America’s sports industry, generating almost $500 billion dollars annually, has come to rely on analytical information and statistical data to drive its corporate decisions more now than ever before.
For years, scouts and agents have relied on sport analytics to identify unusual talent and athletic capabilities. Performance data helps professional athletes monitor fitness and predict the likelihood of injury while sports marketing executives value data analytics to improve the return on their investments as they attempt to build their individual brands. In this article, we will look at how Under Armour developed a tool to rank and evaluate all of the Division 1 intercollegiate athletic brands across the country using simple, readily available data.
Background – The Use of Data in Sports & Business
It is hard to imagine making business decisions without using data as a tool. It is equally naive to think that marketing dollars are being spent without a strategic plan to determine where the money is going and without knowing if there are better options for that investment. But surprisingly for some retail sports brands, using data to help drive their strategic plans has not always been deemed necessary.
For most of its existence, Under Armour’s decisions around their investments in collegiate sports brands were done with emotion and gut instinct — which is not to say that this didn’t lead to some good decisions. Any knowledgeable sports fan can make some pretty good guesses as to which college sports brands have the most relative value. However, when the goal and/or strategy becomes more complex, the gut instinct method tends to break down. Having relevant data available to help in the decision-making process will always lead to better decisions.
There is no shortage of data available these days, regardless of the industry in which you are operating; however, it almost always comes in raw form and it is rare that a singular point or set of data points has any practical use in sports or business. In predicting the stock market, a company’s 52-week high and low is relevant data, but I can’t imagine anyone investing in a company based on that information alone. A baseball player that bats .300 might seem to have value, but if he only hits singles and strikes out half of the time he comes to the plate, a team may feel another player with a lower average might be more useful.
At the beginning of 2014, I was recruited by Under Armour to run their collegiate sports marketing division. At that time, only 25 of the 351 Division 1 athletic programs were wearing Under Armour apparel and footwear. Executive leadership was set on investing more of their marketing dollars in collegiate brands. Putting more shirts and shoes on high-level athletes was predetermined to be a good marketing strategy for Under Armour. Regardless of whether this line of thinking was correct or if there were better places to spend money than in the collegiate space, the task of increasing the portfolio of Division 1 college brands was given to me and my team. But which schools should we and could we convince to partner with us?
Challenge – Selecting the Most Useful Data
The challenge for many sports businesses is what data to use and how to use it. Data can be easily manipulated and can often be misleading if it is not assessed carefully and thoughtfully with your end goal in mind. It is important to choose the data that is most relevant and organize and/or combine it in a way that is most useful to you. The real value in data is using it honestly and strategically in order to point you in the right business direction.
The challenge specifically to Under Armour was to use widely accepted data to develop a tool that from a marketing perspective could help prioritize the most valuable collegiate properties in the country — value in terms of brand exposure (upper funnel), as well as in terms of activation and engagement (lower funnel). Most sports fans can instinctively construct a list of valuable college sports brands. It doesn’t take a lot of data to know that Duke and Kentucky basketball, and Alabama and Notre Dame football, are valuable. But unfortunately for sports apparel brands who need to assemble a portfolio of partners, each school can only choose one. So we needed to develop a tool to help us evaluate which college brands have value and how they compare to one another. Keep in mind that we were not attempting to come up with a tangible score, or to calculate a return on investment. The goal was simply to rank the collegiate brands in a way that told us which ones were more valuable than the others.
Solution – Winning is the Answer
In evaluating collegiate sports brands, a case can be made for a number of different relevant metrics. But what is the greatest measure of value — or better yet — what is the origin of any measured value? What makes one collegiate property worth more than another?
Factors that we considered in developing this tool included the size of the institution (undergrad population), size of the alumni base, local DMA, national television appearances, television ratings and social media followings, amongst other things. While the collection of all that information is possible, it would be quite expensive and may not even be the most relevant. Having a large audience doesn’t guarantee that people will notice or even care. Are these aforementioned metrics the root of an asset’s value or is there another, simpler set of metrics that positively affect all these factors that is easier to understand, capture and quantify? The answer is yes, and it is simple: winning! Winning positively affects virtually every metric that one could think of that drives value for an intercollegiate sports brand — and maybe sports brands at every level for that matter.
