Just before midnight on the same day the Arizona Wildcats lost in the 2011 Elite Eight, police escorts kept busy as about 2,000 giddy fans showed up at McKale Center to welcome them home.
Maybe that wasn't a surprise, considering that after their 1997 NCAA title the Wildcats prompted more than 45,000 folks to party inside Arizona Stadium.
But those frenzied moments weren't what prompted Emory University professors to say Arizona had the second-best fan base in college basketball last week, behind only Louisville and ahead of other basketball blue-bloods such as Kansas and Kentucky.
Rather, it was the fact that Arizona still filled McKale Center to 95 percent of capacity in 2009-10, when the instability-damaged Wildcats lost 15 games and failed to reach the postseason for the first time since 1984.
And it was the fact that fans kept buying gear, watching the Wildcats on TV, and otherwise providing revenue for a program that averaged $18.9 million of gross income over the five seasons up through 2011-12.
Emory professors Michael Lewis and Manish Tripathi said their study used a regression model that essentially predicts what a program should generate based on its success, then rates programs on how they exceed or fall below that expectation.
For example, Lewis said, Arizona's Elite Eight team in 2004-05 would have been expected to generate 3.6 times the average revenue of Division I teams - but instead pulled in 6.9 times that amount.
Essentially, the Emory researchers said the study attempts to avoid bandwagon effects. It measures how well a program can generate money independent of on-court success or, in marketing terms, a program's "brand equity."
"We're not measuring the propensity of people to paint their faces," Lewis said, noting, "Let's call it fan equity based on a revenue-premium model."
Not surprisingly, the study generated controversy immediately after it was published last week.
Lewis said Kentucky fans, known to be as passionate as any in the country, were "in an uproar" that their Wildcats finished seventh in the rankings. He also noted that one online comment said "all this proves is that people in Tucson are rich, old people."
Meanwhile, Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy criticized the study as "complete hooey," noting that the supportive fans of Kansas and Creighton didn't make the list while those at Oklahoma State did.
"Income is a ridiculous way to measure the 'best fans,'" DeCourcy wrote. "Is the person in the luxury box or courtside seat automatically more engaged than the fan in the nosebleeds? If a season-ticket holder gets his seat at a discount by buying the full package and sits next to someone who paid double face value on StubHub, is the person who used the secondary market a better fan?"
In their blog, Lewis and Tripathi noted the following:
"One possible point of controversy is that Arkansas rates higher than Kentucky," they wrote. "The key is that while both Arkansas and Kentucky receive outstanding support, Arkansas' support occurs despite less on-court success. The other possible interpretation is that Kentucky tends to underprice and may collect less revenues than possible."
Lewis said the study aimed to be as clean and conservative as possible, even though many statistics in it are "sticky" to deal with.
At the same time, he said researchers were trying to have a little fun with a topic that generates much more buzz than many academic papers can.
"I'm not saying we're not rigorous, but we're doing it on the fly using simple regression methods," Lewis said, "with the goal being we want to use the numbers to see why teams and leagues do what they do."
Essentially, the model considers winning percentage, conference affiliation, NCAA tournament success and arena size to come up with an expected revenue figure for each school. Lewis said he used 10 years of data to develop a regression model, then plugged in the last five years of each school's data to rank their brand equity.
Louisville ranked first on the national list, followed by UA, then Duke, Arkansas and North Carolina. Within the Pac-12, Arizona was trailed by UCLA, Washington, Stanford and Cal.
The Wildcats, of course, have led the Pac-12 in basketball attendance every season since 1983-84, Lute Olson's first at Arizona.
So the news from Emory, then, was hardly news to Arizona AD Greg Byrne.
"I don't think it's any surprise," Byrne said. "We have one of the most passionate fan bases in the country, and this is another example of that passion. We're very proud of it, and it allows us to be one of the best possible men's basketball programs and one of the best athletic departments in the country.
"Louisville has a great program, as do all of those in the top 10. We're certainly pleased to be a part of it."
On StarNet: Follow the Cats through the offseason at azstarnet.com/pascoe
Best fan bases
As cited by an Emory University study emphasizing brand equity:
5. North Carolina
10. Oklahoma State
Best Among original Pac-10 schools
8. Oregon State
10. Washington State
Arizona basketball revenue vs. results
Year Coach Revenue Expenses Net Record Postseason Avg. home attendance*
2011-12 Sean Miller 20.34 7.96 12.38 23-12 NIT 13,602
2010-11 Sean Miller 21.21 6.92 14.29 30-8 Elite Eight 13,680
2009-10 Sean Miller 19.29 5.81 13.48 16-15 None 13,815
2008-09 Russ Pennell 17.52 6.13 11.39 21-14 Sweet 16 13,681
2007-08 Kevin O'Neill 16.42 4.39 12.03 0-14** First round 14,218
2006-07 Lute Olson 16.71 3.49 13.22 20-11 First round 14,202
2005-06 Lute Olson 14.89 3.57 11.32 20-13 Second round 14,587
2004-05 Lute Olson 16.62 4.13 12.49 30-7 Elite Eight 14,558
2003-04 Lute Olson 13.50 4.09 9.41 20-10 First round 14,561
(Revenue and expense figures in millions)
* Capacity of McKale Center is 14,545
** All wins and UA's NCAA appearance were vacated in 2007-08 because of NCAA sanctions. Actual on-court record was 19-15.