Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills’ growing fandom shows people are rooting for players over teams

(CNN)The Buffalo Bills, led by quarterback Josh Allen, will take part in this weekend’s NFL’s opening playoff round. As a huge Bills fan, I’m rooting for Allen to do well.

But an analysis of recent online search trends indicates that team loyalty like mine may not be as widespread in the age of free agency and social media. Plenty of sports fans are more interested in individual players than teams.

This is seen throughout football, the sports industry and even across continents — with Allen and the Bills proving a fascinating example of this growing phenomenon.

    The Bills have historically not been a team with national appeal. Based in the second smallest metropolitan area in the US for a pro football team — according to the 2020 US Census, Buffalo had a population of 1.17 million compared to New York City’s 20.14 million — their games are rarely shown nationally often.

      However, I noticed something while reviewing which local television markets were broadcasting which games this season. All Bills games weren’t just shown in Buffalo’s local market, but also in the Southeastern Wyoming market.

      For those without a map, southeastern Wyoming is thousands of miles from Buffalo. So why do people there even care?

      Well, for starters, southeastern Wyoming is home to the University of Wyoming, where Allen went to college and starred for the Cowboys. Also, the state doesn’t have an NFL team of its own, so it makes sense they want to keep tabs on a local hero.

      Former CBS executive Steve Warner told me local television stations broadcast Bills games because they know their viewers are interested in watching Allen play.

      We can see how much interest Allen has drummed up in the Bills since his arrival by looking at Google search data.

      Allen’s Bills are the most searched team over the last year in New York, not surprisingly, likely due to their consecutive AFC East division titles and the New York Jets’ and Giants’ recent struggles.

      They’re also the second most searched team in Wyoming. To put that in perspective, there’s no other state outside the Northeast where the Bills are even in the top five most searched teams over the last year. The Bills also ranked in the top two in Wyoming from March to August 2021 before the NFL season began, so it’s not that people are searching for the Bills in Wyoming just because their games are being shown there.

      An examination of Google data in 2017 — before Allen’s arrival in Buffalo — shows things were very different. While the Bills did rank No. 1 in New York searches, they didn’t rank inside the top 20 in Wyoming.

      In other words, the data suggests that Allen is driving interest in the Bills among a group of people who previously hadn’t cared much about the Buffalo team.

      Allen isn’t an outlier in the NFL regarding this phenomenon.

      Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert appears to be having a similar impact on football fans in Eugene, Oregon. Herbert is from Eugene and his alma mater, the University of Oregon, is based there; most Chargers games are being shown in Eugene; and a lot of people in the area are Googling the team.

      During the 2021-2022 season, the Chargers were the most searched team in the Eugene area. Five years ago, the Chargers didn’t even rank in the top 15 teams most searched in the Eugene area.

      But it’s not just about fans of college football who are following individual players. NFL fans do it too.

      Quarterback Tom Brady was a mainstay of the New England Patriots for two decades — until 2020, when he signed a multi-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

      New England still loves its Patriots, but it now has a second love in the Buccaneers. The Buccaneers were the second most searched team in every New England state in 2021, except for Connecticut.

      Back in 2017, the Buccaneers weren’t even in the top 20 most searched teams in any New England state.

      No doubt, Brady having over 10 million Instagram followers makes it easier for his fans to keep up with what he’s doing and root for him, regardless of where he plays.

      It’s a trend we also see in other sports. Los Angeles Lakers superstar Lebron James, for instance, has over 100 million Instagram followers. That’s more than double the population of California.

      Clearly, the basketball superstar has fans in markets across the country — and the world.

      In Ohio, where James is from, the Cleveland Cavaliers are always the most searched team on Google. But each time after James left — for the Miami Heat in 2010 and LA Lakers in 2018 — his new teams became the second-most searched teams.

      Rooting for players over teams and the importance of social media appear to be even more the case internationally. As my colleague Aimee Lewis pointed out in 2018, soccer fans are moving their loyalties from team to team based on who is playing for those clubs.

      Someone like Cristiano Ronaldo, with his nearly 400 million Instagram followers, can make fans shift allegiances overnight. The clubs that Ronaldo has joined have seen their social media following skyrocket.

      Of course, when Ronaldo moves cities, those same clubs can lose a lot of followers. Just ask Juventus, the Italian club Ronaldo left before returning to Manchester United this past season.

      In the US, the importance of social media isn’t nearly the same, as American players simply have less followers at this point.

        But as fans increasingly join social media and traditional media becomes less important, we shouldn’t be surprised to see players become more important than teams.

        Granted, that’ll never be the case for a fan like me. I love my Bills.