Football's Most Fanatical Cities

How do pro fans stack up against those who favor the college game on a city-by-city basis?

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Sean Gardner/Reuters

This weekend is a big one for football fans: it's the start of the NFL's playoff season. One in four Americans — 75 to 80 million of us, according to some surveys — follow football regularly. A 2010 survey found that roughly two-thirds of Americans watch professional football, compared to just over half for college.

But which teams and cities have the most fanatical fans? And how do pro fans stack up against those who favor the college game on a city by city basis? 

To get at these questions, Patrick Adler, a doctoral student in urban planning at UCLA and Martin Prosperity Institute alum, tracked football attendance numbers for 116 metropolitan areas with NFL franchises or bowl-eligible college teams. Adler calculated a simple metric based on average fan attendance for all pro and college football games. To control for substantial differences in population size, he also tallied average attendance as a share of metro population. The data are from the NCAA and ESPN and cover the 2011 season.

These metrics have their caveats, Adler points out. They only account for attendance at games, and do not count those fans who regularly follow teams on television and through other means. But as the New York Times's Nate Silver notes in his analysis of college football, home attendance usually tracks to the most popular teams across multiple dimensions.

The Martin Prosperity Institute's Zara Matheson mapped Alder's two key metrics.

The map above charts the average attendance by metro. The colors of the icons indicate NFL only (pink), college only (green), or both (blue). The table below lists the top 20 metros by average football attendance for both.

Top 20 Metro Areas for Overall Average Attendance in 2011
Rank Metro Average Attendance
1 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 202,222
2 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 166,631
3 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 158,956
4 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL 145,516
5 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 131,450
6 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 128,944
7 Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 120,556
8 Nashville-Davidson--Murfreesboro—Franklin, TN 120,423
9 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 120,188
10 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 119,276
11 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 117,218
12 Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, IL-IN-WI 114,490
13 Ann Arbor, MI 112,179
14 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 110,530
15 Pittsburgh, PA 109,037
16 Baltimore-Towson, MD 105,835
17 San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA 105,257
18 Columbus, OH 105,231
19 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 104,465
20 Tuscaloosa, AL 101,821

Table data from NCAA and ESPN as compiled by Patrick Adler

As we would expect, big metros top the list. New York is first, by a substantial margin. But the list follows population size only to an extent. Los Angeles, America's second largest metro, is fifth, and Chicago, the third largest metro, is 12th. San Francisco is second in football attendance, Dallas third, and Miami fourth. Seattle, Houston, Nashville, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C., round out the top 10.

Most of the top 20 have both pro and college teams. But there are several places on the list that only have college teams — notably, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Columbus, Ohio, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Interestingly, the average attendance in the Ann Arbor metro is greater than in Detroit.

The table below shows the top 20 metros for average attendance where only college football is played.

Top 20 College-Only Metro Areas for Average Attendance in 2011*
Rank Metro Average Attendance
1 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 131,450
2 Ann Arbor, MI 112,179
3 Columbus, OH 105,231
4 Tuscaloosa, AL 101,821
5 State College, PA 101,427
6 Austin-Round Rock, TX 100,524
7 Knoxville, TN 94,642
8 Baton Rouge, LA 92,868
9 Athens-Clarke County, GA 92,613
10 Gainesville, FL 89,061
11 College Station-Bryan, TX 87,183
12 Auburn-Opelika, AL 85,792
13 Lincoln, NE 85,267
14 Oklahoma City, OK 85,161
15 South Bend-Mishawaka, IN-MI 80,795
16 Madison, WI 79,813
17 Columbia, SC 79,131
18 Greenville-Mauldin-Easley, SC 77,959
19 Tallahassee, FL 77,842
20 Lansing-East Lansing, MI 74,078

Table data from the NCAA as compiled by Patrick Adler

After Los Angeles, smaller metros now rise to the top. Ann Arbor is second, followed by Columbus, Ohio and Tuscaloosa, Alabama — all of which also rank among the top 20 for overall attendance, as noted above. State College, Pennsylvania is fifth, and Austin sixth. Rounding out the top 10 are Knoxville, Tennessee; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Athens, Georgia; and Gainesville, Florida.*

The picture is different when we consider football attendance as share of a metro's population. Several caveats are in order, Adler notes. Students, who attend college football games, are typically not included in the population of college towns. Furthermore, some college towns are too small to be considered actual metros, and many fans commute long distances to attend games.

The table below lists the top 20 metros with average football attendance as a share of the population across U.S. metros.**

Top 20 Metros with the Greatest Percent Share of Football Attendance**
Rank Metro Percent of Population
1 Oxford, MS 131%
2 Starkville, MS 128%
3 Stillwater, OK 73%
4 State College, PA 70%
5 Pullman, WA 69%
6 Laramie, WY 67%
7 Auburn-Opelika, AL 66%
8 Ames, IA 63%
9 Corvallis, OR 52%
10 Bowling Green, KY 50%
11 Athens-Clarke County, GA 50%
12 Tuscaloosa, AL 49%
13 Iowa City, IA 48%
14 Morgantown, WV 48%
15 College Station-Bryan, TX 43%
16 Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford, VA 42%
17 Manhattan, KS 41%
18 Columbia, MO 38%
19 Lawrence, KS 37%
20 Ruston, LA 37%

Table data from the NCAA and ESPN as compiled by Patrick Adler

Now much smaller metros rise to the top. Oxford and Starkville, Mississippi rank first and second. Both have attendance that exceeds 100 percent of their population — a figure that is bolstered by students and out of area commuters. Stillwater, Oklahoma, is third (with 73 percent), followed by State College, Pennsylvania (70 percent), and Pullman, Washington (69 percent).**

All but one pro football metro has average home attendance equal to 10 percent or less of their population. The exception is tiny Green Bay, where attendance is equivalent to roughly 23 percent of the population.

Large metros — those with more than one million people — rank much further down the list in football attendees as percent of metro population. The figure is roughly eight percent for Nashville and New Orleans, seven percent for Buffalo, five percent for San Francisco (second in average attendance overall), 2.5 percent for Pittsburgh, Dallas, and Boston, and just one percent for Chicago, L.A., and New York (the leader in overall average attendance). Behind these three metros, the San Jose metro, the heart of Silicon Valley and home to Stanford, ranks dead last.

In his analysis of the geography of college football fandom, Silver notes a curious pattern. Looking at Google searches for the term "college football" he finds that "on a per-capita basis, there are probably about 5 times as many football fans in Birmingham [Alabama] as there are in New York. So although the New York media market is about 10 times larger, it has fewer than twice as many college football fans as Birmingham."

ESPN's Colin Cowherd offers a simple theory to account for the geography of football fandom, where big cities are served by and favored by pro teams while smaller cities favor the college game.

It makes sense, actually, that small towns would have a stronger support base for their college teams. Folks in bigger cities and metros have a lot of options for entertainment, but the options in smaller metros and college tons are more limited — making football the biggest game in town.

From top: Alabama Crimson Tide running back T.J. Yeldon (4) celebrates after scoring a touchdown late in the fourth quarter against the LSU Tigers during their NCAA football game in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Nov. 3. (Sean Gardner/Reuters); San Francisco 49ers kicker David Akers scores a field goal during the fourth quarter of their NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in San Francisco, California on Dec. 30. (Beck Diefenbach/Reuters)

*Correction: An earlier version of this post failed to include Los Angeles in the college-only attendance table.

**Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly included Troy, New York and Athens, Ohio in the percent-share attendance table. It also failed to include Bowling Green, Kentucky. The corresponding map has been removed.

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here