Is College Football More Popular than the NFL?
NFL vs. NCAAF: Economic Influence
It’s no secret that the NCAA selection committees leans towards programs with illustrious histories and powerful fanbases. Sometimes this is validated in top programs that have proven they’re worthy of the title. Other times, it can keep struggling big time programs in the top ranks at the expense of less influential programs with undefeated records. The argument that strength of schedule plays a big role in the decision process has validity, but it seems to be selectively applied based a team's economic influence.
With college football, these markets are the most stable in states and areas where NFL franchises wield little influence and vise versa. “But if the NFL and NCAAF air on different days, how would that affect viewership?” Well Mr. Football McFootball Face, contrary to what you might think, most people don’t spend their entire weekend watching football. Which is why there are NFL strongholds, college football strongholds, and battleground states, where viewership and influence fluctuate between NFL franchises and college football programs. Looking at the bigger picture, sure, there could be an equal number of college football and NFL fans out there, but the more an NFL franchise or college football program dominates in an area the more pervasive it becomes in the culture and social lives of the people who live there. This is economic influence and it's what the NCAA is trying to gain more of. Economic influence comes from viewership, ticket sales, merchandise sales and general fan engagement with a franchise or institution. The more people that watch a game in particular area, the more social engagement with the team goes on amongst the people of that area. Social engagement with the traditions of franchise/institution and news about the season contribute to rises in ticket sales and in turn merchandise sales. The more fans in a city or neighborhood wearing jerseys and socially engaging with related content on game day, the more viewers are drawn to the franchise/institution and the cycle repeats. Psychologically speaking, humans create a sense of belonging and will often conform to feel like a part of a community. The NFL and the NCAA earn the most revenue from places where buying fan merchandise and engaging with the local team is an easy way to fit in and get that sense of belonging.
How the AP Poll is Really Decided
Below are two maps from separate collections of data showing where the NFL and the NCAA wield the most commercial influence and where commercial domination is contested. The first map is from an ESPN fan survey taken in 2012, and the second is from an analysis conducted August 2017 by Ben Koos from the Comeback. In both cases, the NFL won but college football has clearly minimized the gap.
(above, courtesy of Ben Koo from The Comeback; below, courtesy of ESPN)
SEC Country and the rest of College Football Land
States where college football holds a football fan monopoly are shown in a deep red. These states have two defining qualities, the lack of a (satisfactory) NFL franchise and a deep-seated sense of nostalgia, sentimentality, and tradition associated with their college football teams. The deep-seated influence college football teams have in these areas is compounded by the fact that many alumni of these institutions remain in-state and raise the next generation of college football fans with a sense of sentimentality associated with their team. If you’re from one of these states, you probably already know the faux pas of planning your wedding or any big family event on a Saturday in the Fall. It is completely socially acceptable however to have Nick Saban riding an elephant hoisting the Coaches Trophy as your wedding cake that your bride will fill with Auburn colors as prank I assume is a part of some SEC marital ritual.
Why is Alabama Always Number 1?
While the college football programs in these states don’t need to compete with an NFL franchise, they almost always have intense, long-standing rivalries with neighboring college football programs that can get at times get unnecessarily heated. These rivalries appeal heavily to the football fans’ competitive nature and further compounds their personal identity with their home team. Because the personal significance of these teams run so deeply in these states, college football programs don’t even necessarily have to win to maintain their commercial value. The Tennessee Volunteers have won more than 10 games in a season since 2001 and are continually blown out by their SEC rivals, but that won’t stop a Vols fan from claiming superiority over another team for titles they won in the 90’s. Though college football's economic stronghold in these states remains stable even through losing slumps, there is a powerful incentive to rank them favorably and bring them to the BCS. It is much more financially advantageous for selection committees to push these teams into the forefront of the national CFB playoff conversation. When making BCS selections, a selection committee will usually ask the question, "will this fanbase buy expensive memorabilia and continue to engage in college football content through the off-season if they win the national championship?" With fans like these, the answer is always yes.
Best Rivalries in Football
NFL Territory: the rest of the country
On the other end of the spectrum, in metropolitan areas such as New York, DC, Denver, Chicago, Seattle, etc, NFL franchises dominate football fan markets and can take away significant viewership from any college football program that exists in the greater metropolitan area. The states where the NFL dominates are shown in a deep blue. Not unlike the deeply red states, football is a pervasive part of life for fans, and no matter how successful the local college football team is doing, local news coverage, sports bars, and football fans will always favor their beloved NFL team. If you look closely at the electoral map, you'll see that long-time rivalries make for deep-seated influence. Whereas, Ohio and Michigan are strong college football states with their intense rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois, who share a long-standing rivalry between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears, lean towards the NFL.
