU football lunatics at #2 is their maniacal devotion and the fact they scared Bear Bryant and set off a freakin seismograph.
- Green Bay Packers-it’s just stunning that the smallest market in North American sport has put Lambeau at max capacity every game since the 1950’s.
- Washington Redskins-one of the three most valuable sports franchises in the world is the proud owner of the longest streak of consecutive sellouts in NFL history.
- Manchester United-they fill up Old Trafford like clockwork, they beat every sports team on earth in merchandise sales, and is the second most valuable sports franchise in the world.
- New York Yankees-a marketing juggernaut that crushes all other baseball franchises in merchandising, team value, and attendance.
- Duke Blue Devils-no team garners as frenzied collection of fans…why else would a school with an enrollment of 6,200 undergrads rank in the top twenty in merchandising.
- Michigan Wolverines-I’ll reiterate a fact...the Wolverines haven’t played a home game in front of less than 100,000 fans since the 70’s, add to that they’re one of the ten most valuable teams in college sports.
- Florida Gators-they fill up The Swamp to 102% capacity and is a revenue generating machine.
- Denver Broncos-second to only the Redskins in consecutive sellouts, the Broncos are the sixth most valuable franchises in the NFL, all from a team in only the 17 th largest media market in the U.S.