Despite an undergraduate student population far smaller than that of other traditional college football powerhouses, a study from this past summer found Notre Dame to have the second largest fanbase in college football at an estimated 8.21 million.
The study, put together by strategy consultant Tony Altimore at Altimore Collins & Company, ranked the top-16 largest college football fanbases. It found Ohio State to have the largest fanbase in the country at 11.26 million fans. Texas trailed Notre Dame at number three, followed by Penn State and Michigan.
Altimore, who attended USC and has worked with consulting companies such as Deloitte and Booze Allen, as well as the CIA, used sources such as FiveThirtyEight, The New York Times and Vivid Seats to draw his conclusions. He normalized his findings with data from the census and Google. Although he admits the data is “not perfect,” Altimore said he was able to document insightful findings about loyalties toward college football programs.
“What I really wanted to do was help sports fans see how the teams they rooted for aligned with the college’s institutional strategy,” Altimore said. “Sports are just a small chunk of what a university is.”
Notre Dame differentiates itself from most universities by how it establishes a unique identity outside of football, Altimore explained.
Many of the colleges with top fanbases have a strong “sense of place” and encapsulate “the essence of its people,” he said. Football teams like Ohio State, West Virginia and USC align their branding and image with their respective state and regions and subsequently draw many fans simply due to geography.
“Someone in southern Indiana might not necessarily always root for the Fighting Irish. They may be a Purdue fan, or even an IU (Indiana University) fan,” Altimore said. “But for the majority of people in Ohio, they feel a connection to OSU and feel as though they can root for it.”
According to Altimore, Notre Dame doesn’t necessarily shine in the proximity of its fanbase or even the size of its alumni network. Altimore said what makes Notre Dame such a national fanbase is its unique and successful branding, along with its track record and deep football history.
“Notre Dame has a great combination of national recognition, relevance and strong brand identity,” Altimore said. “Notre Dame fans are everywhere.”
Whereas colleges like USC appeal to a large population of fans, they are mostly concentrated in Los Angeles, with fans that tend to “fully lean into L.A. stereotypes,” Altimore said. Notre Dame fans are so spread out across the nation that they do not have to live in South Bend or graduate from the University to feel a part of the fanbase, he said.
Notre Dame’s Catholic identity and reputation as a premier academic institution create an inviting brand image that appeals to a wide variety of fans across the U.S., Altimore said. Notre Dame also brings in fans who attended small Catholic schools with no football teams. Notre Dame has such a large fanbase, he explained, that it is the leading college football fanbase in New York City.
But it’s not just the University’s Catholic heritage and academic rigor that make Notre Dame an attractive fanbase.
“Winning matters,” Altimore said.
This is why football teams from the Ivy League have deteriorated in recent decades, he explained, because although they draw a lot of national recognition and have large alumni bases, they do not experience much success on the gridiron. Because of their poor track records, children of Ivy League fans tend not to become fans themselves, Altimore said.
While Notre Dame has not won a national championship since 1988, they have consistently stayed relevant with successful regular seasons.
Altimore said he was surprised to find that fanbase size did not affect television and streaming ratings as much as he assumed it would.
“People who watch college football don’t just watch their team,” Altimore explained. “They also tune in to watch their competition. People will watch Notre Dame games whether or not they like Notre Dame because Notre Dame is a relevant team who are fun to watch.”
Drawing from this data also allowed Altimore to make predictions about the future of college football fanbases and viewings. Altimore believes the sport might start to see a split in fanbases, similar to British football teams.
“In Britain, fans cheer for local teams just based off of proximity, as well as cheer for one of the globally recognized teams like Manchester United or Chelsea.”
Altimore thinks that college football might be headed that way as well.
“Fans might cheer for Southern Illinois because they live close to it but also cheer for Notre Dame because they like the Irish.”
Contact Gracie Eppler at firstname.lastname@example.org.