SEC Football Fan Frenzy

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.

Screen Shot 2018-12-17 at 11.35.00 AM

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.

Fan Photograph:Screen-Shot-2018-12-17-at-11.13.12-AM.png


Criticism:Screen Shot 2018-12-17 at 11.18.34 AM


Support:Screen Shot 2018-12-17 at 11.08.24 AM

News Source:Screen Shot 2018-12-17 at 11.06.46 AM

Player/Official Account:Screen Shot 2018-12-17 at 11.10.42 AM


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.

Screen Shot 2018-12-17 at 11.26.40 AM

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.


                                 Tennessee                                                                Auburn

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.”

Screen Shot 2018-12-17 at 11.21.32 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-12-17 at 11.30.59 AM



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.

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Twitter Fingers: The Landscape of NFL Team Twitter Accounts

Featured image courtesy of AdWeek

Ten years ago, NFL teams had few means to reach out and directly interact with fans around the world. The vast majority of what people learned about their favorite team would come from secondary sources such as online blogs, television shows, or talk radio. The only direct access many fans had was through the team’s website, which often operated like an online team store with a roster and an occasional press release sprinkled in. Some fans stuck to online message boards, spreading speculative news through the grapevine while they waited for the next game and all of the new story lines that would come with it. Although it may not have seemed like it in the moment, the routine of gathering information was relatively simple.

And then social media came along.

Social media has changed the way the world connects, and arguably no other platform has influenced the sharing of information the way Twitter has over the last decade. More so than Instagram and Facebook, Twitter has become a source of breaking news and personal perspectives for its users, so much so that three years after its launch, in 2006, ABC News called Twitter the “news outlet for the 21st century”. Since 2010, Twitter has seen its active user population grow from roughly 30 million users per yearly quarter to over 326 million currently [LINK]. Even if you don’t have a Twitter account, odds are you’ve seen a tweet somewhere. Outlets from SportsCenter to CNN use tweets from athletes, politicians, and public figures in their broadcasts, elevating Twitter beyond just spreading the news, but being the news.

Soon enough, sports teams and athletes from all around the world began making accounts on Twitter. More so than ever before, people could control their own narrative and instantly provide content directly to their followers.

The NFL is a prime example of the use of Twitter in professional sports. Each franchise has an entire social media team in charge of running their various accounts. Even though there is only one game a week, these account teams are constantly creating and posting content for their Twitter feeds. Their job, in essence, is to promote the team and portray them in the most favorable light possible, hoping to generate buzz and excitement within the fan base. For example, the Seattle Seahawks have tweeted more than almost any other team in the NFL, and a portion of those tweets are direct and unprompted replies to supporters.

In theory, an active Twitter presence keeps supporters grounded and builds fan loyalty and knowledge about the team. The goal and hope is that this will lead to improved ticket sales, fan satisfaction, and win over new fans both locally and abroad. Take this exchange from the Dallas Cowboys twitter account, for example, where a fan simply retweeted the Cowboys’ tweet, won a prize, and responded with pure joy.

Teams clearly use twitter frequently as a powerful promotional tool, but what exactly are the tweeting habits of NFL teams? Do they tweet more during certain weeks or after certain results? How many followers does each team have? Do good teams tend to tweet more than bad teams? Using the statistical software R, Twitter’s API, and the rtweet package, I sought to answer these questions and more.

First, let’s establish a general picture of the NFL landscape. To do that, let’s simply look at the follower count of each franchise as of December 11, 2018, organized alphabetically by the teams’ Twitter handles in the graph and numerically in the table.

(Note: A “Twitter handle” is the username, or @, that they are uniquely identified by. For example, the Washington Redskin’s Twitter handle is @Redskins.)

Team Followers Bar GraphTwitter Followers


As seen above, the New England Patriots have by far the most twitter followers of any NFL team, coming in at more than 4.3 million. The Patriots are perennially one of the best teams in the league, having won five Super Bowls since 2001 and claiming their divisional title every year but two in the same time frame. Following the Patriots are the Dallas Cowboys, who are steeped in tradition and have become known as “America’s Team,” a moniker referencing their wide-ranging fan base and ravenous supporters.

