The Color of Fandom
SUPPOSE an N.B.A. player is looking to build a large fan base. Is it an advantage to be a certain racial or ethnic background? Are players judged exclusively by their achievements and the logos on their uniforms? Or does the color of their skin come into play as well?
This is a long-debated question. For years, owners were accused of padding their benches with white players to increase a team’s fan base. The implicit assumption: If you are white, you will have more fans.
It has been difficult, if not impossible, to test the role race plays in fandom because we have had limited data on how popular different players are. But we now have probably the best data set ever accumulated on the fandom of N.B.A. players: Facebook likes.
I downloaded information on the likes of 215 N.B.A. players who have fan pages on Facebook.
Before we compare whether individual black or white players have more fans, we can compare whether black or white players in general tend to be cheered on more by people who share their skin color. Do white players have whiter fan bases and black players blacker fan bases?
Indeed, they do.
While Facebook does not ask users to denote their race, it uses a variety of information to identify someone’s ethnic affinity, which can be useful for targeting ads. My research suggests that this ethnic affinity measure correlates strongly with race.
Overall, I estimate that the average white player in the N.B.A. has a fan base that is 56.7 percent white and 22.7 percent black. The average black player has a fan base that is 46.7 percent white and 32 percent black, a significant difference.
Is there another explanation for this that has nothing to do with skin color?
Perhaps black and white Americans, on average, root for different teams, and the teams they root for happen to have more players that share their skin color.
Nope. The differences are the same if we limit the analysis to players on the same team.
Perhaps black and white Americans show different preferences for foreign players, who are twice as likely as American-born players to be white.
Nope. The differences are the same if we just limit the analysis to American-born players.
Perhaps black and white Americans, for whatever reason, like different types of players. Black Americans may like point guards who dish out lots of assists. Such players are more likely to be black. White Americans may like centers who collect lots of rebounds. Such players are more likely to be white.
Nope. Adding these factors does not change the fact that the race of a player influences the racial breakdown of his fans.
Perhaps less surprisingly, Asian-Americans make up a much larger portion of the fan base of Asian players than non-Asian players. This is driven almost entirely by the advent of Jeremy Lin, the Harvard-educated point guard born to Taiwanese immigrants who has proved a hero for Asian-Americans.
The popularity of Mr. Lin among Asian-Americans is so great that many of Mr. Lin’s largest fan bases are in cities in which he has never played, but which have large Asian populations, like Honolulu.
Clearly, a player’s skin color affects the demographic breakdown of his fan base. But how does it affect the size of his fan base? Do white fans give an edge to white players or black fans give an edge to black players?
To test this, we can utilize a social science tool called multi-variable regression, which allows us to model the factors that affect the size of a player’s fan base — his statistics, what team he plays for, his age, how many All-Star games he has participated in, the position he plays, whether he was born in America and, yes, his race.
When we do this, we find that there is a clear edge to being of a certain race. But it goes against what many white owners and journalists have long thought.
If a white and a black player are similar on paper, it is the black player who will have more fans.
Among black Americans, black players are roughly twice as popular as comparable white players. But black players get a slight boost from fans of every racial group. Compared with white players who are similar to them in all ways I could think to measure, black players have more fans among white Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian-Americans.
Honestly, I was blown away by the overall size of this advantage. Roughly speaking, I estimate that a white player would have to score 10 more points per game to have as big a fan base on Facebook as he would have if he were black.
Asian-Americans also have a huge advantage in building a fan base, although this is driven almost entirely by Mr. Lin, who is the 27th most popular player despite being the 80th most prolific scorer. Of the 30 most popular players, he is one of only two men who has never played in an N.B.A. All-Star game. The other is Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers. This initially made no sense to me: Mr. Thompson averages fewer than 10 points per game. But then a friend explained the likely reason to me: Mr. Thompson is dating Khloé Kardashian.
What should we make of the edge in support that black players get? It is of course possible that someone will find an alternative explanation for this correlation, but let’s assume that my analysis of the data holds up and that being black is a large advantage today for N.B.A. players trying to build a fan base. How should we interpret these results? Is it a bad thing or a good thing or nothing?
If the results were reversed — if white players got a big edge in support — this would clearly be bad news. There is strong evidence that black Americans are discriminated against in many crucial areas of life — jury decisions, police stops, job interviews, dating sites, presidential elections. If African-Americans were discriminated against in building a basketball fan base as well, it would show that white privilege can even show itself in one of the arenas in American life in which blacks have had tremendous success.
But African-Americans getting a boost in support? What should we make of that? I view this phenomenon as good news in at least two ways. I think it’s great that members of minority groups who face discrimination in many aspects of their lives show strong support for other members of the group. And it is also encouraging that many white fans will give some extra support to the country’s most successful minority athletes.