Baseball's best fans: Emory expert ranks which teams are winners and losers with fans

Emory Report | March 27, 2019

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As Major League Baseball marks Opening Day, "Fanalytics" guru Mike Lewis delves into data to determine which teams have the most loyal, passionate fans.

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Who has the best fans in Major League Baseball? Thursday is Opening Day for the 2019 season, and as players hit the fields, Emory marketing professor Mike Lewis ranks all 30 teams based on the fans in the stands.

But first, what defines a fan? Or in marketing terms, what are the best brands in baseball?

Here’s Lewis, a professor in Emory’s Goizueta Business School, explaining his methodology and then ranking the teams, excerpted from his Sports Analytics Research blog.

For more details, check out his full Major League Baseball Fandom Report 2019, which also explores the impact of baseball’s aging fan base, what happens when teams “tank,” collective bargaining and more.

Measuring the “best” fans 

What makes for a great fan or brand? Fans who show up even when the team is losing? Fans who are willing to pay the most? Fans who are willing to follow a team on the road or social media?

Even after we agree on the question(s), answering it is also a challenge. How do we adjust for the fact that one team might have gone on a miraculous run that filled the stadium? Or perhaps another team suffered a slew of injuries? How do we compare fan behavior in a market like New York with fans in a place like Milwaukee? What if a team just opened a new stadium? Did the fans stream in to see the building or to see the team?

For the past few years, I have been studying fandom across professional and college sports. My approach to evaluating fan bases is to use data to develop statistical models of fan interest (more details here). The key is that these models are used to determine which cities’ fans are more willing to spend or follow their teams after controlling for factors like market size and short-term variations in performance. 

The “Overall” rankings are based on three sub-rankings: fan equity, social equity and road equity.

  • Fan equity is a revenue premium-based metric that compares the team’s box office results with league standards. In other words, fan equity assesses how much fans are willing to “attend and spend” relative to fans across the league. The KEY idea is that we measure this while controlling for team success and market characteristics like incomes and populations. Fan equity is a great metric for assessing the CURRENT level of passion or engagement in a local fan base.
  • Social equity is focused on the team’s social media followings (Facebook and Twitter). Again, the rankings are based on how a team’s social media results compare across the league after controlling for team success. The social equity metric provides insight into the team’s POTENTIAL fan passion.
  • Road equity is based on a statistical model that looks at how teams draw incremental fans when on the road. The KEY idea is that draw outside of the home market reveals something about a club’s national appeal. Road equity provides a metric of passion beyond the local market. This passion can be positive (love the Cubs) or negative (hate the Yankees). 

In the quest to find an overall winner, I use a weighted average of the three metrics (more weight on the fan equity metric).  This may not be the right weighting but it’s usually a good idea to emphasize how customers actually spend.

The winners: Teams with the best fans

Overall, the group of clubs that comprise the Top 6 contains little in the way of surprises:

1. Red Sox
2. Yankees
3. Giants
4. Dodgers
5. Cubs
6. Cardinals 

The Red Sox are perennially strong and finished first last year. They also won the World Series. Boston is probably the best sports town in America.

In general, the clubs at the top of the list share these same traits. They are all able to motivate fans to attend and spend as they all possess great attendance numbers and relatively high prices. More to the point, these teams are even able to draw well and command price premiums when they are not winning. Historically, the Cubs are the best example of this. 

The list of winners probably raises an issue of “large” market bias. However, keep in mind that the methodology is designed to control for home market effects. The method is explicitly designed to control for differences in market demographics (and team performance).

While the “winners” tend to come from the bigger and more lucrative markets, other major market teams do not fare particularly well (White Sox, A’s). There is also a more subtle point. The large market teams likely have the best fan bases because they often have significant histories of success and are often featured in the media. 

The topic of how these brands are built over time is another one of my favorite things to talk about. I think it’s mostly two (highly correlated) things: championships and stars. Building brand equity is a fascinating sports topic and I think it’s a difficult one for teams (in small markets) to manage. Will the current popular strategy of cycles of tanking and competing yield enough winning and “temporary” star to build brands?

The bottom of the list 

The bottom of the list features the Marlins, White Sox, Indians, Athletics and Rays. It is interesting that the bottom also includes teams from major markets such as the Bay Area, Chicago and Miami.

The markets with two teams seem to yield dramatically different results within each market. I think this reveals something fundamental about fandom. Fan bases are communities and many fans want to be a part of the most popular group. It is a simple theory but the end result is that the second team in a market will struggle to compete. Many fans are drawn to the bigger and more dominant community – Yankees, Cubs, Giants or Dodgers rather than the Mets, White Sox, A’s or Angels. 

The case of the Marlins reveals another common problem for franchises. The Marlins’ finish is a reflection of how the team struggles on multiple dimensions. Attendance is often in the bottom five of the league despite being located in a major metro area. Pricing is also below average for MLB.

Why do the Marlins struggle? Lots of reasons. Florida weather, a short history (fandom is often generational), a history of small payrolls and bad teams, and Miami being a transient city. 

The Indians are an interesting case as well. Cleveland is a passionate sports town. But when you look at the numbers, there is not a lot of support. An open question is how much of the problem is the Indians’ branding? The Indians have made moves to shift from the Native American imagery but have retained the team name. I suspect that half measures might be the worst approach. 

Teams on the move

In terms of year over year comparisons, there is a good amount of stability on the list. This is a good sign since sports brands should evolve slowly. Some notable movers on the list were the Blue Jays and Phillies moving up and the Diamondbacks and Indians dropping down.

The Blue Jays illustrate an important feature of the model. When I calculate the brand “premiums” I use the most recent three seasons. This is intended to provide stable but evolving measures of brand equity. In the case of the Blue Jays, the improvement in ranking was mostly driven by attendance growth in 2016 and 2017. In the case of the Phillies the improvement was about growing attendance coupled with relatively high prices. 

Wondering where your team ranks? View the complete list, with overall rankings and individual scores for fan equity, social equity and road equity.