Heading into the 2023-2024 NFL season, the AFC North looks to be the strongest division in football.
Buoyed by four highly rated quarterbacks, the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers all have a shot at making the playoffs this season.
Ask a fan of any of the AFC North teams who will win the division and you’ll instantly get the answer you’d expect. Even when the odds are long at Ohio online sportsbooks, going into practically every season fans in the AFC North are ride-or-die for their team. In the past few years, Super Bowl predictions by AFC North team stans that look ridiculous in hindsight are made willy-nilly in the lead up to the season.
That’s what is great about the fanbases of the AFC North. Pre-season, hope springs eternal. And even if things go sideways for a team as the season moves along, fans of the teams of the AFC North will still be rockin’ the merch and cheering (and groaning) along at home or in the stands until the bitter, merciful end.
Which AFC North fanbase is the best? Let’s take a look.
NFL fanbase rankings based on stats
First, let’s check out where the AFC North team fanbases stand in other NFL-wide rankings.
Some rankings stick to the numbers and offer a more scientific view of fandom.
Last summer, Clemson University mathematical science major Keegan Sullivan ranked the fanbases of the 32 NFL teams based on total number of fans, attendance and merchandise purchased. Keegan based his ranking on data and a survey of around 5,000 fans taken from the past five years (2017-2022).
Here’s how the AFC North fanbases ranked in Keegan’s findings:
- Pittsburgh Steelers (ranked No. 5 overall)
- Baltimore Ravens (No. 15)
- Cleveland Browns (No. 16)
- Cincinnati Bengals (No. 24, tied with Miami Dolphins)
Another stats-driven ranking, this one from Fanalytics, expands the number of metrics used, but, in terms of the AFC North, still came up with fairly similar results (though Cincinnati fared much worse, falling in the bottom five of the entire league). Led by Emory University marketing professor Mike Lewis, Fanalytics’ latest ranking (published in early June of this year) considers things like social media followings, team revenue and player acquisition.
Here’s how the AFC North fared in Fanalytics’ 2023 fanbase ranking:
- Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 5)
- Cleveland Browns (No. 17)
- Baltimore Ravens (No. 18)
- Cincinnati Bengals (No. 28)
Ranking the fanbases based more on vibes
Of course, ranking fanbases based solely on stats is tricky. You can rank the success or failure of a team or franchise pretty accurately based on the numbers, but fandom is all about passion. It’s subjective by nature.
There are plenty of NFL fanbase rankings that take more of a “vibes” approach. Recently, USA Today writer Mike Freeman went all-vibes with his fanbase ranking, which broke the teams out into inconsequential tiers and loaded up the commentary with a healthy dose of humor. The headline: “These NFL fan rankings are a disgrace. Even we admit it.”
There’s no real “ranking” in Freeman’s rundown, but that didn’t stop the Browns fan site Dawgs By Nature from declaring it a proclamation of Cleveland’s fandom superiority, celebrating its “Tier One” ranking (again, the tiers weren’t based on the quality of fanbases) with a story under the prideful headline: “Respect earned, respect given.”
The existence of that story alone is the sign of a great “all-in” fanbase.
With that in mind, here’s PlayOhio’s AFC North ranking, determined by some statistical evidence, a look at each team’s social media followings … and a truckload of “vibes.”
No. 4: Baltimore Ravens fans
- Fanbase nickname: Ravens Flock
- Record since 2013: 93-69
- Home game attendance (2022): 564,714 (99.8% of capacity)
- Super Bowl titles: 2
- Hall of Fame players: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Jonathan Ogden
- Celebrity fans: Carmelo Anthony, Ed Norton, Michael Phelps
- Top-Selling Player Merch: Lamar Jackson (No. 23 on NFLPA 2022 ranking)
Social Media Followers:
- Facebook: 2.2 million
- Twitter: 1.8 million
- TikTok: 1.3 million (15.1 million likes)
Ravens fans are the youngsters of the AFC North, with their team having moved from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1996 (sorry for the bad memory, Browns fans). They moved into the AFC North with the divisional realignment of 2002, two seasons after winning their first Super Bowl (sorry again, Dawg Pound).
