That is exactly what is going on with Nate Silver's attempt to quantify the size of college football fan bases. I love Silver's writing on politics and baseball, but you can tell from his post that he is not a college football fan. If he were, then he would know that he needs to go back to the drawing board when his methodology produces a conclusion that Georgia Tech has 1,664,088 fans, while Georgia has only 1,098,957 fans. Anyone who follows college football in this market (and according to Silver's number, Atlanta has more college football fans than any other city in the country, save New York, which is a very confusing argument for the "Atlanta is the worst sports town in America" crowd) immediately knows that this number is wrong. Georgia sells out every game in a 90,000 seat venue, regardless of opponent. Georgia Tech struggles to fill a 50,000 seat stadium unless the opponent brings fans. Georgia has a fan base that will make massive donations in order to have the right to buy tickets; Georgia Tech has to offer ticket packages to get casual fans in the door. Georgia's student body is twice as big and the Dawgs also command lots more support from residents of the state who never went to college.
So how does Silver make his mistake? Look at his inputs. First, he is looking at the top 210 TV markets. In Georgia, that covers Atlanta, Savannah, Augusta, Macon, Columbus, and Albany. That leaves a lot of the state unmeasured. The list of TV markets linked by Silver puts the population of those six cities at about 3.6M in a state of over 9M people. If I were to start surveying people in Cordele, Dublin, or Luthersville, I'd guess that I'd find a lot more Dawg fans than I would Tech fans. College football is a very popular sport in rural areas, so Silver is missing out on a big piece of the sample by looking at TV markets.
Working from only a portion of the pie, Silver then relies on Google search traffic and an online survey of college football fans to divide up the 210 TV markets. It's here that Georgia fans' stereotype of Tech fans as computer geeks really kicks in. As my friend Bob shouted at some Tech fans during our unsuccessful attempts to scalp tickets to the 1999 Tech-Georgia game, why don't you download yourselves a beer! Silver is doing the best he can to use publicly-available data so as to replicate the sort of market analyses that the major conferences are doing in making realignment decisions, but there are holes here. Any online measure of fan support is going to skew urban and white collar. Maybe that's how you end up concluding that Miami has a bigger fan base than Florida State. Silver does try to limit the damage by including revenue information, but again, this will tend to favor a fan base like Georgia Tech's that is small and wealthy. It's a compliment to Tech as an institution that it produces successful graduates, but it is a limiting factor when we are trying to look at the number of eyeballs watching the Jackets play North Carolina and the Dawgs play Tennessee. Likewise, Silver's methodology will tend to overrate the size of Auburn's fan base and underrate the size of Alabama's because there are a bevy of Harvey Updykes out there who don't live in urban areas and don't respond to online surveys, but instead express their love of the Tide by amateur efforts at horticulture and then by calling the Finebaum Show to brag.
The last point to be made here is that Silver is looking at the size of fan bases as being the dominant factor in realignment. There's no doubt that demographics matter, but there are other considerations. Take branding as an example. The SEC is the best college football TV product for a variety of reasons, one of which is that the games are played in stadia packed with fans screaming their heads off for three hours. That intensity comes across on the tube. I wrote about this issue during the winter in making an analogy between what the English Premier League has achieved worldwide and what the NHL could learn from the EPL:
Tim Vickery made a great point on the World Football Phone-in a few weeks ago regarding coverage of futbol in Brazil and the point applies to the NHL. He was talking about the discussions in England regarding whether the new tenant of the London Olympic Stadium, either Spurs or West Ham, will tear out the track when one of the clubs moves in after the Olympics. In the process of making the point that having a running track kills the atmosphere for a match, he said that Brazilian TV companies can't get enough of the English Premier League in large part because the atmosphere is so good. The fans are screaming and singing the whole time and significantly, they are close to the action, so the cameras can pick up the facial reactions of the fans when goals go in.Apply this reasoning to the SEC potentially adding West Virginia as team 14. West Virginia is a small, rural, poor state. In terms of eyeballs, it is not worth adding. However, if you imagine the scenes when Alabama and Florida go there for games, you can see the SEC adding to its EPL-style brand. Hell, just watch what happens when LSU arrives this weekend. Now, the question that Mike Slive & Company have to be asking themselves is whether their brand really needs cementing. Isn't the SEC going to be the same, outstanding TV product without West Virginia? Maybe, but there has to be a way to figure out the value of further salting away the perception of the SEC as the best TV product for fansanity.
Vickery's point has applicability to the NHL, specifically as an illustration of yet another way in which Gary Bettman has got things all wrong. He expanded hockey throughout the Sunbelt because of the size of the markets here. In the process of doing so, he reduced the value of the NHL as a TV property. Hockey already struggles on TV because it's hard to follow the puck. The sport needs to make up for this shortcoming in other ways. One such way is passion from the fans. Hockey fans tend to be screamers, especially in places where the game has deep roots. Leaving aside the fact that I live in Atlanta and want our city to have an NHL team, what is going to be more appealing to an average viewer: a playoff game in a beautiful, but somewhat sterile arena in Atlanta or Nashville or the same game played in front of crazy fans who live and breathe the game in Quebec City or Winnipeg? The NHL already has something of a spectacle problem by virtue of iconic franchises leaving their great old arenas for new, less interesting venues. (Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, and Boston all come to mind; Hockey Night in Canada just isn't the same without Maple Leaf Gardens. Now, if you'll excuse me, there are some kids on my lawn who require shooing.) The league adds to the problem by moving its product outside of its sweet spot.