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Why Philadelphia is a desert for college football fans

Philadelphia is a great sports town. Though the professional teams have been struggling lately, allegiances to the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers and Sixers are taken to extreme levels.

But what about college football? Ever feel like you can’t get anyone to join you to watch SEC football at the Fieldhouse, or pay the $7 or so it costs to attend a Temple game at the Linc? There’s a reason. Philadelphia might be one of the worst places to live in America if you want to enjoy college football.

The city lacks a big-time college football team and despite strides in the last few years Temple, the lone Division I FBS team within city limits, is still treading water compared to college football’s elite. Penn State, the area’s most popular team, will be starting its first season free from NCAA sanctions after dealing with them from 2012 to 2014 after the Sandusky scandal. So maybe that’s why it seems like pretty much nobody who lives in the Philadelphia area gives a damn about college football.

Billy Penn dissected some data and found out how many people are college football fans here, compared the city’s lack of a nearby team to other cities and isolated Philly’s most popular teams.  

Philly college football fans are a small group

In 2011, statistician and political poll realist Nate Silver calculated how many people are college football fans in several cities by using Google search data and television ratings. His findings? Only 20 percent of people in the Philadelphia region (about 1.65 million of 8.1 million) were fans. That number compares to other big cities like New York (14%), Los Angeles (17%) and Chicago (19%) but far behind places where football is a really big deal, like the South. About 85 percent of people who live in Birmingham care about college football and 41 percent of people who live in Atlanta.      

A poor college football location

The lack of a big-time college football team in the area might have to do with our collective college football apathy. The Power Five conferences, i.e. the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Pac 12, ACC, are generally understood to have the most talent and have made some of their own rules apart from the NCAA. Philadelphia doesn’t have one of them. In fact, no Power Five team is even nearby, especially compared to other big cities.  

Here are the 20 biggest cities in America and the closest FBS football team to them that is in the Power Five. For cities that have a college football team within their limits, the distance will be zero. Otherwise, the distance will be the driving mileage from the city’s central location chosen by Google to the location of the nearest Big Five college football team.

Football

Only six of the cities are a farther distance away from a major college football program. But three of those cities are in football-crazy Texas, where people would drive, fly, walk or swim infinite miles to catch a game. And the closest team is Rutgers. Do any of the people among the 20 percent of our population that are college football fans care about Rutgers? Well, sort of.

The most popular teams

The Common Census mapping project received 30,000 responses from college football fans nationwide. They were asked to give their favorite Division I FBS team and where they lived, allowing the Common Census to estimate the number of fans per team in a given area. The information is a little old, last updated in 2010, and not the most reliable given the sample size. So this data is for fun, not science.

And the data shows a surprising amount of apathy for Rutgers in the 50-mile vicinity of Philadelphia. Rutgers is the third-most popular team in Philadelphia. They’re not just behind Penn State and Temple, they’re waaaay behind. And according to Facebook data presented by the New York Times, Rutgers doesn’t even make the cut as being the third-most popular team in the actual city of Philadelphia. The little love it gets is from the ‘burbs.   

Here’s how the percentage of fans looks for the top five favorite teams in Philadelphia based on Common Census survey results, as well as an estimate of an aggregate number of fans per school based on the total number of people in the Philadelphia-area estimated to be college football fans by Nate Silver.

  1. Penn State: 39 percent, with approximately 643,500 fans
  2. Temple: 11 percent, with approximately 181,500 fans
  3. Rutgers: 9 percent, with approximately 141,500 fans
  4. Notre Dame: 4 percent, with approximately 70,950 fans
  5. Pittsburgh: 3 percent, with approximately 47,805 fans    

The overall winning percentage of those five teams the last five years is 57 percent. That’s actually pretty good, though Notre Dame, which has no ties to the area or even the state, is responsible for a disproportional amount of the victories.

But guess what? Super-popular powerhouse teams Notre Dame and Penn State are playing Temple at the Linc this year. At least on a couple days, Philadelphia might be a college football city.

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