The Pittsburgh Steelers have the best fan base in the National Football League.
That’s not me saying it—it’s science.
Or at least analytics. The Sports Marketing Analytics project, conducted out of Emory University, has published the results of their latest study, which finds that the Steelers topped the list in 2014 in terms of what they call social media equity, just edging out the Dallas Cowboys.
Of course, the Cowboys topped the charts in the study’s other primary metric, termed simply “fan equity”. The Steelers were only slightly above the middle of the pack, finishing 11th league-wide, but there’s an interesting reason for that, I think.
The first step is to explain what fan equity means in terms of this study. According to the Emory University article publishing the results, the fan equity metric “is a measure of brand equity that is based on fans’ willingness to financially support their team”, adding that the rankings are based on the average of the past three years.
Pittsburgh itself isn’t necessarily a large market. It makes sense that many teams such as those based in New York (in name), Chicago, or the Boston area, would measure more highly on such a financially based metric.
But Pittsburgh also has a unique history as a result of a major economic shift during the 60s and 70s, as the steel industry began to tumble. When the jobs began to dwindle, so did the population, and that created a unique diaspora of Pittsburgh natives that now find themselves rooted all around the country.
An interesting result of this history is the fact that the Steelers are now arguably the best team in terms of generating road support in away stadiums.
This is naturally tied to the team’s success, but the fact that there are large populations of ‘Yinzers’ in and around many other NFL cities makes this a broader issue than sustaining a winning team.
On the other hand, this also makes it more difficult for such a widespread fan base to financially support their team, outside of ordering a Terrible Towel and a jersey or two. This is despite the fact that the Steelers have routinely sold out every game for several decades now, and are at long last adding new seats soon.
Yet this dispersed population can also help explain, in part, why and how the Steelers have been able to generate such a strong and powerful social media presence. Naturally, displaced fans will be more inclined to stay in touch with the team through Facebook and Twitter than those who live within the confines of the city.
So it makes a great deal of sense to me that these results are as they are, even with the team itself suffering two straight seasons of missing the postseason. The organization remains active and engaged with its scattered, even international audience, and they return the love, which is why, according to these results, you can fairly argue that the Steelers have the greatest fans in the game.