Academic Research

Our sports and fandom analytics projects

The core of the Fanalytics Project is a program of applied research sponsored by the Emory Marketing Analytics Center. This research program focuses on a wide variety of sports and fandom analytics projects. The projects range from league level analyses of how revenue sharing influences competitive balance to studies of the importance of mascots.


The projects are always applied in nature and executed using data and advanced analytics techniques. Techniques range from simple linear regression to dynamic optimization and machine learning. We also make it a point to ground our work in economic and psychological theory. This is an important distinction because for analytics to have an impact the models need to be consistent with how humans make decisions.


The research is reported in a variety of formats. In addition to a brief overview of the project that includes contextual details and key insights we also provide academic publications, working papers or popular press versions.

Of all the sports analytics work that I have done, perhaps the most surprising (to myself) has been my work on team names and mascots. I’m also a little surprised at how frequently folks want to talk about issues surrounding mascots. I probably take a dozen calls per year from journalists about various mascot issues.

(July 2020 Update –With the Washington DC Football team in the process of finding a new name, the volume has bumped up).

I came to the study of mascots based on a personal curiosity. I’m an Illinois graduate and witnessed the controversy surrounding the “retirement” of Chief Illiniwek. As always in these controversies, there is a lot of passion on both sides. My interest was a bit different. I was interested in the potential impact of team name changes on schools’ brand equity. In other words, I was interested in the business side of the discussion.

The linked article provides an OpEd piece related to my work on valuing mascots. The basic research question is how does a team name or a mascot change effect the value of a team’s brand or the loyalty of its fans. It is a tricky empirical challenge. I have a good deal of experience in measuring brand equity in sports but in this case.

It is hard to separate out the effects of team names and mascots because these things rarely change. And when controversial mascots do change, they only shift in one direction. My research approach on this project was to do the we can with the available data and to happily acknowledge the limitations. Why Does it Matter? I’ve come to love the study of mascots and it is one of my favorite topics to discuss.

Though I should add, that it is the topic on which I am most frequently misquoted or my views are misrepresented. In particular, liberal media outlets have often “selectively” edited my comments. It is also a topic that has some pretty interesting theoretical fundamentals. Some may believe that it just doesn’t matter if the names and symbols that are the foundation for a team’s brand are animals (Lions, Tigers or Bears), professions (Cowboys, Packers, or Steelers) or something else (Red Sox, Jazz or Lakers). There is merit to this opinion.

Winning traditions and a history of star are much more important for building sports brands. The Lakers are the perfect example. If the team has won 16 championships and is located in a media mecca it doesn’t matter if there aren’t too many lakes in the vicinity of the stadium.

But, at a fundamental level there exists a relationship between a team and its fans. Team names and mascots often provide a means for creating a focal object that can represent the team’s side of the relationship.

In some ways this is old school marketing. Charlie the Tuna or the Green Giant is the personification of the brand. The Cowboy is the symbol for the Dallas football team, Reveille is the shared pet of all Texas AM fans and Philadelphia hockey fans probably hope that Gritty haunts the nightmares of Rangers fans.

Hope you enjoy the piece and appreciate how it fits into the the larger topic of brand building in sports. And finally, Uga is the best mascot.
Politics: Just Another Kind of Fandom?
In addition to sports, I have also done research in the area of political campaigns.

Consumers, fans and voters all share some broad similarities. For example, brand loyalty, fan loyalty and party loyalty are all built on a combination of preferences, habits, and identity. The relative value of these factors may vary across contexts but choices of and loyalty to brands, teams and candidates can be studied with the same methods and theories.

Below you will find links to two academic papers related to politics.The first paper examines how candidate appearance influence electoral outcomes. Other researchers have found that having a “competent” appearance tend to do better in electoral contests. They actually find that the more competent appearing candidate tends to win the majority of election contests.

Our approach is more fine grained. We consider a variety of appearance measures –competent, intelligent, likable, honest and several others. We also consider the possibility that candidate appearance operates differently across the two parties. In fact, we find significant differences in the ideal appearance of Republicans and Democrats. Read the paper – but the short hand summary is that Republicans do better when they look like the football coach while Democrats excel when they look like faculty.

The second paper delves into the subject of political advertising. Studying advertising effectiveness is challenging because advertising spending is usually a function of candidate popularity and other attributes. This usually translate to the more popular candidate having more money to spend. We use an innovative identification strategy to understand the true effects of candidate advertising.

More importantly, we also look into how the source of advertising (candidate versus PAC) influences advertising effectiveness. In general, we find that advertising by outside groups tends to be ineffective. This finding is important for a variety of controversies and debates ranging from regulating campaign spending by outside groups and event the likelihood of a few thousand dollars in Russian interference mattering.
Competitive Balance & Revenue Sharing
The rules of the game determine how the game is played. Incentives matter. These are obvious but important concepts when designing sports leagues (or public policy implementations). When I think about how teams and players make decisions, I often come back to these fundamental concepts. The league sets the rules and then players and teams make decisions that maximize their individual benefits.

Examples are abundant. Teams “tank” to get better draft choices. Tanking occurs because losing more games results in getting better future talent. Teams cut veterans and go with younger players who are not yet eligible for free agency. Teams shift to rookies because these players have less bargaining power and are cheaper.

The research linked to on this page reports the results of analyses related to revenue sharing in Major League Baseball. The research was conducted at a time when the league was concerned that the Yankees would dominate the league by out spending other teams. While this fear has faded it is a classic issue in sports – teams with better brands and revenue potentials can outspend small market rivals.

Baseball’s answer to this was to develop a system of revenue sharing that penalized teams for exceeding some “luxury” threshold. The problem was that this system created an incentive for teams to become less competitive on the field. Again, it is a simple idea. If you create an incentive for poor performance (transfer payments based on local revenues or better draft picks for losing more games) you will get more “poor” performance. The problem with such a system is that you can reduce competitive balance. Competitive balance matters if you believe that it’s important for every team to have a chance at being a winner.

To study the issue, I created a structural dynamic programming model of team’s decision making. This is a statistical model that captures how dynamic concerns such as building a fan base and short-term preferences for winning influence team’s decisions of how much to invest in payroll.

The results suggest that the key to avoid “tanking” is to base revenue sharing on winning and population rather than on local revenues. In other words, create incentives for being competitive rather than incentives for losing.

The research is reported in two forms. The first is a link to a New York Times piece that explains the results to a general audience. The second is a link to the academic paper in the Journal of Marketing Research. This one provides the full details and shows some hardcore sports analytics.
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