Specifically, in the collegiate space, success in the sports of men’s basketball and football are the best indicators of value. With the ever-changing landscape of live sports video distribution, every conference has the ability to have their games broadcast on a national level and seen by anyone who cares to see them. Among the major conferences, they all have significant network packages where the best teams in each conference get the most appearances. The best teams on TV are the ones that people watch, and those teams that win the most are the ones that are selected to appear in the postseason. This is the ultimate goal with any sports marketing asset as postseason appearances are disproportionately more valuable than the regular season.
So, why is success the ultimate evaluation tool? It’s simple, really. Everyone loves a winner. And winning creates interest regardless of whether you’re rooting for or against the team doing the winning. People seem to root equally for and against Duke basketball and Notre Dame football. Success as a business indicator and marketing tool is immune to changes in the way society communicates and consumes information. Success breeds interest and popularity, which translates to increases in exposure, impressions and engagements through television, print, digital and social media. Whatever the marketing strategy or the form of media that is being contemplated, success increases the value of a brand. It’s timeless and foolproof.
Developing the Data Analytics Tool
With that being said, our marketing team chose a list of success metrics in the sports of men’s basketball and football that we felt were the most relevant indicators of value. We were not overly scientific in selecting these data points but felt common sense and our teams’ collective years of experience working in the sports business were enough to settle on these metrics:
This was the most obvious component we chose to include. Sports is a bottom line business, and you either win or you lose. Winning games is the ultimate goal of competitive sport, so this is the first data point included in our analysis.
Ranking teams is a staple activity in every sport and/or league in existence. Who is better than who? While there are many pros and cons to computer rankings, they are the best tool we have to compare all 351 D1 Men’s Basketball and 129 FBS Football teams, so that is the second data point that we included.
Earning an invitation to the postseason and advancing has exponentially greater impact on fan interest, viewership and value than a much larger set of regular season games. For Men’s Basketball, NCAA appearances are a data point as well as advancing to the sweet 16, final 4 and winning the championship. For Football, bowl appearances are a data point with additional value placed on NY6 appearances and ultimately the four-team CFP and championship.
This is the data point that we labored over whether or not to include the most. Since we are calling this a “success” ranking and not simply a “winning” ranking, we decided to include it. It is hard to argue against the fact that a team’s success impacts its home game attendance, and the more people that attend a game the more valuable the property becomes.
Just as the value of your home is affected by the quality of your neighborhood, so does conference affiliation impact the value of an institution’s brand. This should be of no surprise to anyone, as it has always been one of the biggest drivers behind conference realignment. We use this data point only in Men’s Basketball for which there are reliable calculations. We don’t find that so easily in Football and it is not as applicable with only 10 FBS conferences vs 32 D1 conferences overall.
Summary and Results
It is important to restate that this tool does not necessarily quantify the value of a given intercollegiate sports brand. That will come in the article to follow, which will explain how this tool was put into practice and how a specific strategy was developed and implemented. Instead, this tool was created to help us prioritize which brands have the most value relative to each other. In the next article in this sequence, we will explain our specific strategy to maximize the value of Under Armour’s college portfolio and how we used this tool to help drive that strategy. At that time, we will also measure and report the value to the Under Armour brand that this strategy delivered in the end.
So now the fun part: the results. Once again, the data we used was for the five-year period beginning with the 2014 football season and concluding with the 2018-19 men’s basketball season. There are a lot of numbers to look at so here are a few notes to think about as we dissect the data:
Men’s Basketball Ranking
- Not surprisingly, North Carolina, Kentucky, Villanova, Kansas & Duke compose the top five most successful men’s basketball programs over the course of the past five years.
- The attendance criteria hurt both Villanova and Duke respectively due to the small size of their home venues. Disregarding that data point, Villanova would have finished first and Duke fourth.
- Gonzaga is the highest ranked team from a mid-major conference, coming in seventh. Their ranking was also hurt by their attendance number. They would have finished third had that criteria not been included.
