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Spenders in the Grass: The Reach of College Football is Formidable and its Viewers Have Buying Power

4 minute read | December 2016

On Saturdays during the fall and early winter, biology and business majors alike—as well as graduates and general fans—set aside their textbooks and chosen life careers and focus their collective attention on the ritual of college football.

But for those who think the gridiron is no place for luxury marketers, think again. While high-end goods and services are often advertised amid certain sports genres, such as golf and tennis, a recent Nielsen study found that college football also reaches audiences that are both educated and affluent. Luxury brands, which don’t typically pitch their good and services via college football programming, might want to consider this opportunity.

The study found that more than 159 million people tuned into at least one minute of a college football game during the 2016 regular season alone—about a 3% increase over the regular 2015 college football season (September to December), which garnered a reach of nearly 155 million people. That’s more than 50% of the total U.S. viewing population. Comparatively, the NFL, the current sports king, had a reach of just under 200 million viewers for its 2015 regular season. Compared to the reach of regular seasons for other major American sports, college football rivals and, in some cases, tops them.

For this recently wrapped college season, nearly half the total viewers were female (about 77.5 million), about 28.7 million were Millennials ages 18-34 and 71.9 million were between the ages of 35 and 64 (which is nearly 60% of that demographics’ population). From an ethnicity standpoint, college football reaches about 23.5 million African-Americans and about 15 million Hispanics—that represents nearly 60% of all African-American viewers and nearly 30% of all Hispanic viewers.

College football fandom stretches from coast to coast, and its fans’ preference for who to root for has a regional slant. In fact, according to Nielsen Scarborough data, more than 102 million adults 18 and older identify as fans of college football across the country. This accounts for almost half of the total adult population from Nielsen’s measured designated market areas (DMAs).

And as you might expect, the highest concentrations of these fans don’t hail from the major metropolises of the East and West Coasts. Rather, they’re clustered in the South and Midwest—particularly around the homes of perennially successful pigskin programs like the Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Florida State Seminoles and Oklahoma Sooners. With Iron Bowl rivals Alabama and Auburn at the forefront, the Birmingham DMA displays the highest concentration of fans in the country, with almost 70% of its population identifying itself as a fan of the sport.

When looking at these fans at a characteristic and behavioral level, they also mean business—literally. Not only are they great in number and diverse, they’re also affluent, making these consumers highly covetable among luxury marketers.

According to data from Nielsen Sports’ Sponsorlink, a national, syndicated tracking study designed to measure consumer attitudes and consumption of different sports and their sponsors, college football fans are 23% more likely to make over $70,000 per year and are 11% more likely to be college graduates than the general population. They’re also 48% more likely to have traveled and stayed overnight to attend a sporting event. They’re also 30% more likely to own a business and 19% more likely to have investable assets worth more than $150,000. What’s more, these fans are 42% more likely to take action after seeing a sponsorship.

Viewing data further corroborates these characteristics, as overall reach gradually increases as viewers’ education and income rises.

During the regular 2016 college football season, about 58 million viewers lived in a household with an income of $100,000 or more—a big jump from the 51.5 million viewers from the 2015 season in the same demographic. Nearly 57 million viewers had four or more years of college under their belt— 626% more than the reach of viewers with one to three years of high school education.

While the potential buying power of college football viewers is evident, Nielsen looked at TV advertising spend and found that the viewer demographics of college football fans do present notable marketing opportunities for luxury brands.

Consider this: The top 10 brands alone spent nearly $152 million dollars on TV spots during the 2015 college football regular season—the most that the top 10 brands have spent on advertising over the previous five regular seasons. Despite the affluence of viewers, however, most of the advertisers were non-luxury brands, such as quick-service restaurants, telecom services and automotive/truck brands.

Knowing how to reach a diverse, activated and upscale viewer could help marketers—of luxury brands and beyond—up their own “scores” by crafting their messages to an audience that is willing, and ready, to listen.


The insights from this article are derived from the following Nielsen services:

  • Nielsen NPower: Reach based on various demographics and market breaks using a one-minute qualifier. 2016 Regular Season Data based on games from 08/26/2016 – 12/03/2016, 2015 Regular Season Data based on games from 09/03/2015 – 12/12/2015.
  • Nielsen Scarborough: Based on total adults 18+ that are recognized as a college football fan (very/somewhat/a little interested).
  • Nielsen Sponsorlink: A national, syndicated tracking study designed to measure consumer attitudes and consumption of different sports and their sponsors.
  • Nielsen Ad Intel: Ad spend based on top 10 brands that advertised during college football games from 2015 to 2011 regular seasons.

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