The NFL has pretty consistently been rated as the most popular sport over the last two decades, with close to 50% of all adults (high: 55% in 1998, low: 46% in 1993) rating themselves as following professional football, according to Harris Poll data going back to 1992. What hasn’t been consistent, though, is how individual teams have ranked in terms of popularity over that span. I estimate that almost half the people who identify themselves as a follower of professional football either switch loyalties, or become a fan of a team after they become good.
If team fanbases were largely loyal and established fans from the geographic area, then we would see generally consistent polling data, with variations only due to polling sample size error (+/- 3% for the NFL team popularity polls). That’s not what we see, though.
I went back through the Harris Poll reports, which began in 1992. (1994, 2000, and 2001 are missing entirely). I made a request of Harris for more specific data, but never heard back, so I made due with what was available. Prior to 1998, the Harris Poll report showed specific percentages by team. From 1999-2002, they still showed specific percentages, but the question asked respondents to identify their two favorite NFL teams, so that the numbers increased across the board. From 2003 onward, the reports only provided the ordinal rankings of teams, so that I can tell you where each franchise ranked relative to the others, but could not see the specific data on the percentage for each team.
To try to estimate some numbers for those years when either I had specific numbers but the question asked for two teams, or when I only had rankings, I compared the average percentage for each spot in the rankings, then assumed a similar distribution breakdown in the years when I didn’t have specific numbers.
If we look at the lowest rating each franchise had during that span, we would see that every franchise but Dallas has been at 3% or lower in at least one season over the last 19 years; 19 of them have been below 1% at least once. If we add all those minimums up, we get only 32.1% of fans. Of course, we have sampling error with any one particular year, so that is an extreme example.
So I looked at the 25th percentile season of popularity for each franchise, figuring one or two low years could be sampling error, but if we consistently see a team at 1% for a five year stretch, that’s probably a good indication of the true value. By looking at something like the 25th percentile, I’m trying to discount those seasons when the team may become more popular due to on-field success. When I look at the 25th percentile in popularity rank for each franchise, the total percentages for all 32 teams add up to about 55% of the fans. That’s why I say the number could be almost half of all self-identified fans of football being “fair weather” fans.
Does that sound high? well, I will give you some examples:
- The Super Bowl winners received about a 4% bump in being identified as a fan’s favorite team, on average, and slightly higher if we discount the repeat champs (who already received their bump and then held steady with another title). We are not as big on the losers though, as the Super Bowl runner-up saw about a 1% increase in popularity the year after;
- Dallas has the highest numbers most years, but those numbers have fluctuated from over 20% of all fans in the Super Bowl years to below 10% in the Quincy Carter/Chad Hutchinson years;
- Green Bay is one of the most popular teams, right? Well, they have also been one of the winningest teams consistently over the last 19 years (2 losing seasons in that span). From 1992-1996, they consistently polled as the favorite team for only 2-3% of fans. So that’s right, in their one Super Bowl year prior to this one, they were not really popular until after they won it. The next year, they shot up to 13% and stayed near 10% or above for a while. Then, when they actually had a losing season in 2005, the numbers were cut in half. They just rebounded last year and will likely shoot up again;
- Pittsburgh is another popular team. Well, from 1992-1994, in what would not be a down period for most franchises but was pretty ordinary by Steeler standards, they were the favorite team for about 3% of fans. Those numbers doubled through the Super Bowl appearance and the playoffs of the late 90’s, but declined again to around 3% during the Kordell Stewart/Tommy Maddox experience. Since Roethlisberger became QB, the popularity numbers doubled following the 15-1 season, and doubled again following the Super Bowl win the next year. Pittsburgh has been the favorite team of about 9% of respondents since 2005, and about 4% before 2005. Over half of those identifying themselves as Pittsburgh fans probably didn’t feel the anguish of Neil O’Donnell to Larry Brown.
- New England was never above 3% before the Belichick era. They were still below 3% in September 2003, after winning a surprise Super Bowl but then missing the the playoffs the next year. The peak season was actually the poll in September 2008, following the 16-0 year, and not during the Super Bowl winning teams. That means, of course, that there were more self-identified Pats fans during the one season that Matt Cassel was quarterback than any with Tom Brady starting;
- The Saints saw three times as many people claim them as the favorite team, compared to any other time over the last 19 years;
- Then there’s Indianapolis. Somewhere around 8% of respondents since 2006 identify the Colts as their favorite team, whereas that number was less than 2% before 2006, and less than 1% before Peyton Manning became a Colt.
Not all teams fluctuate as much. My team, Kansas City, has pretty much been consistent over this entire time, with one of the lowest standard deviations in year to year polling. Then again, they haven’t exactly been a very accomplished group that has made any runs that would garner temporary support. Others have seen slow declines in popularity after really extended periods of losing, whether it be the 49ers going from being among the most popular a decade ago, to still among the top 12 but not as high, or Detroit and Buffalo after really rough stretches.
I guess it’s not controversial to say that we love winners. I was kind of shocked to see how ephemeral as it was, and that the numbers fluctuated so greatly. Some fans who adopt a team when they are good go on to stick with that team later on. We see that with Dallas, who was consistently good throughout the late 1960’s and 1970’s and built up a following as “America’s team”, one which has largely remained as the largest fan base even though it has fluctuated greatly depending on success. We may see the same with Packers or Steelers today. Certainly not every new fan changes loyalties after they attach to a team, even if they were initially drawn by the bright lights of championships.
Still, the polling data from the last nineteen years show that true, consistent team loyalty is not nearly as large as I would have thought. Those numbers would honestly concern me if I were the NFL and trying to assess the long term impact of a work stoppage. The hard core loyal fans probably aren’t going away, even if they grouse and complain. Those that switch loyalties and root for the best teams may also be the kind that will more likely switch to another sport in the future if it becomes cool to do so.
[photo via Getty]