College football: Recent study reveals the 16 biggest fan bases (2024)

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Robbie Weinstein

College football is almost back, as the first games of the 2022 season kick off on Saturday, Aug. 27, as part of Week 0 action. With COVID-19 restrictions well in the rearview mirror, one can expect to see electric atmospheres right off the bat as fans pack stadiums and show what makes the college gamehold such a special place in the sporting world. Most of the top matchups won't take place until the first weekend in September, but Week 0 will still whet everyone's appetites.

Some of the biggest brands in college football are sitting at the top of the preseason polls this year, with Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia among the experts' favorites. It looks like the relative parity of last season might be gone — the most historic programs with the biggest fan bases are primed to rule this season.

Ahead of the season, college football fan Tony Altimore of the consulting firm AltimoreCollins conducted multiple studies, in part, intended to measure the estimated size of various fan bases across college football. The data provide an interesting look at which programs have the highest upside resource-wise; more fans can mean more revenue, of course.

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Here is how Altimore's study ranked the largest fan bases in college football, with size estimates included.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

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Fan base size: 11.26 million

Not a big shocker here. Ohio State boasts one of the best combinations of long-term history and recent success, plus it owns a massive alumni base as one of the nation's biggest schools. And it is by far the flagship football program in one of the 10 most populous states in the country.

That's a difficult combination for anyone to beat. Although questions remain about the Buckeyes' ability to break through and win the College Football Playoff under coach Ryan Day, they have all of the resources they could ask for thanks in part to an absolutely massive fan base.

2. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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Fan base size: 8.21 million

Although Notre Dame is one of just three private universities on this list, its affiliation with the Catholic church means that one can find Fighting Irish fans anywhere in the United States. There is no more widely dispersed and geographically diverse fan base in college sports, and it's not even close. That gives coach Marcus Freeman and his staff a massive advantage in recruiting, as recruiting nationally isn't a problem at all.

Starting quarterback Tyler Buchner, for example, is from California. So was Ian Book. Since the state of Indiana is more so known for basketball than football, it's crucial that Notre Dame takes advantage of its widespread national appeal.

3. Texas Longhorns

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Fan base size: 7.82 million

A no-brainer in the top three, Texas is by far the top program historically in a football-crazed state that is also the second-most populous in the country. The Longhorns' history goes way back, and they have also won a national championship relatively recently in the grand scheme of things, back in January 2006.

Having said that, Texas loses some in-state fans to Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU and others. So the burnt orange faces significantly more competition than, say, Ohio State. Texas might be tough to beat on this list if coach Steve Sarkisian can make the program a national title contender again and ignite the casuals.

4. Penn State Nittany Lions

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Fan base size: 6.36 million

Bigalumni base, strong program historically, a top conference and location within one of the nation's most populous states with little competition at the FBS level. In short, Penn State checks just about every box. What might hold the Nittany Lions back slightly would be the recent lack of true national championship contender status, as well as the presence of Pitt, another Power Five program with solid history of its own in state.

Pennsylvania isn't really known as the biggest football state ever, either. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are both pro sports towns that are farther away from Penn State than some might expect.

5. Michigan Wolverines

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Fan base size: 6.26 million

While Michigan does have to contend with nearby Big Ten rival Michigan State, there is no contesting the fact that the Wolverines are the state's premier college football program. The maize and blue probably win quite a bit more among non-alumni as well, as Michigan is a relatively difficult school to get into and has a smaller undergraduate population than MSU as well as a number of other Big Ten universities.

The history is where Michigan wins big. U-M still ranks first all-time in wins, although Ohio State isstarting to close in on that title.

6. Florida Gators

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Fan base size:5.89 million

Florida wins on its history and location, as it is located smack-dab in the middle of one of the richest football states in America. The downside is that Florida faces significant in-state competition from Florida State and Miami, both of which have won national championships since the turn of the century. No other states can say that they have three national champions during that span.

The Gators really flexed their muscles under Urban Meyer, effectively doing to the SEC what Alabama has done since Nick Saban took over. That runprovided a glimpse ofFlorida's massive upside.

7. Oregon Ducks

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Fan base size: 5.54 million

An interesting one here, especially since we still haven't seen Alabama yet. Fueled in part by generous financial support by Phil Knight — an alumnus and the founder of Nike — Oregon took a big step forward as a program under former coach Chip Kelly just over 10 years ago. That affiliation with Nike manifested itself in the type of "cool" factor that surely won over lots of fans outside the state of Oregon. Those jerseys have always stood out.

Oregon also fielded some of the most explosive, exciting teams in college football under Kelly and has remained one of the Pac-12's best programs since. Although the Ducks were a consistently good team under former coach Mike Bellotti, the Kelly days surely did a lot of work to enlarge the fan base especially out of state.

8. Alabama Crimson Tide

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Fan base size: 5.34 million

Finally, the top program in college football shows up. From a pure fan base size standpoint rather than fan base passion, Alabama is at a bit of a disadvantage relative to schools like Ohio State, Texas and Michigan simply because it is located in a less populous state. Auburn also provides some in-state competition. Butit is hard to imagine that any other states are as passionate about college football on a per-capita basis than Alabama.

