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Ten years ago, NFL teams had few means to reach out and directly interact with fans around the world. The vast majority of what people learned about their favorite team would come from secondary sources such as online blogs, television shows, or talk radio. The only direct access many fans had was through the team’s website, which often operated like an online team store with a roster and an occasional press release sprinkled in. Some fans stuck to online message boards, spreading speculative news through the grapevine while they waited for the next game and all of the new story lines that would come with it. Although it may not have seemed like it in the moment, the routine of gathering information was relatively simple.
And then social media came along.
Social media has changed the way the world connects, and arguably no other platform has influenced the sharing of information the way Twitter has over the last decade. More so than Instagram and Facebook, Twitter has become a source of breaking news and personal perspectives for its users, so much so that three years after its launch, in 2006, ABC News called Twitter the “news outlet for the 21st century”. Since 2010, Twitter has seen its active user population grow from roughly 30 million users per yearly quarter to over 326 million currently [LINK]. Even if you don’t have a Twitter account, odds are you’ve seen a tweet somewhere. Outlets from SportsCenter to CNN use tweets from athletes, politicians, and public figures in their broadcasts, elevating Twitter beyond just spreading the news, but being the news.
Soon enough, sports teams and athletes from all around the world began making accounts on Twitter. More so than ever before, people could control their own narrative and instantly provide content directly to their followers.
The NFL is a prime example of the use of Twitter in professional sports. Each franchise has an entire social media team in charge of running their various accounts. Even though there is only one game a week, these account teams are constantly creating and posting content for their Twitter feeds. Their job, in essence, is to promote the team and portray them in the most favorable light possible, hoping to generate buzz and excitement within the fan base. For example, the Seattle Seahawks have tweeted more than almost any other team in the NFL, and a portion of those tweets are direct and unprompted replies to supporters.
In theory, an active Twitter presence keeps supporters grounded and builds fan loyalty and knowledge about the team. The goal and hope is that this will lead to improved ticket sales, fan satisfaction, and win over new fans both locally and abroad. Take this exchange from the Dallas Cowboys twitter account, for example, where a fan simply retweeted the Cowboys’ tweet, won a prize, and responded with pure joy.
Teams clearly use twitter frequently as a powerful promotional tool, but what exactly are the tweeting habits of NFL teams? Do they tweet more during certain weeks or after certain results? How many followers does each team have? Do good teams tend to tweet more than bad teams? Using the statistical software R, Twitter’s API, and the rtweet package, I sought to answer these questions and more.
First, let’s establish a general picture of the NFL landscape. To do that, let’s simply look at the follower count of each franchise as of December 11, 2018, organized alphabetically by the teams’ Twitter handles in the graph and numerically in the table.
(Note: A “Twitter handle” is the username, or @, that they are uniquely identified by. For example, the Washington Redskin’s Twitter handle is @Redskins.)
As seen above, the New England Patriots have by far the most twitter followers of any NFL team, coming in at more than 4.3 million. The Patriots are perennially one of the best teams in the league, having won five Super Bowls since 2001 and claiming their divisional title every year but two in the same time frame. Following the Patriots are the Dallas Cowboys, who are steeped in tradition and have become known as “America’s Team,” a moniker referencing their wide-ranging fan base and ravenous supporters.
Holding the crown for the least followers, however, are the Jacksonville Jaguars at less than 650,000, joined by the Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Los Angeles Rams, each reaching out to less than 800,000 followers whenever they tweet. There are many factors that could contribute to these teams having smaller followings. Chief among these reasons could be that the Jaguars, Titans, and Buccaneers all hail from smaller markets compared to the rest of the league, while the Los Angeles Rams are relatively new to LA, moving there for the beginning of the 2016 season.
Furthermore, over two-thirds of NFL teams have less than two million followers, with ten teams tallying less than a million. These numbers serve to emphasize the fandom that teams like the Patriots and Cowboys have, more than doubling the number of followers of most teams.
While number of followers is useful, how about the total tweet count of each team account? Maybe the teams that have more followers tend to tweet more, or maybe the reverse is true. Here is a graph and table of every team’s total tweets as of December 11th, 2018:
One of the most striking aspects of this data is the apparent consistency across the board of NFL team Twitter accounts. Over two-thirds of teams are between 40,000 and 60,000 tweets, with the Bengals establishing the floor at 21,686 tweets. The closest team to the Bengals would be the Colts at 32,540. For reference, the Bengals joined Twitter in March of 2009, while the Saints, the most twitter-happy team in the league, joined one month later, in April. Over roughly nine years and 8 months, the Saints have tweeted 51,747 more times than the Bengals. This rounds out to the Saints sending, on average, about 14.5 more tweets a day than the Bengals, with no known continuity issues concerning the Bengals account.
