Nebraska: The most valuable brand in college athletics
November 25, 2021
Unlimited Sports/Nebraska News Service
LINCOLN--While the Collegiate Brand Value Index ranks the University of Nebraska-Lincoln the most valuable school in the nation, success in the world of name, image and likeness is far from guaranteed.
"There are lots of different lists out there, right of likes, who has the most social media followers, the highest level of revenue, and all kinds of things," said Matt Balvanz, a writer at Navigate Sports Business, who created a metric to measure the value of athletic brands. "But if you think about it, that doesn't really show the passion of the average fan."
The index, created in July 2020, balances three different factors that are weighted against each other and then totaled. What results is a useful tool to determine which schools have significant brand impact across the NCAA landscape.
To understand the weighted factors, start with the largest chunk, 45% for revenue per fan, using the revenue figures published by all public universities.
That is followed by a 40% weight for overall fan base size, drawn from established fan polling data taken by different subscriptions.
Finally, the model is rounded out with the last 15% as fan percentage of state population, a metric that plays perfectly into Nebraska's strengths.
"I thought to look more at revenue relative to fan base sizes, and fan base sizes relative to how big of markets that people live in," Balvanz said. "In Nebraska's case, even though it's just 15% of the model, they just perform so well on that metric that they dominate."
Back in September, Balvanz created the 2021 edition of the index and said he's committed to updating the index each year.
After the first update to the original list in 2020, the first trends began to emerge with four Big Ten schools remaining in the top 10, and none of them dropping a single rank. Including the number one school.
"Yep, this is the second year, and Nebraska was top in both years," Balvanz said.
Nebraska defended its title in 2021 and remains the top brand across the collegiate landscape, but its spot atop that throne may not last forever. Both Alabama and LSU, who round out the top three, gained ground on the Huskers in the second year of the index.
But since the two SEC schools are continuing to generate more revenue per fan, Nebraska could be eclipsed as soon as next year.
Without massive success on the football field, Nebraska is finding it more difficult to keep pace in its sales off the field compared other schools.
"The loyalty is there," said Andrew Ward, morning news anchor at Channel 8, ABC's news station in Lincoln. "But it's starting to get stretched thin a little bit with the amount of losing there's been."
A strong Nebraska football program is supported, often financially, by a strong fan base, but the number of wins and losses brings up a different point about the marketability of Nebraska athletes.
Do fans really care about how strong their brand is, if the team continues to lose on the field?
"When it's going well, it (Husker football) becomes one of the primary cultural exports to the rest of the country. It's one of the things that Nebraska is known for," said Omaha World-Herald reporter Dirk Chatelain. "I sense that there's just not as much emotional investment, as there was 15 to 20 years ago."
Chatelain said that long before name, image and likeness rules were developed for the NCAA, Nebraska fans were still supporting the program in various ways, like buying tickets.
"There's a sense that people will do whatever they have to do to help the football program," he said. "That means committing financially to athletes in ways that they wouldn't have been able to do a decade ago or even two years ago."
But Balvanz views his index as simply one piece to a very large puzzle that is name, image, and likeness.
"If you think of the best schools that set up for NIL opportunities, you can talk about the Alabama's just from a talent perspective," he said. "You also have to think of a lot of the big market schools that didn't make it in this list. A lot of that being due to the state population percentage metric."
An athlete using his or her name, image, and likeness in a bigger market would likely have more opportunities, based on sheer numbers.
But marketing in Nebraska's Midwest market has its unique advantages. For starters, there are no professional athletes to compete with.
"These are their professional athletes," Ward said. "When they look on TV, they're like, oh, I know that's Adrian Martinez. I want to be Adrian Martinez when I grow up,"
For the Huskers specifically, it's different. The University of Nebraska doesn't just have the small-to-medium-sized Lincoln market to lean on for its influence, it easily brings in the entire state.
Ultimately, that state-wide craze for the Huskers landed them as the top brand in the NCAA in the first place, with the final factor of fan base percentage of state population.
But Balvanz urges fans to be cautious and not draw concrete conclusions on unrelated, micro issues in the collegiate athletics world.
"This isn't that list of the biggest fan bases, right? And it's not that list of the most engaged social media followers," he said. "It's looking at more macro things than that."
For prospective college athletes, picking that landing spot is much more convoluted, Balvanz said. There's no sign that points each athlete to their perfect college opportunity.
So top high school athletes will continue to decide whether Nebraska could be that place, and whether indexes like this, can help them get there.
"Yeah, just one tool in your tool belt," Balvanz said.