Louisville Has The “Best” Fan Base In The Country: Says Who?

Posted by Chris Johnson on May 30th, 2013

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

College basketball fan bases are a personal and intensely provincial point of debate. Fans of teams around the country take their passionate school fandoms more seriously than they ever should, and when one university’s supporting group dare make a definitive statement elevating its own team-endorsing fervor over others, tension is inevitable. Shouting matches and recriminations are a natural evolution of the conflict. Fans care about their college basketball teams, but more than that they care about their college basketball teams more than you care about your college basketball teams. You can imagine how these kinds of debates play out amongst college hoops’ insanely obsessive followers, the Dukes and North Carolinas and Kansases of the world. The antagonistic bite on the court – that intangibly rousing feeling you get while watching Duke-UNC or Syracuse-Georgetown (ugh) or Kansas-Missouri (double ugh) – cuts just as deep as the fan base bitterness. Naturally, these arguments cross over into the unnavigable ether of comment sections and message boards and Reddit. The result is almost always a solution no one feels satisfied with. Nobody wins.

An impossibly blissful offseason somehow got better for Louisville wonks Wednesday, who can now, even if mostly unfoundedly, proclaim their fan base superiority (AP).

An impossibly blissful offseason somehow got better for Louisville wonks Wednesday, who can now, even if mostly unfoundedly, argue their fan base’s unmatched stature (AP).

A new analytical authority tried to bring order to the psychological fan base warfare by ranking college basketball’s fanbases on a system that is…..completely unpsychological. Indeed, Emory Sports Marketing Analytics came out with its list of “Best Fan Bases” Wednesday and (drum roll, please) the Louisville Cardinals claimed the top spot. The logical next question – in what solar system is Louisville the “best fan base” in the country, and Kentucky, you know, not? – will not make members of the #BBN particularly happy; it took little time for this specific bit of information, the disparity in the rankings, to ruffle the feathers of internet-dwelling Wildcats fans. UK came in at seventh, behind the likes of Arkansas and Texas.

The collective brow-furrowing, desk-pounding, speed-clicking acrimony you hear piping away in the backround is spot on. Since when does Texas – for whom college basketball ranks right up with, and probably falls short of, spring football on the university sports hierarchy – or Arkansas have a “better” fan base than Kentucky? Precisely because Emory’s scaling measurement made it so: its ordering of teams is based on a formula that combines expected winning rates with team revenues to form one unassailable ranking.

For our College Basketball Fan Equity analysis we use a “Revenue Premium” method.  The intuition of this approach is that fan base quality is reflected in a school’s men’s basketball revenue relative to the team’s performance. To accomplish our analysis, we use a statistical model that predicts team revenues as a function of the team’s performance, as measured by winning rates and post season success.  The key insight is that when a team achieves revenues that greatly exceed what would be expected based on team performance, it is an indication of significant brand equity. The analysis therefore avoids bandwagon effects and gets at the core loyal fan bases.

By the lights of this obscure financially-driven tool, Louisville’s number one ranking not only makes a gazillion times more sense than any other program’s seizure of the top spot ever would. It’s essentially a titularly sensationalized re-statement of this handy Wall Street Journal report, which lays out in mostly jargon-free terms why the Cardinals are the most valuable college basketball program in the country. Louisville is worth $291 million, according to WSJ, which puts them $32 million ahead of second-place Kansas. Thanks to a lavish stadium deal with Yum! brands, Louisville reaped an 84 percent increase in revenues (approximately 20 million) exclusively from its new college sports metroplex, the KFC Yum! Center. The Cardinals are guzzling from a firehose of stadium lease-enabled revenue, and if Rick Pitino’s team keeps winning – which kind of goes without saying; if Pitino’s desires to man U of L’s sidelines stay true over the next few years, so will Louisville’s annual winning potential – and fans keep showing up and buying tickets and paying exorbitant sums for parking and feasting on Colonel Sanders-packaged products, Louisville will finish near or at the top of any fan base ranking that even remotely takes into account financial net worth.

Just to make sure we’re absolutely clear, unanimously perplexed college hoops fans, hear me (and Emory Sports analytics’ controversial and infuriatingly crude) out: your fan base isn’t the seventh “best” in the country, or the fourth, or unranked, and Lousville’s isn’t the unquestioned No. 1 Emory’s system deigns it to be. The problem with making arguments like this, is that the sheer concept of evaluating fan base passion or loyalty is an intrinsically slippery operation to undergo in the first place. Seriously, where do you even begin to chip away at identifying the “best” fan base? Numerical representation? Most frenzily-charged student section? The concept is full of subjective leaps no mathematical-based formula can ever hope to pin down into a tidy formulaic ranking. Louisville has very good fans, a stadium that spews dollops of hoops-related revenue annually, and a funky formula to give ecstatic Cardinals fans – national championship, Russ Smith announces his unexpected return, a likely preseason top-three ranking – another thing to smile and slap backs and bro hug about. Delving deeper, looking for truly meaningful fan base evaluation, is sort of inane and foolish. Louisville fans, Kentucky fans, Texas and Arkansas and Duke and anybody else included in this altogether inconclusive rankings exercise – just let it go.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.

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