Without performing any advanced statistical analysis, it appears that there isn’t a strong relationship between follower count and number of tweets. As stated previously, there could be countless factors that influence the number of tweets a specific team posts. For example, some accounts could go more dormant in the off-season than others, while other franchises might be facing a prolonged losing period. It is nearly impossible to account for every variable.
To account for some of these factors, I turned my attention toward the current 2018-2019 NFL season. The idea is that by singling out the current season, we can analyze each team’s behavior over time depending on factors such as whether they won, lost, had a bye week, or are in the hunt for the playoffs. Using the last 3200 tweets of each team, I have charted the amount each account sent out during a given week of the season, starting on Sunday, September 2nd, the last Sunday before the regular season began. Each team is compared in a slide with the rest of its division, and each division is placed in the slideshow corresponding to its conference.
(Note: When comparing teams from two separate divisions, pay attention to the scales of each graph, they are different. Also, if it shows there are zero tweets for a team’s first week, that is because the team has tweeted more than 3,200 times since the start of the season. Rtweet only allows up to 3200 tweets to be collected from a timeline at once.)
By examining these graphs alongside team schedules and league standings, we can get a grasp of how team accounts react to how a team performs over time.
One of the easiest observations to glean from these graphs is the timing of a team’s bye week. Almost every NFL team sees a dramatic drop in the number of tweets posted during their week off, only to see the amount rise back up the next week. Otherwise, there does not seem to be a dominant trend across all divisions upon first glance. While some current division leaders like the Saints, Texans, Cowboys, and Bears have found themselves as leading tweeters among their peers, other exceptional teams such as the Chiefs, Rams, and Patriots have failed to deliver consistent weeks of high-volume tweeting despite their superior records. In the Patriots’ AFC East, for example, the 7-6 Miami Dolphins tweet much more than any other team despite having a relatively mediocre record the entire season. Thus, it becomes apparent that winning does not necessarily mean more tweeting, at least relative to the league as a whole.
These charts are perhaps most useful when focusing on one franchise at a time. Each team has their own media personnel after all, with their own habits, preferences, and ideas in regard to social media presence. How else could you explain the case of the Philadelphia Eagles, who, coming into the season as reigning Super Bowl Champions, have remained relatively constant in their week-by-week tweet counts despite a relatively forgettable 6-7 record? Then there’s the case of the Carolina Panthers, who, after beginning the season at 6-2 and were poised to make the playoffs, have face-planted with five straight losses. As one would expect, after several high-volume weeks to begin the season their rate dropped considerably.
So, is there a definitive trend that spans all NFL teams? From this analysis, the only trend that appears to be universal is that teams tweet far less during their bye week. Otherwise, each team acts relatively independent of each other. One team may tweet less following a loss while another may actually tweet more. There are simply too many questions and too many factors to consider to accurately predict how a team’s Twitter account will behave. Playoff position, Pro Bowl voting, wins, losses, past season success, and other variables all go into what is tweeted and how often a team takes to social media.
Regardless, the data covered in this article is important for many reasons. Social media is one of the most powerful tools a team has to interact with and energize a fan base. Promotions, replies, and player involvement all connect fans to a team in a way that no beat reporter, journalist, or national outlet can. A team cannot necessarily control the number of tallies in the win column, but they can help control the narrative surrounding their franchise through Twitter and other outlets. An excellent social media presence can invigorate and maintain supporters even in the darkest of times. Therefore, social media patterns are one of the first things a team should look to when experiencing issues with their fan base.
The relationship between the NFL and Twitter is so intricate that it is impossible to do more than scratch the surface. Individual players interact with peers, fans, and other teams through the platform, and countless casual observers have become rabid fans through their exposure to NFL Twitter feeds. Some careers have been ruined, while others have been reimagined through the power of Twitter. So, while the notion of how many followers a team has or how often they tweet may at first seem trivial, the story everyone is talking about often begins and ends with the people forming the narrative behind the account.