Holding the crown for the least followers, however, are the Jacksonville Jaguars at less than 650,000, joined by the Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Los Angeles Rams, each reaching out to less than 800,000 followers whenever they tweet. There are many factors that could contribute to these teams having smaller followings. Chief among these reasons could be that the Jaguars, Titans, and Buccaneers all hail from smaller markets compared to the rest of the league, while the Los Angeles Rams are relatively new to LA, moving there for the beginning of the 2016 season.

Furthermore, over two-thirds of NFL teams have less than two million followers, with ten teams tallying less than a million. These numbers serve to emphasize the fandom that teams like the Patriots and Cowboys have, more than doubling the number of followers of most teams.

While number of followers is useful, how about the total tweet count of each team account? Maybe the teams that have more followers tend to tweet more, or maybe the reverse is true. Here is a graph and table of every team’s total tweets as of December 11th, 2018:

Number of Tweets by Team GraphTotal Tweets

One of the most striking aspects of this data is the apparent consistency across the board of NFL team Twitter accounts. Over two-thirds of teams are between 40,000 and 60,000 tweets, with the Bengals establishing the floor at 21,686 tweets. The closest team to the Bengals would be the Colts at 32,540. For reference, the Bengals joined Twitter in March of 2009, while the Saints, the most twitter-happy team in the league, joined one month later, in April. Over roughly nine years and 8 months, the Saints have tweeted 51,747 more times than the Bengals. This rounds out to the Saints sending, on average, about 14.5 more tweets a day than the Bengals, with no known continuity issues concerning the Bengals account.

Without performing any advanced statistical analysis, it appears that there isn’t a strong relationship between follower count and number of tweets. As stated previously, there could be countless factors that influence the number of tweets a specific team posts. For example, some accounts could go more dormant in the off-season than others, while other franchises might be facing a prolonged losing period. It is nearly impossible to account for every variable.

To account for some of these factors, I turned my attention toward the current 2018-2019 NFL season. The idea is that by singling out the current season, we can analyze each team’s behavior over time depending on factors such as whether they won, lost, had a bye week, or are in the hunt for the playoffs. Using the last 3200 tweets of each team, I have charted the amount each account sent out during a given week of the season, starting on Sunday, September 2nd, the last Sunday before the regular season began. Each team is compared in a slide with the rest of its division, and each division is placed in the slideshow corresponding to its conference.

(Note: When comparing teams from two separate divisions, pay attention to the scales of each graph, they are different. Also, if it shows there are zero tweets for a team’s first week, that is because the team has tweeted more than 3,200 times since the start of the season. Rtweet only allows up to 3200 tweets to be collected from a timeline at once.)


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By examining these graphs alongside team schedules and league standings, we can get a grasp of how team accounts react to how a team performs over time.

One of the easiest observations to glean from these graphs is the timing of a team’s bye week. Almost every NFL team sees a dramatic drop in the number of tweets posted during their week off, only to see the amount rise back up the next week. Otherwise, there does not seem to be a dominant trend across all divisions upon first glance. While some current division leaders like the Saints, Texans, Cowboys, and Bears have found themselves as leading tweeters among their peers, other exceptional teams such as the Chiefs, Rams, and Patriots have failed to deliver consistent weeks of high-volume tweeting despite their superior records. In the Patriots’ AFC East, for example, the 7-6 Miami Dolphins tweet much more than any other team despite having a relatively mediocre record the entire season. Thus, it becomes apparent that winning does not necessarily mean more tweeting, at least relative to the league as a whole.

These charts are perhaps most useful when focusing on one franchise at a time. Each team has their own media personnel after all, with their own habits, preferences, and ideas in regard to social media presence. How else could you explain the case of the Philadelphia Eagles, who, coming into the season as reigning Super Bowl Champions, have remained relatively constant in their week-by-week tweet counts despite a relatively forgettable 6-7 record? Then there’s the case of the Carolina Panthers, who, after beginning the season at 6-2 and were poised to make the playoffs, have face-planted with five straight losses. As one would expect, after several high-volume weeks to begin the season their rate dropped considerably.

So, is there a definitive trend that spans all NFL teams? From this analysis, the only trend that appears to be universal is that teams tweet far less during their bye week. Otherwise, each team acts relatively independent of each other. One team may tweet less following a loss while another may actually tweet more. There are simply too many questions and too many factors to consider to accurately predict how a team’s Twitter account will behave. Playoff position, Pro Bowl voting, wins, losses, past season success, and other variables all go into what is tweeted and how often a team takes to social media.

