For an NFL franchise to truly be "America's Team," as the Cowboys have claimed to be for 35 years, they would need to be beloved across the nation, by more people in more places than any other team. But the Cowboys haven't won a Super Bowl in 17 years. They've struggled through mediocrity for a decade. Is the nickname accurate, out of date, or is it just an ingenious marketing ploy that has convinced pundits to repeat ad nauseam?
Ten years ago the best way to get a sense of a team's fanbase might have been to do an assessment of TV ratings for each team. These ratings were (and still are) not released in detail for public consumption. Today we have a better method for determining how many fans like each team. Specifically, finding out how many fans "like" each team.
By pretending to be an advertiser, I was able to extract some data from Facebook's over 155 million users within the United States. All data is of July 2012.
And, the exact numbers:
So what are some interesting takeaways from this fan data?
• By the raw numbers, the Dallas Cowboys are, at the very least, "America's Most Popular Team". They have 3,754,280 fans on Facebook which is more than any other team.
• Teams that win are unsurprisingly able to grow huge fanbases. Every team that has won a Super Bowl in the last nine years has over 1.5 million fans. This puts them in the top quartile of our popularity rankings/
• The only teams with more than 1.5 million fans that have not won a Super Bowl in recent years are the Cowboys and Bears. Since there is no team in L.A. and the Giants share New York City with the Jets, the Bears have the biggest uncontested market in the league. The Cowboys are based in the fifth largest metropolitan area in the United States and, before the Texans, were blessed to have the entire Lone Star state to themselves.
• The Jets are dominated by the Giants. Despite the fact that they share a home field, the Giants have nearly twice as many fans as the Jets.
• Other teams in shared markets have a much more equal fan distribution. The Raiders and 49ers play less than 30 miles apart and have huge fan bases that come within 10 percent of each other. The Redskins and Ravens play about 50 miles apart an also are within 10 percent of each other in terms of total fans.
There's huge disparity across the NFL. For example, the Cowboys have more than 12 times as many fans as the St. Louis Rams. But it may be unfair to look at these extreme differences as teams like the Cowboys and Steelers are almost outliers. The Steelers have over one million more fans than the Patriots, despite the fact they are only one spot ahead in the "like'" rankings.
It is also unfair to expect teams to have the same number of fans given the vast difference in metropolitan populations in which the teams are based. To help control for this and perhaps just examine the "loyalty" of fans, we can control and look at the percentage of local football fans who are loyal to the local team.
Below is a graph and a chart showing the percentage of football fans within 50 miles of the home team's stadium who are fans of that team.
Many teams with small fanbases are actually performing quite well within their small markets. The numbers above are a result of a mix between fan loyalty and team geography.
• The Bills, who although have the third fewest fans of any NFL team, actually do quite well with the home crowd by earning the loyalty of 73 percent of fans (in the United States) within 50 miles of Buffalo.
• Although three teams rank below them, the Carolina Panthers appear to have the least loyal fanbase. The Redskins, Raiders, and Jets all have other teams within 50 miles of their stadium and therefore share a fanbase. The Panthers' closest competitors are the Atlanta Falcons who play over 240 miles away from Charlotte. As we'll see later, the Panthers lose most of the Carolinas to the Cowboys.
• Of all teams who share a metropolitan area with another team, the 49ers come out on top with 50 percent fan loyalty compared to the Raiders' 28 percent. Although the 49ers do well in areas close to the Bay Area, we know from the previous chart that the Raiders are the more popular team throughout the country. One reason: the Raiders still have loyalty within the Los Angeles Area.
But even if the Cowboys are America's favorite football team, do they beat out teams from other sports to truly win the title of "America's Team?"
To start with, the 32 NFL teams rack up a total of 37,485,580 total likes on Facebook. This crushes the competition by 15 million fans. The NBA's 30 teams' "likes" tally up to 22,666,440 while MLB's 30 teams come in a close third with 22,238,860. The NHL, still nominally one of the four major leagues, has a total of 11,979,960 likes among its 30 teams. That's just short of one-third of the NFL numbers, but keep in mind this data only covers U.S. Facebook users.
The NFL usually crushes its competition in markets with more than one professional sports team. There are 63 MLB, NBA, or NHL teams that share a market with an NFL team. Of these, only 13 have more fans than their NFL counterparts.
Put the brakes on the "America's Team" business. There are two teams that have more fans than the Cowboys. The most popular American sports team (in terms of likes) are the Lakers, with just over five million. Not only is this significantly more than the Cowboys, but it's almost two million more fans than the second-most popular basketball team, the Celtics (who register just over three million fans). The Yankees also beat out the Cowboys, but barely: 3,781,980 Facebook likes to 3,754,280.
