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Study: Northwestern has the worst fan base in the Big Ten

The one missing component to Northwestern’s incremental rise in the Big Ten under Pat Fitzgerald has been a corresponding bump in local fan support. Wildcats fans don’t pack Ryan Field; facts are facts. Opposing Big Ten fans, particularly those from Illinois, like to use this to diminish the progress NU has made as a football program, and Wednesday morning provided the latest example: CBS college football writer Tom Fornelli ridiculed Northwestern’s athletic department branding slogan “Chicago’s Big Ten team” on Illinois’ SB Nation blog Wednesday.

Derisive and narrowly constructed though it was – and you can find plenty of fault with Fornelli's riff, which paints a sad picture of NU fan support by laying out participation statistics in the recent BIG 10K race in Chicago – the rant couldn’t have been timed any better.

Hours later, Fornelli followed up by citing a study released Tuesday by Emory Sports Marketing Analytics ranking the Big Ten’s fan bases. The study compiled its rankings by Revenue Premium Brand equity, a methodology that “builds a statistical model that predicts team revenues as a function of metrics related to team performance such as winning percentage and bowl participation. We then compare actual revenues to what is predicted based purely on team performance (and other factors such as number of students, capacity, etc..) You can parse the nuts and bolts of “Revenue Premium Brand equity” here.

Before you clench your firsts and stomp your feet and send powerful raging sound waves through your computer screen – which is the typical reaction in any article that even tangentially hints at a fan base’s perceived waning interest – consider the authors Michael Lewis and Manish Tripathi’s explanation of why Northwestern was an “interesting case.”

“Northwestern is an interesting case.  A comparison with in-state “rival” Illinois (ranked 8th) is quite revealing.  In the period our study, Northwestern averaged 1-2 more wins per season than Illinois.  However, Illinois average 88% of capacity attendance, while Northwestern averaged 62%.  Illinois also produced 30% more football revenue than the Wildcats.”

There are a number of issues to address in any screed on Northwestern’s fan support: the sprawling alumni base; a comparatively miniature enrollment; a location in a city readily accessible to a raft of other Big Ten fan bases; an atypical school football culture as weighed against other Big Ten schools, where trips to home games are Saturday rites of passage. And that’s not everything – there are other issues that need to be addressed before analyzing the breadth of NU’s depressed fan support. A full analysis has the potential to branch off into 1,500-word territory pretty quickly, and yeah, we're not going there.

We can at least agree on this: Northwestern fan base may not be as passionate and as well-represented as other Big Ten schools, but flatly labeling it the worst based on some obscure Revenue-tinged metric falls well short of a clear-eyed explanation of Wildcats’ fan culture. Northwestern fans have taken shots across the bow from other fan bases many times before, but this one feels arbitrarily constructed. There are better ways, and better metrics with which fan bases can (and have been) ranked. Measuring fan support is just as much a qualitative endeavor as it is statistical: I mean, how do you quantify an Alabama fan poisoning rival Auburn’s sacred gameday talisman? Or an Ohio State fan using his favorite team’s hated adversary as nominal motivation to overcome brain cancer?

Or, for that matter, Northwestern fans bouncing up and down and waving their arms like awkward teens at a high school dance at the end of every third quarter?

None of these things can be measured with hard data. The university of Emory’s study is instructive in some ways, but let it not serve as the final word on relative fan support in college football. Understand the study for what it is: an cryptic analytical approach to ranking fan bases. Your opinion of Northwestern’s fan base relative to other Big Ten fan bases should not be changed in the least.