Regardless, the data covered in this article is important for many reasons. Social media is one of the most powerful tools a team has to interact with and energize a fan base. Promotions, replies, and player involvement all connect fans to a team in a way that no beat reporter, journalist, or national outlet can. A team cannot necessarily control the number of tallies in the win column, but they can help control the narrative surrounding their franchise through Twitter and other outlets. An excellent social media presence can invigorate and maintain supporters even in the darkest of times. Therefore, social media patterns are one of the first things a team should look to when experiencing issues with their fan base.

The relationship between the NFL and Twitter is so intricate that it is impossible to do more than scratch the surface. Individual players interact with peers, fans, and other teams through the platform, and countless casual observers have become rabid fans through their exposure to NFL Twitter feeds. Some careers have been ruined, while others have been reimagined through the power of Twitter. So, while the notion of how many followers a team has or how often they tweet may at first seem trivial, the story everyone is talking about often begins and ends with the people forming the narrative behind the account.

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The Businessman Who Saved College Sports

“It is no longer a question of who can make the Top Ten, but whether there will be 10 left.”

–Steve Horn, former President of Long Beach State on the state of college football in the early 1970’s

A world where college football as we know it faces imminent death—almost unimaginable in today’s era of football frenzy. The massive TV deals, sold out games, and university logos on everything from bumper stickers to lampshades point to the power and wealth of the multi-billion-dollar college football of today. But it hasn’t always been this way.

In the 1960’s and early 70’s, the future of college football—and college athletics in general—was in question. Athletic departments bled money in the face of low revenues and quarter full stadiums, and the athletics directors of the time were doing nothing to save their beloved programs. That is, until Don Canham took over the athletic director’s office at the University of Michigan in 1968. An entrepreneur first and a sportsman second, Canham bucked long-held administrative standards, running Michigan athletics as a business, and in the process building a revenue model that would save Division I college athletics nationwide.

I. The College Football Landscape of the 1960’s and 70’s


Think of a simple business. Owners input money, time, and energy and in return receive revenues, and hopefully a bit of profit. Athletic departments operate in the same fashion; athletic directors spend on facilities, coaches, and equipment, and make money to return to the program.


In the 1960’s and early 70’s, there was an issue with the revenue side of this equation—it was minuscule compared to the expenses that programs were incurring to run their programs. Collegiate athletics was simply not making enough money to sustain itself. This revenue-side issue stemmed from an inefficient revenue model in athletic departments and the increased popularity of professional sports.

The 2014 Vizio BCS Title Game broadcast featured over an hour of advertising when including stadium ads, sponsored graphics, and television commercials—more advertising time then game time. All this advertising nets millions of dollars to networks, who are paying huge sums for the broadcasting rights (ESPN signed a 12-year deal worth $5.6 billion for rights to the college football playoff through 2025).

This high-revenue scenario of today is in stark contrast to the college athletics model of the mid 20th century; advertising was nearly taboo, and people frowned upon corporate presence in the college game. Additionally, for programs to advertise themselves to sell event tickets was condemnable, and thus, programs refrained nearly entirely from marketing themselves. It was an odd and inefficient model for an industry that relied almost entirely on ticket sales, as merchandising and branding had yet to be explored. There was no logo licensing, no jersey sales, no team shop. It was even seen as improper to charge for stadium parking; nearly 100% of college athletics revenues came from ticket sales.


With a model that was so intensely reliant on getting fans in seats, college sports revenues took a beating in the 1960’s when professional sports were growing rapidly. College sports waned in popularity and attendance as both the NFL and the NBA were setting revenue and attendance records. Annual professional football attendance nearly tripled from 4.2 million to 11.6 million from 1960 to 1969, and over 60 million viewers tuned in to watch the New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. Similarly, the NBA doubled in membership between 1966 and 1974, growing from nine to eighteen teams. “We’ve lost a whole generation of fans to the pros. The schools just sat back and watched the pros take them. It was not dignified for us to take advertising space,” explains Don Canham. As sports fans’ attention shifted away from collegiate athletics, the lopsided revenue models were taking a toll, and it was unclear if college athletics would be able to survive the national economic downturns of the mid 70’s.