There has been the occasional down year, but Ravens fans overall have had a lot to root for over the past 20 years. In that time, Baltimore has won the AFC North six times and made the playoffs in 12 seasons, including another Super Bowl win in 2013.
The Ravens Flock also shows up in the off years. In a study from earlier this year, the website Oddspedia deemed Baltimore fans the fifth-most devoted fanbase in the NFL, based on attendance numbers during a team’s worst seasons.
Ravens fans’ hopes are high going into the ’23-’24 season, but it hasn’t been that way this entire off-season. Ahead of the blockbuster re-signing of Lamar Jackson, when reports said the superstar QB wanted out of Baltimore, one study found that Ravens fans were the third-angriest in the NFL based on the percentage of negative posts on social media.
But that anger came from a place of team love. Besides, now that Jackson is locked in and will be joined by receivers like star journeyman Odell Beckham Jr. and first-round draft pick Zay Flowers, that negative energy has certainly been turned into bottomless optimism.
No. 3: Cincinnati Bengals Fans
- Fanbase nickname: Who Dey Nation
- Record since 2013: 80-78-3
- Home game attendance (2022): 463,733 (101.1% of capacity)
- Super Bowl titles: 0
- Hall of Fame players: Anthony Muñoz, Ken Riley
- Celebrity fans: George Clooney, Bootsy Collins, John Legend
- Top-Selling Player Merch: Joe Burrow (No. 4 on NFLPA 2022 ranking)
Social Media Followers:
- Facebook: 1.2 million
- Twitter: 1.4 million
- TikTok: 1.8 million (34 million likes)
The Cincinnati Bengals have been a hard-luck franchise for much of their 54-year existence, a reliable punchline for comedians and an inspiring presence for other NFL teams, who could often say, “Well, at least we’re not the Bengals.”
Until very recently, even if the Bengals reached the playoffs, they were usually bounced in the first round. Ahead of the team’s breakout 2021 season, Cincinnati hadn’t won a playoff game in 30 years. The Bengals glory days came in the ’80s, when the team made it to their first Super Bowls, in 1982 and 1989, losing both in heartbreaking fashion to the San Francisco 49ers.
The Bengals have always maintained a core loyal — if often disgruntled — fanbase. But casual fans have been harder to come by, given the team’s consistently bad performance throughout the ’90s and much of the ’00s, as well as easy-to-criticize ownership notorious for being cheap and keeping spending low, not to mention saddling Hamilton County taxpayers with the bill for their stadium.
It was hard to blame Bengals fans from jumping off the bandwagon, which so often felt like it was on fire and headed over a cliff. But all is easily forgiven when your team starts winning, as the Bengals have the past two seasons, led by stars like quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. After making it to the Super Bowl and AFC Championship Game the past two years, Who Dey Nation has grown drastically, not just in the local market but across the country, something that hasn’t happened much for the team since the ’80s.
Bengals fans have shown they have a lot of heart, rallying in support of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin after he collapsed from cardiac arrest last season on the field in Cincinnati.
Who Dey Nation has also shown they’re still getting used to the whole “winning” thing. Bengals fans can sometimes be awkwardly over-confident, something exemplified by Cincinnati mayor Aftab Pureval, whose over-the-top smack talk directed at the Kansas City Chiefs ahead of last season’s AFC Championship Game was widely mocked.
Who Dey Nation’s real test will come in the next few years if the Bengals fall back to earth, performance-wise. But for now, goodwill continues to be built and Cincinnati fans are enjoying some well-deserved football fandom bliss after decades of sheer misery.
No. 2: Pittsburgh Steelers Fans
- Fanbase nickname: Steeler Nation
- Record since 2013: 100-60-2
- Home game attendance (2022): 530,243 (96.9% of capacity)
- Super Bowl titles: 6
- Hall of Fame players: Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, Mean Joe Greene
- Celebrity fans: Snoop Dogg, Bret Michaels, Joe Manganiello
- Top-Selling Player Merch: T.J. Watt (No. 14 on NFLPA 2022 ranking)
Social Media Followers:
- Facebook: 5.9 million
- Twitter: 3.7 million
- TikTok: 1.8 million (26.7 million likes)
The best way to develop one of the biggest and most dedicated fanbases in football? Win. A lot. For a long time.
