From the roar of the Crimson Tide to Vanderbilt’s sparse stadium… how can the fan experience change so greatly within the same conference? Is there a leading factor that contributes to these differences? In order to answer these questions, I turned to a platform that holds invaluable feedback and statistics on SEC fans…Twitter.
Twitter has become a place where raging fans can broadcast their opinion to an audience that may or may not be listening. There’s no barrier to creating an account and very few opinions that can go unsaid. When a quarterback fumbles the third down play, where can raging fans go to unleash their criticism? Twitter. Where can a lifelong fan go to express their support? Twitter. Through the highs and lows of SEC Football, Twitter is there to document those feelings. For that reason, this is the platform that I chose to analyze and compare how the fan experience changes among 10 SEC schools.
14 teams make up the SEC. I decided to focus on 10 of those, removing the four schools with the lowest enrollment size. The figure below shows the enrollment size of the remaining 10.
I studied 50 of the most recent tweets mentioning the team’s name. For example, for the Tennessee Volunteers, I used the keywords “Tennessee Football” as my search query. For certain teams, these keywords brought up tweets that were not relevant to my analysis. I excluded those tweets that did not pertain to the team. For example, during the Tennessee Football search, I surpassed anything to do with the NFL Tennessee Titans.
I wanted to analyze tweets from the middle of the week and not on a game day. I chose Wednesday, November 28th because I did not want the feed to be full of statistics around one single game. Then, I organized the 50 most recent tweets into the following categories: fan photograph, criticism, support, news source and player/official accounts. An example tweet of each category is below.
After categorizing the tweets, I compared my findings to a study by Michael Lewis on college football fan base strength. In his study, he viewed college teams as a brand and ranked their strength in the college football market. His first metric was based off of revenue premium. He controlled for quality differences like team performance, alumni size and stadium capacity and argued that this metric showed the intensity of the fandom. Second, was the team’s return on investment. The stronger the team’s brand, the more benefits they would yield in the market, like recruits. The ROI measures the notion of brand efficiency. The last metric was football revenues or market share for each school. Lewis argued that this metric told us the most about the scale of each team. Lewis’ results of the 10 best football program brands is shown below.
I wanted to see if the tweets of the 10 SEC schools I analyzed followed the pattern and rankings of Lewis’ brand strength findings. Would Tennessee, #2 on Lewis’ list show the most support on Twitter? To analyze the correlation between my findings and Lewis’, I will break it down into categories. For the purpose of my survey, an unsatisfactory team will be those with a worse record than the prior year or one with a losing record. A satisfactory team will be one that has improved or one with a winning record. The categories are 1) Unsatisfactory teams with a top 10 college brand ranking 2) Satisfactory teams with a top 10 brand ranking 3) Satisfactory teams with a sub-10 brand ranking and 4) Largest program.
1) Unsatisfactory Teams with a Strong Brand
Lewis ranked Tennessee 2nd and Auburn 9th on the best collegiate football brands list. Despite being in the top 10 for this metric, Tennessee’s record is 5-7 and Auburn’s 7-5. The tweets about these teams made it clear that these were some of the most passionate fans in the league. In this case, passion did not always correlate to support. The criticism category exploded for both programs.
At first, it may seem contradictory that the best brands in college football got the most critique from fans. However, when a team’s brand is producing so much money and the team is still underperforming, of course these fans will be the most vocal. They support their team better than most other programs, so they become the most disappointed after a long season.
2) Satisfactory Teams with a Strong Brand
Now, let’s discuss the teams that were in the top 10 brands and also had a successful record. LSU (9-3), Georgia (11-2), and Florida (9-3) were among this group. Unsurprisingly, this group saw the most support and news coverage. All three schools ranked in the top 10 for revenue premium, ROI and market share. When they produce the results that the fans want, or at least have a decent record, the fans are there on Twitter showing their support. With each win, fans and news stations were there to tweet about it and spread the message.
3) Satisfactory Team with a Sub-10 brand
There’s one team that often stands out from the crowd; Alabama. In my findings, this trend was no different. Despite Alabama having a 13-0 record, they fell short of making Lewis’ best college football brands. Alabama’s tweets were particularly interesting. Of course, support was still relatively high. These fans are known to be vocal. However, the criticism category held different context. None of the critiques were about the actual performance of Alabama. They were more about the conference in general and how the system is flawed. For example, the tweet below with the hashtag “#CFBisrigged.”
This differed greatly from Tennessee and Auburn whose main critiques came from fans who were not pleased with their performance. For Alabama’s team, there was much more content on the specific players and coaches, almost like they were celebrities. This makes sense when the team is the nation’s best program in arguably the sport’s most competitive era.
4) Largest Program
And finally, Texas A&M. The team that has nearly 18,000 more students than the 2nd largest SEC team, Florida. I wanted to find out if pure size of enrollment and alumni affect the fans Twitter spread? The categories for this team were much more even. Perhaps this is because the team is doing about as good as they have for the past few years. Nothing too much worse or better. There was a pretty even split between support and criticism. One trend I did notice was the difference in the accounts tweeting about Texas A&M. A majority of the tweets came from students and alumni themselves. At most of the other schools I saw a lot tweets from news sources and outside fans. Perhaps because Texas A&M has so many students, they have a larger presence on the platform.
It’s important to identify the variables that were not accounted for in this study. Perhaps the reason the Tennessee Volunteers have such a strong brand is because they are the only major program in the state whereas Alabama has another major team, Auburn, less than 3 hours away. Or the history of a team and if this season is a disappointment. If a team has notoriously been successful and then has an underperforming season, their fans may be more vocal with their critiques on Twitter.
The biggest shock of Lewis’ study was perhaps the fact that the Alabama Crimson Tide did not make the top 10 college football brands list. In Lewis’ attempt to explain the omission of Alabama on this list, he poses the GREAT question of, “what would happen if Tennessee had a run like Alabama’s? Would the Volunteer fan base be as intense as the Crimson Tide?”
It is hard to answer or even muse questions like this. Mostly because the day that Tennessee has a program and record like Alabama is unforeseen. But, my results combined with Lewis’ analysis show that if Tennessee ever did have a run like Alabama, the magnitude of college football fandom would change forever.