But perhaps being America's team is more about the area in which you encompass than anything else. While the Lakers and Yankees undoubtedly have fans throughout the nation, they each have huge metropolitan strongholds on their respective coasts where they draw most of their fans from. Maybe the Cowboys can claim to be "America's Team" based on the fact they have fans everywhere.
To test this, I made a map of NFL fan bases. I divided the nation into congressional districts, and shaded them with the team that has the most "likes." As of the 2010 census, each district averaged 710,767 people. Click to enlarge:
I've broken the map into smaller subsections to make it easier to look at. Again, click all to enlarge.
• The Saints are the dominant team in the South, being the most popular in all of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and even encroaching onto the Florida panhandle.
• The Jaguars and Buccaneers each won their home district and those immediately surrounding, but the Dolphins are clearly Florida's team. For instance, although Orlando is considerably closer to both Jacksvonille and Tampa, there are more Dolphins fans in Orlando than Jaguars and Buccaneers fans combined.
• The Panthers are not able to claim all of the Carolinas. The Cowboys are actually the most popular team in the parts of the Carolinas farthest from Charlotte. This is as much of a reflection of the Cowboys universal appeal as it is a reflection of how small of a fanbase the Panthers have regionally.
• Geographic identity clearly is an important part of fandom. The Falcons were able to claim their entire state (and no other areas), despite many Georgia districts regions closer to other teams like the Jaguars.
• Unsurprisingly the Cowboys dominate their home territory. The Cowboys are the most popular team all throughout Texas, with the exception of the five congressional districts that make up Houston and its immediate suburbs. Cowboys fans also dominated all of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Utah, and even the regions of Arizona south of Phoenix.
• The Kansas City Chiefs, who are based on the Missouri side of the border, were still able to claim all of Kansas. Likewise, the Broncos were able to claim their home state of Colorado.
• The most striking feature of this map is that the Raiders are relatively much stronger in southern California than they are at home. While the Raiders claimed only one district in Northern California (Oakland), they are the most popular team in seventeen districts in southern California.
• The Los Angeles area has no clear favorite. The Raiders, Chargers, and Cowboys were all close to equal in terms of total fans in the region and each claimed districts as their own.
• In Nevada, the Cowboys won the two districts located in and near Las Vegas, while the 49ers won the one large but mostly empty district representing northern Nevada.
• In the Midwest, much of the fanbases are contingent on state geography—with a few exceptions. The Packers are the most popular in the upper peninsula of Michigan, while the Bears were able to win the northwestern-most district in Indiana.
• Iowa was split between the Bears and Vikings while Missouri was divided down the middle between the Rams and the Chiefs. Impressively, the Rams, whose fanbase is less than one-sixth that of the Bears. are still the most popular team in southern Illinois.
• Ohio is split between the Browns, Bengals, and Steelers much as you would expect based on the cities' locations. Kentucky was split between the Titans, Colts, and Bengals, also roughly based on proximity.
• This map reveals how much more popular the Giants are than the Jets in the New York area. The Jets only came up as the more popular team in two districts, both of which are located on western Long Island, while the Giants dominated the city, northern New Jersey, and upstate New York.
• The Patriots are able to claim most of New England, except for the three districts in southwestern Connecticut that are close to, and loyal to, the Giants.
• The Cowboys once again steal fans despite being thousands of miles away. Southern Virginia actually has more Cowboys fans than Redskins fans.
So what did we learn from these maps? Unsurprisingly, almost all fanbases are geographically based and that state lines play an important part in fan identifiers. However, the Cowboys were also able to claim large contingents of fans from throughout the nation. In addition to a huge home base in and around Texas, the Cowboys have five other non-contiguous regions their own. While some of the Cowboys enclaves may seem small, remember that congressional districts represent an average of over 710,000 people. The Cowboys were able to claim fans in the middle of the country as well as on both coasts.
Below is a table showing the number of districts each team "won" by having the most Facebook likes.
The Cowboys won a clear plurality, nearly twice as many districts as their closest competition. It's far from a majority, but based on the country's largest fanbase and widest distribution, the Dallas Cowboys have earned the right to keep calling themselves "America's Team"—at least in the NFL.
Follow HSAC on Twitter, @Harvard_Sports. If you have any comments or ideas for future columns, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Email Ben Blatt at email@example.com. Image by Jim Cooke. Photo via Getty