Winning helps. Alabama has done plenty of that under Saban, andhe's not slowing down.

9. Wisconsin Badgers

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Fan base size: 4.57 million

Although Wisconsin sometimes flies under the radar nationally due to how Ohio State, Michigan and sometimes even Penn State overshadow it within the Big Ten, this is a state that has tremendous passion for its team. That not only shows up in football, but Wisconsin's men's basketball program is known for getting excellent support as well.

Wisconsin has produced consistent winners on the gridiron, and it's the only show in town. It helps that this is a football-crazed state, and not just at the professional level with the Green Bay Packers. The Badgers own a decent-sized state, and being a part of this fan base is a lot of fun too from a tailgating perspective with Spotted Cow, brats and cheese curds aplenty. That can't hurt.

10. USC Trojans

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Fan base size: 4.46 million

Similar to Notre Dame, many of USC's fans likely did not attend the university, which is private and not particularly big. But the Trojans have long had one of the glitziest football programs in the country and have plenty of national titles to show for it. Exciting players like Reggie Bush even all the way back to OJ Simpson can create lots of fans nationwide.

Helping matters is USC's location in the middle of the country's second-biggest city, Los Angeles. The Trojans have taken a step back as a program since Pete Carroll left for the Seattle Seahawks in 2009, and they might be able to grow the fan base even more if coach Lincoln Riley gets things going while fielding a pass-heavy offense that puts up tons of points. Like Oregon, USC gets lots of coolness points.

11. LSU Tigers

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Fan base size:4.02 million

Along the same lines as Alabama, LSU isn't located the most populous state but earns lots of points for Louisianans' passion for football. And like Wisconsin, it is incredibly fun to be an LSU football fan on game day thanks to a great atmospherein Tiger Stadium and even better tailgating outside it.

The Tigers have been one of the most successful programs of the 21st century, most recently winning the College Football Playoff to cap their historic 2019 season. There is no question over who owns the state of Louisiana, either, as LSU is the only Power Five program around.

12. Georgia Bulldogs

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Fan base size: 3.99 million

This might be a bit of a surprise considering the state of Georgia's population, although Atlanta is really a pro sports town. Still, UGA's football program has plenty of history even though it had been over 40 years since its last national championship before it won the CFP last season.

Georgia Tech is an in-state Power Five team, although the Yellow Jackets aren't a big draw. The Bulldogs figure to cultivate plenty of new, young fans over the next few years if they continue playing at a national championship-caliber level under coach Kirby Smart.

13. Texas A&M Aggies

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Fan base size: 3.87 million

Texas becomes the first state to get two teams on this list, which partially shows why the Longhorns couldn't get higher than third despite the incredible strength of their brand. A&M is a legitimate power of its own and takes away fans within the state — it has a massive alumni base, as well.

Not to mention, the Aggies haveprobably gained some ground on the Longhorns over the last few years amid Texas'run of inconsistency. A&M gets to host Alabama every two years, and Kyle Field is known as one of the best places in the sport to go watch a game. Texas' move to the SEC might hurt the Aggies though, as fans have grumbled about a Big 12 home schedule that can be lacking and doesn't generate as much excitement.

14. Syracuse Orange

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Fan base size: 3.45 million

A bit of a head-scratcher here. Syracuse has not done much on thegridiron in the 21st century and isn't one of the better programs in the ACC. As a private school, its enrollment and thus its alumni base are smaller than those of most of the universities on this list.

Maybe its location in New York plays a role here? Syracuse hasattempted to branditself as "New York's College Team," but it is still located roughly four hours away from New York City. The Orange doesn't own a particularly strong national brand in football, either, although it does in basketball. It's odd to see Syracuse ahead of Auburn, Tennessee, Washington, Florida State, Miami and many others.

15. Auburn Tigers

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Fan base size: 3.27 million

Certainly Auburn loses lots of in-state fans to Alabama, but the Tigers own a strong fan base of their own as well as significant history. Any program like Auburn that is at least an intermittent contender at the national level and within the SEC is going to generate a lot of excitement.

Auburn's history goes way back and features a number of legendary players like Bo Jackson, Pat Sullivan and more recently Cam Newton. Football is a massive part of the state of Alabama's culture, and the passion of Auburn fans always becomes evident when they get upset with their head coach. That showed up in the form of a booster-led mutiny that nearly ousted coach Bryan Harsin after just one season.

16. Tennessee Volunteers

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Fan base size: 3.27 million

Another extremely passionate SEC fan base — and that's despite a relative lack of success over the past 20 years following the Volunteers' famed 1998 national championship. Tennessee fans pack Neyland Stadium and range far and wide across the Volunteer State.

Pretty big alumni base, decent-sized state, and of course UT is a clear football school as well. Most of the ingredients for a big fan base are here, and if anything the recent on-field struggles have only made these fans hungrier rather than discouraged or uninterested.

College football: Recent study reveals the 16 biggest fan bases (2024)
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