Super Bowl III (1969)


II. Canham’s Background in Entrepreneurship and Athletics


Don Canham, now a name that is revered in Michigan athletics history, had a background in both business and sports, and his entrepreneurial spirit drove his path to the Michigan AD’s office. With a grandfather in business and a father who worked at a magazine, Don Canham had been exposed to commerce and marketeering from a young age. When he started at the University of Michigan in 1937, he split his time between track & field practice and selling pairs of sweat socks at fraternities (he bought them for 8 cents a pair and flipped them at 5 pairs for a dollar). He was an excellent athlete as well, winning both Big Ten and NCAA titles in the high jump, and setting the groundwork for his later stint as head coach of Michigan’s track and field team.

After graduating from Michigan in 1941, Canham joined the Air Force, and once discharged he worked with a friend to develop a stamp to be used by football coaches. The stamp marked X’s and O’s, which made drawing up plays simpler and easier for football coaches. The stamp saw mild success, and is another example of Canham’s early entrepreneurial endeavors. In 1946, Canham rejoined Michigan Track & Field, and was promoted to head coach after just two years. He was very well regarded as a coach, leading Michigan to 12 Big Ten Championships during his 19-year career, and was eventually inducted into the US Track and Field Hall of Fame. In 1965, Canham directed the first NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships in Detroit, and put his business intelligence on display by turning a revenue of over $80,000, returning profits to all of the participating schools.

While he was on staff with the track & field team, Canham founded Don Canham Enterprises, an athletic equipment and instructional video distributor whose main customers were high school physical education departments. The company grew into a multimillion dollar business, and is still operating in Ann Arbor today under the name School Tech. Canham Enterprises was the culmination of many attempted (and often successful) business ventures, and set the stage for Canham’s illustrious 20-year career as the athletic director at the University of Michigan.


III. Canham Rejects Tradition as Michigan’s Athletic Director


When Canham was offered an interview for the AD position at Michigan in 1968, he rejected the interview, claiming he had no desire to be an athletic director. After all, he was a businessman first and a sportsman second. In fact, he was planning on quitting coaching to run Canham Enterprises full time. “Some of the other coaches…came to me and said, ‘Look, take the interview and if they give you the job, just do it for five years.’ So I said ‘OK,’” recalls Canham. This business-first mindset defined Canham’s time as athletic director, and led him to revolutionize college athletics operations.

The first problem Canham addressed head on as AD was that of attendance, an ever-present issue in the college football landscape at the time. Michigan boasts the largest stadium in the nation, the Big House, which held upwards of 101,000 fans during Canham’s reign. However, Michigan had been suffering from a severe attendance problem at the end of the Fritz Crisler (Canham’s predecessor) era. Home games were averaging a measly 67,000 attendees, and Michigan hadn’t sold out the Ohio State game in 14 years; some joked that you could fire a cannon in the Big House and not hit anyone. Canham recognized the disconnect between the soft marketing tactics of the time and the desperate need for more ticket sales, lamenting, “We were projecting a deficit for the first time [in 1968], and there were forty thousand empty seats in the stadium.”



Canham rebuffed the advertising standards of the time, and started a blitzkrieg marketing campaign aiming to fill the Big House once again. He developed a colorful, eight-page brochure selling football season tickets and sent it to over 1.2 million homes—no longer simply sending literature to alumni, but sending it to anyone who would listen (even across the Ohio border!). “We were supposed to get by just by mailing out the same drab brochures to the same alumni year after year,” complained Canham about the old standard, “It wasn’t dignified to advertise.” The brochures were so loud and aggressive that they were compared to “Florida land-development brochures” by a 1975 Sports Illustrated article. Michigan athletics also placed loud ads in newspapers and magazines, put up billboards, and Canham went so far as to fly a Michigan football advertisement from a plane over Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, drawing criticism from more ‘traditional’ football programs.

At the time, football attendance was driven by wins—if the team wasn’t winning, drawing a crowd became exponentially more difficult. Canham aimed to change this by transforming football Saturdays into an experience that surpassed simply watching college men compete on the gridiron. “We changed what a football game meant to people. We made it a spectacle, a carnival, a ball. Now they come at seven in the morning, go to the game, then go back to their tailgates. We realized early that you can’t always be No. 1, and can’t advertise that — so we made Saturday an event.” The advertising campaigns and the rebranding of football Saturdays worked—Michigan was averaging 90,000 fans by the early 70’s, and in 1975 Michigan hosted its last home football game with fewer than 100,000 in attendance at the Big House. Yes, you read that correctly—Michigan football has not had a crowd under six digits since October 25, 1975, a feat largely attributable to Mr. Don Canham.

