For Sports Teams, Does Growing a Social Media Base Mean More Fans at the Game?

One of the best things about Exercise and Sport Science is the diversity of expertise and research that we have across our department.  Our faculty and student’s interests range across a wide array of topics that have a significant impact across all aspects of society.  This week our EXSS Impact post highlights the recent work of Dr. Nels Popp and provides insight into the impact of social media on attendance metrics in Division 1 college sports.  Many thanks to Dr. Popp for developing this week’s EXSS Impact content.

Why did you do this study?

A couple of years ago, the University of Michigan offered any fan who “Liked” the athletic department’s Facebook page the opportunity to buy tickets to the Wolverines’ football home opener before tickets went on sale to the general public. The promotion resulted in $74,000 worth of tickets sold in a single day.

Nels-HawksSince that time, numerous other college athletic departments (and professional sports teams) have attempted to utilize social media as not only a two-way communication tool with their fan bases, but also as a sales instrument to help improve ticket revenue. Several college athletics administrators have suggested anecdotally that social media is effective at selling tickets. In fact, a recent survey by AECOM and Ohio University, found “96% of Athletics Directors in the study find social media to be an effective marketing tool for drawing fans or first-time visitors to games. That compares to 59% who view paid advertising as effective.”

While social media can be used for a variety of purposes by college athletics departments and other sport organizations, virtually no research has been conducted to determine whether effectively engaging with fans via social media actually produces tangible boosts in ticket sales or attendance at sporting events. While considerable effort has been poured into social media initiatives by sport marketers, few have quantified this expenditure. Marketing studies in other business fields have found mixed results when attempting to gauge the impact social media marketing has on the bottom line of a firm. We would also add, in relation to the Michigan football example above, quantifying sales results due to social media campaigns can be misleading; the pre-sales from that particular promotion most likely cannibalized general public sales that would have been purchased anyway.

What did you do and what did you find in this study?

Working within the context of NCAA Division I Athletics, we wanted to see the impact social media engagement (as measured by Twitter “Followers” and Facebook “Likes”) had on both game attendance and ticket revenue. We know at the macro level, many factors contribute to fans’ decisions to attend games, including things like past and present team performance, team history, conference affiliation, local population and household income, and school enrollment. Because of that, we wanted to develop a statistical formula that could tell us how much fluctuations in attendance (and ticket revenue) can be explained by each of these variables, including the factors we were most interested in; social media engagement.

To conduct this study, Twitter “Followers” and Facebook “Likes” for 104 NCAA Division I athletic departments were tracked over a four-year span. To account for the wide discrepancy between social media metrics (For example, UNC Athletics has far more Twitter “Followers” than, say, Elon), we used year-by-year percentage growth to measure social media engagement, rather than total number of “Likes” or “Followers.” We used a variety of sources, such as the NCAA’s attendance records, the USA Today’s College Athletics Financial Database, and U.S. Census, to collect our other variables for the schools in our study.

After analyzing the data, we found models that explained 88% of the variance in football attendance, 70% of the variance in men’s basketball attendance, and 53% of the variance in ticket revenue. As you might expect, nearly all of this variability could be attributed directly to historical team success (measured by football bowl game appearances and NCAA basketball tournament berths), current team success (measured by winning percentage), and belonging to a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) Conference. The variables we were most interested in, Twitter “Followers” and Facebook “Likes,” had no statistically relevant impact on either attendance or ticket revenue.

Nels-BballHow do these findings impact the public?

Researchers often prefer to find statistically significant results in their work. The results of our study were not significant, but in this case, that tells us something important. While engaging with fans on social media may help a sports team or athletics department communicate with their consumers, the results of this study suggest it probably doesn’t help at all to sell more tickets or get the fan base excited about attending games that they weren’t already planning on attending. Many college athletics marketers have embraced social media as a strong marketing tool, for a variety of reasons. What our study indicates, however, is they are either not doing so effectively, or the tool is not appropriate for meeting the marketing goal of selling more tickets. Based on our past experience and research, we believe this is the case for a couple of reasons. First, we believe the most effective way to sell more tickets (outside of improving team performance) is not through social media campaigns and advertising, but rather through proactive outbound selling – the process of developing relationships with current and prospective ticket buyers and converting those relationships to ticket buying opportunities. Second, perhaps college athletics marketers are not using social media in an effective manner and should explore new methods of using social media to engage with consumers beyond their traditional methods.

While our current study measured social media effectiveness simply by examining total number of “Followers” or “Likes,” future studies may examine more closely the exact way in which sport organizations utilize social media. For example, are social media channels only used to “push” advertisements and sales promotions, or do athletics departments develop interactive content to build consumer relationships? In addition, more work needs to be done measuring the effectiveness of outbound sales efforts in college athletics, to determine its impact on ticket sales and attendance.