On Tuesday, August 22nd, ESPN released a comprehensive list of the “Happiest Fanbases in College Football.” ESPN based their rankings on 6 key factors.
- Program Power - Combination of strength records from 2012 - 2016 and current FPI compared to recent history.
- Rivalry Dominance - Combination of wins above expectation over rivals in past five seasons and how a team’s FPI compares its rivals.
- Coaching Stability - How close a coach is to being fired, per Phil Steele’s coaching stability rankings
- Recruiting Trend - Difference in percentage of five, four, and three star recruits in current class vs. expectation.
- Revenue Growth - Difference between revenue earned in 2016 season relative to 2012-2015 average. Data derived from U.S. Department of Education Equity in Athletics Database.
- Twitter Buzz - Percentage of tweets from fans that are positive, based on social media sentiment analysis.
ESPN did not specifically disclose the weighting of any specific categories, so we have to assume they were all weighted equally. That said, the criteria, and logic behind them, seem to be fairly logical and objective.
However, one can’t help but look at two specific categories as the most important indicators of fan happiness. Revenue growth and Twitter buzz. These are the only two categories in which the fans have a direct effect on. The fans are the ones buying tickets, buying team gear, and talking about the team on Twitter and Facebook. If the team is performing well, both on the field and off (read: recruiting), fans will buy more tickets and say more good things on Twitter.
You’ll notice that Iowa State has extremely high ratings in both of these categories.
Here is Iowa State’s overall evaluation:
If Iowa State performs above expectations, Cyclone fans pour their hearts out on Twitter and buy season tickets in record numbers. Just look at Paul Rhoads era and the beginning of Matt Campbell’s tenure.
Prior to Rhoads’ arrival, game attendance was poor (though tailgating attendance was still strong). Rhoads led the Cyclones to an Insight Bowl victory in his first season, and season ticket sales immediately jumped. The team experienced moderate success over the next few years, before a descent back to the near-bottom of the Big 12 (thanks, Kansas). Yet, season ticket sales continued to rise.
Just this offseason, following a 3-9 season, Iowa State AD Jamie Pollard announced that season ticket sales are expected to hit the 40,000 mark. The capacity of Jack Trice being 61,500, this equates to roughly 65% (!!) of the stadium being filled with season ticket holders for every home game. Season ticket total data can be difficult to find, but that percentage places Iowa State very high in the conference. Texas, the most powerful brand in college football, only sold out roughly 45% of its stadium capacity to season ticket holders. Season ticket allocations are made on a school-by-school basis, so this comparison is far from perfect, but season tickets are guaranteed income, and athletic departments know that. If the demand exists, schools will issue more and more season tickets. At minimum, the ratio of season ticket totals to stadium capacity does indicate demand, a direct product of fan enthusiasm.
So what does fan happiness look like for the “happiest” fanbase in the country? That honor went to Ohio State.
Undeniably, Ohio State fans have enjoyed an enormous amount of success over the past handful of seasons. They’ve become a staple in the College Football Playoff, including a National Championship in 2014. They’ve dominated the famous rivalry with Michigan and are currently recruiting the best classes in a well-decorated school history. Urban Meyer is arguably the best coach in college football right now (maybe of all-time), and looks to be staying there for the rest of eternity. Buckeye fans have literally nothing worth complaining about.
Hold on a second though. How did the Ohio State faithful end up with only a 5 on the Twitter Buzz scale? As you’ll recall, that metric is determined by comparing the ratio of positive and negative tweets about the team, meaning Ohio State fans are overwhelmingly tweeting negatively about their beloved Buckeyes. If the fans are so happy, then why do they have almost nothing good to say about their team? Many of the other “blue-bloods” show similar numbers, with a few exceptions
This bring us to a more philosophical issue. Is fan happiness (or happiness in general) absolute, or relative to expectations? Is the millionaire inherently happier than the homeless person, simply due to his wealth? Any rational person would say “no.” The simple litmus test for this is to ask an Ohio State fan how they would feel about a 9-win season, then ask the same question to an Iowa State fan. The Buckeye fan would probably respond with sentiments of disappointment and disgust. The Iowa State fan wouldn’t be able to respond, because they would be too busy party-rioting as the entirety of Ames begins to burn to the ground.
However, Iowa State isn’t coming off a 9-win season. They won 3 games last year. A season with those results is objectively poor, even if you’re a perennially bad team with no expectations. Even Rutgers fans would be disappointed in a 3-win season. When compared to Iowa State’s history and expectations, Cyclone fans have no reason to be “happy.”
Yet, here we are. The 2017 offseason was the most optimistic I’ve seen the Cyclone fanbase in a long time, maybe ever, and they’ve shown with their wallets and their tweets. How many fanbases donate enough money for $30 million stadium expansion following multiple seasons with win totals low enough for Jason Pierre-Paul to still count the victories on one hand? How many would then follow that up by purchasing a record number of season tickets? The answer is one. Cyclone Nation.
This isn’t due to some inferiority complex (as any Iowa fan would suggest), or Iowa State fans just being here for the party, either. Our tweets aren’t filled with “Just hope we don’t suck!” and our donations and season ticket purchases aren’t made out of some cosmic obligation to support a sports team filled with players and coaches you’ve never met. Right now, the Cyclone faithful are as optimistic as they’ve ever been, with a coaching staff and roster that is hungry to win. Campbell & Co. have worked tirelessly to change the culture around a program which used to just be satisfied to beat The Team Out East and hang around with some of the Texas schools and Nebraska. Now, it’s easy to see that Iowa State is a program aiming to compete at the top of the Big 12. This brings me to my next point.
Make no mistake, we love to play (and beat) Iowa. For most of Iowa State’s history, the success of the season was entirely hinged on beating the Hawkeyes, regardless of the final record. Iowa fans have called it our “Super Bowl” for years, and, for the most part, that was true. If you looked at ESPN’s “Rivalry Dominance” index, Iowa State fans should be absolutely miserable. In the past, they may have been.
Now? Things are different.
Would it be great to beat Iowa and temporarily silence the most over-confident and self indulgent fanbase in college football? Absolutely, but that one game no longer determines the success of our season. The Cyclones have loftier goals in mind. Much to most Hawkeye fans’ dismay, you aren’t our top priority anymore. Hell, you may not even be top 3.
But that’s the thing. By the end of last season, none of the past mattered. None of the losing, heartbreak, and empty optimism in our history clouded our heads. All we could see was a young quarterback with an electric arm, an emerging freshman running back, an ultra-talented receiving corps, and a coaching staff that had embraced Cyclone Nation to its very core. A coaching staff that finally craved winning as much as the fans that cheered them on.
Make no mistake, Iowa State fans still know where we come from and how far we still have to go. But, going forward? We’re going big game hunting.