Sunday, July 02, 2006

Mapping the Fringes

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on November 4, 2005.)

Any map freaks out there? Anyone looking for a sports map of the US you can play Risk on? You want a fascinating look at sports allegiances in the fringes of this country? Check out the maps of sports fandom.

Begun this past September, the Common Census Map Project is an attempt to define the US by geographic and cultural allegiances. From the main page you can alert the project to your hometown, the city closest to your hometown, and the big city nearest that city. It’s like a Wikipedia-census, an open source account of where people are in America and where they consider themselves “from.”

The map doesn’t adjust itself, though, with each respondent. Instead, the archivists wait until certain response thresholds have been met. It makes fascinating reading, though, as visitors to the site can see what the census map looked like after 4,000 responses, 8,000 responses, 16,000 responses, and the current one which represents 24,000 responses. The next version will be published after 32,000 votes, which should happen shortly after this article publishes.

And as I mentioned in the teaser paragraph, the project also charts the sports allegiances of respondents. The site has maps for the fan bases of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and NCAA I-A football. And for whatever reason, these maps are updated far more frequently than the main project’s map. Obviously, these maps have some serious flaws, most notably the lack of representative data from across the country. Currently, the votes are skewed heavily toward the northeast, as witnessed by the fact that, as of this writing, Boston College football has more votes of allegiance than the University of Miami and Florida State combined.

I need a stand-alone sentence to emphasize how stupid that is.

Nonetheless, these maps offer a pretty cool look at regional loyalties. Each one allows users to look closely, within a fifty mile diameter, at what allegiances people in particular areas hold.

On the college football map, for example, the plurality of respondents in New Hampshire support Boston College, but Notre Dame is close behind. Make’s sense: Notre Dame’s the most famous Catholic school in the country. And New Hampshire is largely Catholic, having gotten populated and papaled by French Canadians and Boston Irish.

Sure BC, is Catholic too, but Notre Dame is far more famous and prestigious. Heck, thirty years ago BC was on the verge of financial ruin; the University of Massachusetts was planning on buying its campus for UMass-Boston. And geographically, you’d think BC would leave Notre Dame in the dust, but seriously – how long has BC had football? Pretty much since Doug Flutie. Sure there was football before at BC, but it doesn’t count. Kind of like all those guys who went to the USFL and then went to the NFL; no one cares that Jim Kelly passed for over 5200 yards with the Houston Gamblers in 1984. And so BC wins out in the fringes of its own market, but only barely.

Anomalies like this assert themselves in every sport and all over the country. On the NFL map, the Packers are most popular around Green Bay: Wisconsin, the upper peninsula of Michigan, and western Iowa. Beyond that, according to the map they receive the most ardent support from pockets of rural Mississippi. This looks asinine to anyone who doesn’t pay attention to the NFL, but those fans among us realize that those rural Mississippians are cheering for one of their own – Brett Favre, Gulfport's favorite son.

In the fringes of sports fandom, without a major sports team nearby to hook our loyalties, other factors become dominant. To whose farm system does our local minor league team belong? What team drafted our favorite player from the state university’s basketball team that unexpectedly went 20-6 last year? What team does that local guy play for? Where geographic proximity is the strongest pull of teams in the middle of major markets, idiosyncratic randomness is often the strongest pull of teams for people in the fringes.

Now look at the baseball map. New York state is dominated by the Yankees, with pockets of resisting Mets fans (give Steinbrenner time, though – eventually Selig will let him liquidate those holdouts). But the middle of the state is largely Red Sox fans. Why? How did so many Red Sox fans end up in the Middle of Nowhere, NY?

The answer: college. Red Sox allegiance dominates central New York because there are a ton of liberal arts schools there that kids in New England fall over themselves applying to. Every year, Syracuse, Hamilton, Colgate and others attract thousands of young, die hard Red Sox fans to their campuses. This shifts the balance of fandom.

This particular issue – and actually, the Common Census Map Project in general – brings up several key questions: What defines a media market? Who populates those markets? What are the allegiances of those people and -- last but certainly not least -- Where do markets end?

According to Nielsen’s Listing of Media Markets, central New York essentially falls under two different media markets: Syracuse (#76) and Utica (#166). But according to the project’s main map, that area is pretty evenly divided between cultural ties to New York City and Syracuse. Does that mean that the heart of the Syracuse market is bleeding into the New York suburbs? Or is Syracuse simply a media market in name only, and actually functions as a very organized fringe to New York City?

And Utica is actually smaller than Manchester, New Hampshire, yet receives its own media market while Manch Vegas is officially tied to Boston. Is that to make Boston feel better? Does Boston need to stuff a potato down its population pants to compensate for a smaller than expected viewing audience? Or is Utica the one being humored? (Which would, of course, bring up the question: “Of whom does Utica have naked pictures that it warrants being humored?”)

And what kind of market is it, anyway, when most of those people don’t feel any loyalty to that market? Boston could be said to have that problem too, as the city attracts more college kids than almost anywhere, but manages to counteract that by browbeating most of those students into cheering for our sports teams, particularly the Red Sox. That clearly doesn’t happen in central New York. Does that make it a typical or atypical example of how things can be weird on the fringes of media markets?

Market fringes aren’t easy to describe because they’re different everywhere. What defines Mississippians’ loyalty to the Packers does not define central New York’s loyalty to the Red Sox. In the center of media markets, sports are easier to describe – Denver roots for the Broncos because they’re right there. Same for Seattle and the Mariners. And Long Island and the Islanders.

I admit that I’m going to be writing more about New Hampshire and Boston than about the fringes in other media markets. But every once in a while I intend to return to the fringes of other markets and sports fandom in general, just to see how others live there. The sports maps on the Common Census Map Project are a good tool to do that, and since they’re updated so frequently I might return sometimes to review how they’re progressing. They hint at the complexities of sports fans in the outlands of TV, radio and newspapers. The project shows apparent randomness, that frequently doesn’t make sense, but at least it’s got cool maps to play with.

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