College Football Fans Are Devoted, Right to the End

As another college football season winds down, there is nearly as much talk of conference realignment and television packages as there is of wins and losses. The Big Ten, already earning more than $240 million a year from its own TV network, last week added two more media markets by inviting Maryland and Rutgers to join the conference.

The bounty of earnings from big-time college sports would be unthinkable without the millions of fans eager to watch games on TV, in real time. Surveys suggest there are some 75 million Americans who follow college football alone.

The New York Times’ Nate Silver estimates that Ohio State, by itself, has more than 3 million fans, while newly added Maryland has “only” 474,000.

For many of these fans — whether they attend games in person or tune in on television — there exists a bond to their favorite universities that runs far deeper than the brand loyalties consumers may feel for the products they buy. It’s devotion, pure and simple.

I discovered fresh evidence of this devotion in an unusual place — obituaries. These published accounts, normally written by a loved one rather than a journalist, are the closest thing to a biography most of us will ever have. Not only do they provide information about a person’s family, education and employment, most also add details about hobbies and personal interests. I was surprised to discover how many obituaries mention college sports teams and the devotion people have toward them.

Some examples: “He loved fishing and spending time with family and friends, as well as showing his love for his Crimson Tide.” “Everything came to a halt when her beloved Sooners played.” “Till the very last, she would don Fighting Irish sweat bands, turn on the game and fret over every play.”

To find out more about devoted fans like these, I searched online for fans of different universities, focusing on teams with distinctive nicknames. I did searches for 26 different universities across the country, gathering 50 obituaries each, for a total of 1,300.

The departed are described as “a loyal Illini fan,” “a passionate KU Jayhawks fan,” “a dyed-in-the-wool Nebraska Cornhusker fan,” “a Tar Heel through and through,” and “always and forever an avid Gator fan.”

True to type, men outnumbered women in these 1,300 obituaries, by a three-to-one margin, but there is no stereotyping these men: “(He) was an easy going Polish boy who loved the Packers, Badgers, polka music and most of all his grandchildren.” “He was a gardener and woodworker, a voracious reader, and an avid Hawkeye supporter.” “He could often be found watching his beloved UT Longhorns in a three-point stance.”

A third of the fans in my sample were alumni. For example, “He enrolled at Texas A&M and earned a B.S. degree in agriculture in 1939. For the rest of his life remained a loyal Aggie — is there any other kind?”

But many more of these devoted fans were linked only by geography, with more than three-fourths having lived in the state where the university is. In fact, a lot of these fans never attended college at all.

What these obituaries reveal is that fans are not merely customers. It may seem silly, but the loyal fan feels an authentic emotional bond to “his beloved Terps” or “her beloved UCLA Bruins.” These fans represent a populist connection linking otherwise inaccessible academic institutions to ordinary citizens. And it happens only in America, because only here do universities engage in commercial sports.

To be sure, these bonds of devotion can tempt universities to compromise important principles on the way to a winning season. But they also may bolster political support for America’s great flagship universities.

Ultimately, they demonstrate a reality that universities are not just about teaching and research, but sports and devotion, too.

Charles Clotfelter is a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and author of “Big-Time Sports in American Universities” (2011). This commentary was originally posted in The New Jersey Star-Ledger on Nov. 30, 2012.