I have always lived in NFL cities. I grew up in DC where there was one Maryland fan for every 100 Redskins fans, despite the fact that Maryland was actually closer to DC than FedEx stadium in Landover, MD. Now I live in Fort Collins, CO and despite being miles and miles from Denver in the same city as a D1 FBS team with a brand new multi-million dollar stadium, more people wear blue and orange on Sundays than green on Saturdays. Being a college football fan in areas like this is difficult, because nobody plans their weekend around watching college football, so it's near impossible to catch every game of the season and still maintain a social life. Much like how college football programs conflate support and team spirit with a sense of identity and belonging through unique chants/catchphrases and sometimes odd traditions like petting a rock before a game, NFL franchise create this connection literally through their names. The New England Patriots is a reference to the area's celebrated history as the birthplace of the American Revolution, the Pittsburgh Steelers is a reference to the city's steel and mining industry, the 49ers is a reference to the California gold rush, etc, etc.. As such, there is little economic incentive in giving college football programs in California or Pennsylvania serious coverage in the national CFB playoff conversation. Sure, Penn State, USC, Pitt, UCLA, or Cal fans might rally together for a playoff run, but the NCAA is fighting a losing battle trying to compete in NFL strongholds, when they could be catering to places where people will buy a college football merchandise just to fit in.
The Battleground States
The states where domination of the fan market is contested between the NFL and the NCAA are shown in either light blue or light red. In these states, there are prevalent NFL franchises and college football programs whose popularity can fluctuate if they experience a losing slump. In the cases of Wisconsin and Indiana, the NCAA risks losing reliable sources of fan-based revenue to NFL franchises with more flash and overall stronger economic influence in the area despite its influence weakening in recent years. Thus, there is economic incentive to keep Wisconsin and Notre Dame in the national CFB playoff conversation. Yes, both teams have strong core fanbases and consume Notre Dame and Wisconsin Badgers content year round, but in order to redirect the attention of more casual fans from the Green Bay Packers and the Indianapolis Colts, there has to be something to invest in, which is why the NCAA risks lost profits by cutting down or discounting these programs, even if they did struggle against Ball State or lose to unranked BYU. More than anything, the economic potential of Notre Dame's exclusive television contract with NBC is a cash cow that needs to be milked. Unlike NFL dominated states, the state of Indiana is no stranger to college football culture and can be tapped for a lot of profit if Notre Dame can at least appear consistent year after year.
Of all the NFL vs. NCAA "swing states" shown here, Texas and Florida are by far the biggest battlegrounds, as they are also two of the most highly recruited states in the country. Both states have multiple NFL franchises as well as a considerable number of big time college football programs. In these states is where you'll find those rare fans like Mr. Football McFootball Face who spend their entire weekend watching football, including their local high school football team as well. In cities like Miami, there is considerable fluctuation between the Dolphins and the Hurricanes. Both teams have celebrated pasts, like the Dolphins' perfect season in 1972 and Miami's multiple national titles during the Jimmy Johnson-era in the 80's, so they share an associated sense of nostalgia and sentimentality by the football fans of South Florida. For this reason, there is a big economic incentive to keep U of Miami nationally ranked, especially with the profitability of those gold chains.
NFL vs College Football
As more and more self-proclaimed "football purists" are rejecting the NFL, the NCAA has been given a new market of viewers who want more straightforward football but are accustomed to a certain level of production quality. Pandering to alienated NFL fans through cross-promotion and boosting the standings of previously well liked programs is effective in getting more casual football fans to engage with their favorite team. However, in doing so, the NCAA employs a lot of the profit-driven production gimmicks that actual football purists feel not only dilute the game of football but is unabashedly money-grubbing considering the student-athletes at the center of it all don't receive a dime of the profits. It's one thing for the NFL to sign players solely for public attention and have a corporate sponsor for every conceivable facet of the game because at least the athletes are being paid while they irreversibly damage their bodies. For the NCAA to adopt an identical business model is callously unfair to the student-athletes. Fans have been drawn to FCS and lower levels of college football as less diluted alternatives where student-athletes are just that, student-athletes.