Who is Really America’s Team?

by Ben Blatt

Author’s Note: This post was prepared long ago, but Facebook itself coincidentally published a very similar study on Monday. There are many different findings between the two studies however, so I encourage you to read both. You can also read the second part and third part in our series of posts using Facebook fan data here and here.

For three decades the Dallas Cowboys have been known as ‘America’s Team’, but is this nickname earned?

One would presume that for an NFL team to truly be ‘America’s Team’ they would have to be beloved throughout the nation at a rate much higher than other teams. However, the Cowboys haven’t won a Super Bowl in seventeen years. They’ve struggled through mediocrity over the last decade. Are they still (or were they ever) ‘America’s Team’? Or is this just an ingenious marketing ploy that Jerry Jones has convinced sports 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, by using Facebook data, we have a better method for determining 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. Graphs and tables are below.

So what are some interesting takeaways from this fan data?

-The Dallas Cowboys do in fact appear to be ‘America’s Team’ by the raw numbers, or least ‘America’s Most Popular Team’. They have 3,754,280 fans on Facebook which is more than any other team.

-Teams that win (unsurprisngly)  are 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. Neither of these are surprising. Since there is no team in LA and the Giants share New York City with the Jets, the Bears have the biggest uncontested market in the league. The Cowboys, in addition to being ‘America’s Team’, 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 itself.

– 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% of each other. The Redskins and Ravens play about 50 miles apart an also are within 10% of each other in terms of fans.


And if you are curious of the precise numbers (as of July 2012):


The graph and the chart show the disparity in popularity of NFL teams. For example, the Cowboys have more than twelve times as many fans as the St.Louis Rams. To put this in perspective consider this: the percentage difference between Cowboys fans and Rams fans is actually less than the percentage difference between Rams fans and fans of the Spokane Shock (who, in case you don’t know, are Spokane, Washington’s Arena football team).

But it may be unfair to look at these extreme differences as teams like the Cowboys and Steelers are almost outliers in the number of fans they have. The Steelers have over one million more fans than the Patriots, despite the fact they are only one spot ahead in terms of 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 the local team.



We see that 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% of fans within 50 miles of Buffalo.

-Although three teams rank below it, the Carolina Panthers appear to have the least loyal fanbase. The Redskins, Raiders, and Jets all have teams within 50 miles of their stadium and therefore they share a home fanbase. The Panthers closest competitor are the Atlanta Falcons who play over 240 miles away from Charlotte.

-Of all teams who share a metropolitcan area with another team, the 49ers come out on top with 50% fan loyalty compared to the Raiders’ 28%. 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. This comes from the fact that 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 the MLB’s 30 teams comes in right behind in third with 22,238,860. The NHL, still nominally one of the four major sports leagues, has a total of 11,979,960 likes among its thirty teams making it short of reaching just one-third of the NFL’s total.

The NFL also 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 63 teams, only 13 have more fans than their NFL counterpart.


So if football is America’s most popular sport and the Cowboys are the most popular football team then the Cowboys mist be the most popular team, right?

Not so fast. There are two teams who have more fans than the Cowboys. The most popular American sports team (in terms of likes) are the Lakers who have just over five-million. Not only is this much more than the Cowboys, it  is almost two-million more fans than the second most popular basketball team the Celtics (who register just over three-million fans). Also edging out the Cowboys are the Yankees, who, with 3,781,980 Facebook likes, barely beat out the Cowboys at 3,754,280 Facebook likes.

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 all 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 can draws fans from all other the country.

To test this, a map of NFL fan bases was made. Although you may have seen similar maps to this before, those are usually based on television broadcast areas of where the NFL or television stations think fans of a certain team are located. By using Facebook data, I believe my ‘poll’ of over 37 million football fans on Facebook can claim to be the most accurate ever.

I divided the nation by congressional districts in making this map.  It surely is an arbitrary method that one could find fault with. However, based on unique geographic and demographic region each district is supposed to represent I thought it to be a fair method, especially considering mapping every town was an impossibility. While there is always a question of districts validity in grouping like people together, I can say with confidence none of these districts were gerrymandered to benefit one NFL team over another.

Each congressional district was shaded the with the team that has the most ‘likes’.


Breakdown by Region-


-The Saints are the dominant team in the South being the most popular team all throughout Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and infringing in to the panhandle of Florida.

-The Jaguars and Buccaneers each won their home district and those immediately surrounding it, but the Dolphins are clearly the leader throughout the state of Florida. 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 Carolina Panthers are not able to claim all of the Carolinas. The Cowboys are actually the most popular team in the parts of the Carolinas far away from Charlotte. This is as much of a reflection of the Cowboys universal appeal as it is a reflection of how small of a loyal fanbase the Panthers are able to draw regionally.

-Geographic identity clearly is an important part of fandom. The Falcons were able to claim all of Georgia (and no other areas) and despite 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 suburban area. Cowboys fans also dominated all of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Utah, and even the regions of Arizona just south of Phoenix.

-The Kansas City Chiefs, who are based in Kansas City 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 team. The Raiders, Chargers, and Cowboys were all close to equal in terms of total fans in the LA area and each claimed districts as their own.

-In Nevada, the Cowboys won the two districts located by Las Vegas while the 49ers won the one large 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 northern peninsula of Michigan and the Bears were able to win the northwesterly most district in Indiana.

-Iowa was split between the Bears and Vikings while Missouri was expectedly divided down the middle between the Rams and the Chiefs. Impressively, the Rams whose fanbase is less than 1/6 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 city geography. Kentucky was split between the Titans, Colts, and Bengals also roughly based on geographic 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 Long Island, while the Giants dominated the city, northern New Jersey, and northern New York.

-The Patriots are able to claim most of New England, except for the three southeasterly most districts in Connecticut who draw largely from the New York area and are 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 even with the huge disparity in distances.

So what did we learn from these maps? Unsurprisingly that almost all fanbases are geographically based and that state lines play an important part in fan identifiers. However, as is also clear the Cowboys were able to claim large contingents of fans from throughout the nation. In addition to its huge home base around the Texas area, the Cowboys can claim 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 640,000 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.


            So the Cowboys won a clear plurality of the ‘votes’, but not quite a majority. Still, based on their huge fan base and ability to remain the most popular team coast-to-coast, I think the Dallas Cowboys have earned the right to use the nickname  ‘America’s Team’.

Ben Blatt can be contacted at bbblatt@gmail.com.

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