- Gonzaga had the most wins with 162, Kansas had the highest average RPI of 3.2, North Carolina had the most consistent success in the NCAA Tournament, the Big 12 was the highest ranked conference overall, and Kentucky and Syracuse led the way in home attendance with 22,793 and 22,016, respectively.
- The ACC and the Big Ten each had three teams in the top ten, with the Big East, Big 12, SEC and West Coast with one each. The Pac-12 and American had none.
- The Big 12 also showed the greatest depth and parity with all 10 teams remarkably being ranked in the top 75. No other conference had all of their teams in the top 100, although the Big East had 9 out of 10 and the SEC had 13 out of 14.
- The conferences with the biggest differential between their highest and lowest ranked teams was the WAC with a differential of 302 spots (New Mexico St 49, Chicago St 351) and the West Coast Conference with a differential of 276 spots. (Gonzaga 7, Portland 281).
- New Mexico State also overachieved the most relative to the overall ranking of their conference. NMSU ranked 49 while the WAC ranked #24 out of the 32 conferences.
- Three teams were remarkable underachievers relative to their conference as a whole. Rutgers #193 vs the #4 Big Ten, DePaul #184 vs the #3 Big East and Boston College #174 vs the #2 ACC.
- Of the 20 final four slots, 14 were filled by teams ranked in the top 12. North Carolina (1), Villanova (3) & Michigan State (8) participated twice, while Purdue (9) was the only team in the top 12 to have not made it to the final four.
- Three teams made unlikely runs to the final four given their performance ranking over the five-year period: South Carolina (45), Auburn (53) and Loyola-Chicago (89).
- Only 8 teams made the NCAA Tournament all five years: Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan St, North Carolina, Villanova & Virginia.
- Out of the 351 teams, 164 (47%) made the NCAA Tournament at least once while 187 (53%) did not make it at all over the course of the five-year period.
- Not surprisingly, Alabama comes in at number one, finishing first in total wins (67), computer ranking (1.9 average) and postseason performance. The only category in which Alabama did not finish first was home attendance; however, Alabama was one of only six programs to average over 100,000 fans per game.
- Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State collectively own the 5 national championships over this period and hold positions 1-2-3 in the rankings.
- The 20 CFP slots were filled by only 10 different teams. Nine of the 10 teams finished in the top 15 overall with only Oregon (24) finishing well outside that group.
- The Big Ten and SEC had three teams in the top 10, the ACC had two, with one each coming from the Big 12 and Pac-12.
- Despite having three teams in the top 10, the Big Ten also had the three lowest ranked teams amongst all the Power 5 schools: Purdue (92), Illinois (99) and Rutgers (103).
- The highest ranked team from the Group of 5 conferences was Boise State at #23.
- UCF came in at #40. While this initially seemed off, upon closer look the Knights were weighed down significantly by two sub-.500 seasons during the five-year period, including a winless season in 2015.
Men’s Basketball & Football Combined Ranking
- This combined ranking includes only the 129 schools that play both Division 1 Basketball and FBS Football.
- The combined rankings do not simply take the average of the rankings for each sport but more accurately factor in the numerical scores of each.
- Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma, Wisconsin & Clemson ranked #1 through 5.
- Alabama was such a strong #1 in football that it compensated for its #59 ranking in basketball to finish second
- North Carolina was almost an exact mirror image of that, finishing first in basketball and #65 in football to finish tenth
- Wisconsin (#4 overall) was the most balanced and the only school to finish in the top 10 in both basketball (10) and football (6).
- The Big Ten had four schools in the top 10. The ACC had 3 while the Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC had one each.
- Notre Dame was ranked #12.
- The Big 12 had all 10 teams ranked in the top half of the rankings with the lowest being Kansas, which came in at #61. Accordingly, the average of all its schools was the highest ranked amongst the ten conferences with the SEC a close second.
- Kansas had the biggest differential between the two sports (121 spots) with basketball coming in at #4 and football #125.
- The highest ranked school from the Group of 5 was San Diego St at #38
- The lowest ranked school from the Power 5 was Rutgers at #109.
For a more detailed explanation of what is behind the data presented in the following charts, the mathematical methodology used in the calculations, or for a specific data point to be custom sorted, please contact the author directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of AthleticDirectorU. Any analysis performed within this article is for example purposes only.