The revenue implications of these figures are obviously huge, and part of what set Michigan’s athletic program apart; they were able to pay for sports that ran a deficit with impressive football revenues, and still return a profit on top. Canham developed additional sources of revenue too—he once earned $250,000 for Michigan athletics by hosting a professional football game at the Big House, upsetting NFL officials enough for them to change the rules about third party promoters making large sums from professional football games. More importantly, Canham drove a huge increase in annual alumni donations by starting alumni support groups such as the Victors Club and the Maize and Blue Club. When he took over, Michigan athletics was seeing about $46,000 every year from alumni donors. By 1975, alumni were donating $300,000 annually, and today the athletics department is expecting $7.35 million in donations this year alone.

Aside from securing donations and filling the Big House, Canham had another significant impact on Michigan athletics—the introduction of merchandising. College branding at the time did not have the national (and international) presence of today, as schools simply weren’t producing products with the school logo. Canham stepped in and capitalized on the demand for sports merchandise, citing the Detroit Lions’ brand presence as his inspiration. Using mail orders attached to his season ticket brochures, Canham sold everything from ashtrays featuring the ‘block M’ to lamps shaped like Michigan’s iconic winged helmet. This initiative helped achieve Canham’s goal of billing football Saturdays as an experience, and before long Ann Arbor was flooded with fans wearing the ‘block M’ every Saturday. In essence, Michigan had tapped into an unexplored revenue stream, which was reflected in the athletic department’s bottom line. “We found out we had a business going,” mused Canham about Michigan’s move into the merchandise space, “There were almost no collegiate novelty items available at that time, and we felt we could market the Michigan brand well enough to provide another revenue stream for the department.”



IV. Canham’s Legacy


When Don Canham retired from his post at Michigan in 1988, the athletic department’s budget had grown to $XXXX from $XXXX when he started in 1968. He had revolutionized marketing, merchandising, and athletic administration at Michigan forever, and in the process, he built a sustainable model for collegiate athletics. After his career, Canham was sought after as a consultant for other programs where he helped implement some of his methods that made Michigan athletics so profitable. Canham met with over 40 other schools during and after his career, and the impact he made at across the national landscape is still felt today. When Canham took over at Michigan, even the largest athletic departments were running deficits; today, 169 out of the 230 programs in the 27 biggest conferences were profitable or breaking even in the 2016-17 athletic seasons. Clearly, Canham’s model brought college athletics out of trouble and is much of the reason Americans still enjoy college football every Saturday in the Fall.

Canham’s strategies can be seen in plain sight in college today, as athletic branding is often the face of large universities, and merchandise and licensing revenues continue to grow nationwide. It is hard to walk down the street in any American city without seeing a college logo brandished on someone’s chest or stuck to their back windshield. Advertising and TV deals were also a direct influence of Canham, who served on the NCAA Television Committee to hack out the first major TV deals for college football later in his career. Today, TV revenues are the bloodline of college sports—the NCAA basketball tournament costs CBS more than a billion dollars to televise, and the three-game college football playoff costs ESPN almost half a million dollars annually. The size of the college sports industry is no accident—it is a direct result of the work Canham did at Michigan and other programs.

Transforming college sports into a business has brought about its fair share of controversy as well. Arguments rage over the role the student athletes play in generating huge revenues in the more popular sports, namely basketball and football, as the players are not compensated at all. This has driven players, coaches, and programs to take backdoor cheating methods to funnel a piece of the pie to student athletes and incentivize recruits, and presents a large morality issue in college sports.

Another issue with the evolution of the college sports business is the top-heavy revenue distribution. While most athletic departments in ‘Power 5’ conferences are self-sustaining, less prestigious schools and lower division programs suffer from lower revenues that cannot cover the high costs of many varsity sports. Canham’s solutions work great at storied programs like Michigan and other large prestigious schools, but they do not translate well to small-market, low-revenue schools that have less demand for athletic tickets and apparel.


Don Canham undeniably changed the course of college athletics forever with his innovative business tactics that often strongly contradicted the norms of the time. Canham noticed that college athletics were on the ropes, and rather sit idly by as most programs did, he started guerrilla marketing and merchandising projects that served as a shining example of how athletic departments could build a sustainable revenue model. It is no longer a question of whether there will be ten teams left–Don Canham solved that one himself.

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