And that’s just what Pittsburgh has done on a consistent basis since the early ’70s. The Steelers are the 10th-winningest team in NFL history, with the fourth-best playoff win percentage. Pittsburgh has played in eight Super Bowls and won six, tied for the most ever with the New England Patriots. It’s an iconic franchise with a jaw-dropping Pro Football Hall of Fame roster, all of which has helped the Steelers amass fans from all over the country (and world) over the past half century.
Outside of its die-hard core fanbase, the fervency of Steelers fans has been known to wane. In Oddspedia’s “Most Devoted NFL Fans” list that looks at attendance during a team’s worst seasons, Pittsburgh fans were ranked the sixth-worst.
But Steelers fans haven’t had to endure the kind of bad seasons a couple of their AFC North comrades have at times been notorious for. Pittsburgh hasn’t had a losing season since 2003. And after that 6-10 season? The Steelers won two Super Bowls within five years.
Steeler Nation’s dedication might face its first real test in quite some time in the coming years. Last year, in the team’s first season without retired quarterback legend Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers finished third in the AFC North for the first time since 2012. And all-around competition in the AFC North is the toughest it’s been in many years.
Still, with a great defense and quarterback Kenny Pickett showing tons of promise, the fanbases of those other AFC North teams who’ve watched the Steelers dominate and surprise year after year, wouldn’t be entirely shocked if Pittsburgh turned around and ended up winning the division, or at least sneaks into the playoffs as a Wild Card.
The least shocked fans of all, of course, would be Steeler Nation. It’s what they’re used to.
No. 1: Cleveland Browns Fans
- Fanbase nickname: The Dawg Pound
- Record since 2013: 54-107-1
- Home game attendance (2022): 539,448 (100% of capacity)
- Super Bowl titles: 0
- Hall of Fame players: Jim Brown, Paul Warfield, Joe Thomas
- Celebrity fans: Drew Carey, Kid Cudi, Condoleeza Rice
- Top-Selling Player Merch: Nick Chubb (No. 29 on NFLPA 2022 ranking)
Social Media Followers:
- Facebook: 1.3 million
- Twitter: 1.5 million
- TikTok: 1 million (11.2 million likes)
The true test of a fanbase is whether it remains intact through a team’s darkest times. The Cleveland Browns have faced some of the darkest times of any sports franchise.
Cleveland has never won the AFC North. The Browns have never made it to the Super Bowl and have only made it to the playoffs once in the past 20 years. The Browns, with their string of bad luck in the playoffs going back to the mid-’60s, were the crown jewel-of-crap in the so-called “Cleveland sports curse,” marked by a city-wide championship drought that was finally broken in 2016 when the Cavaliers won the NBA Finals.
And that’s not even mentioning the darkest moment in Browns history, when owner Art Model moved the team to Baltimore, leaving Cleveland without an NFL team for three seasons in the late ’90s.
Through it all, Northern Ohio has maintained Browns fever year in, year out. Not only that, but The Dawg Pound has remained the visual embodiment of “loyal fanbase,” woofing it up for the TV cameras in dog masks and facepaint at every home game. That visual is rivaled perhaps only by Oakland-era Raiders Nation in terms of encompassing the look, sound and feel of die-hard sports fandom.
After the Cavs supposedly lifted the Cleveland Curse in 2016, the Browns went 1-15 and then, in the 2017 season, 0-16. But Browns fans have had a few glimmers of hope more recently. In 2020, under new head coach Kevin Stefanski, the team ended its league-high 18-season playoff drought, defeating the Steelers in the Wild Card Round before losing to the Chiefs in the Divisional Round.
Going into the 2023 season, The Dawg Pound is once again hyped up and envisioning a deep playoff run with the prospect of quarterback Deshaun Watson returning to Pro Bowl form. No fanbase deserves it more.