Use Twitter to increase sports fan loyalty

Fostering sports fan loyalty is imperative for both clubs and athletes. A new study examines the moderating effects of Twitter in this sports context.

Those who have formed strong connections to their favourite team may be termed loyal fans. One popular communication tool for such fans is Twitter, which has been found to be an important medium for sharing news and events, yet few studies have examined the moderating of Twitter use in a sports context, until now.

Adopting the relational approach examining the determinants of sports fans loyalty, this study examined how Twitter use moderates the building of fan loyalty. Findings revealed that team attraction, team trust and team involvement are positively related to team attachment. While team attachment was found to positively influence fan loyalty, sports fans’ Twitter use was found to significantly reinforce their loyalty.

Yoon, Petrick and Backman have done some recent in-depth research into Twitter Power and Sport-Fan Loyalty: The Moderating Effects of Twitter it was published in the International Journal of Sport Communication (IJSC).

Not surprisingly, a large majority of sports teams and organisations have recently adopted social media as part of their marketing and public relations strategies. They particularly rely on social media to facilitate fan behaviours such as purchasing tickets and/or team merchandise. Social media has generally served as a powerful marketing communication tool that can take a step towards effective relationship marketing to forge a long-term connection directly with fans.

Relationship marketing was launched as a new paradigm shift in the mid-1990s. It has now evolved into multiple business approaches. Relationship marketing as an integrative mechanism, according to Grönroos (2000), requires three primary elements: communication, value and interaction. This shift has also created changes in consumers’ expectations and needs. Consumers such as the “Net Generation,” (people born post-1981 who have grown up in an environment in which they are constantly exposed to computer-based technology) often use two-way communication and new technologies to engage in emerging and prospective businesses and to pursue relationships.

Hambrick & Kang, (2015) found that current sports marketers manipulate the online environment to increase its impact on fan–team relationships. This is because relationship marketing eventually leads to brand loyalty as research by Shani & Chalasani, (2013) found. Williams, Chinn, & Suleiman, (2014) found that in practical settings, sports managers are not completely aware of how Twitter can be effectively used in relationship marketing or to influence the development of fan loyalty.

The purpose of this study by Yoon, Petrick and Backman was to extend the relationships among components affecting sports fans’ loyalty. This included team attraction, team trust, team involvement and team attachment and to test the moderating effects of Twitter use—both on nongame days and during a game.

Literature Review

Relationship Marketing

Relationship marketing is defined as  “all marketing activities directed toward establishing, developing, and maintaining successful relationship exchanges” (Morgan & Hunt, 1994) and further leads to attract, maintain and enhance consumer relationships (Berry, 2002).

Fan Loyalty

Sports fan loyalty Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Brows fans showing their loyalty at an NFL game

Loyalty, according to Oliver (1999), is defined as a deeply held commitment to repurchase or re-patronise a favoured product or service consistently over time. In sports settings, fan loyalty has been viewed as a person’s commitment to a specific team, which can influence that person’s thoughts (i.e. a personal psychological commitment) and behaviours (i.e. repeat purchasing of a product).

Determinants of Fan Loyalty

Team Attraction

Team attraction referred to as “the result of an individual willingly comparing and evaluating different sports and teams and acknowledging they have a favourite” (de Groot & Robinson, 2008). Fans are attracted to teams or individuals for an array of reasons, often it is due to the geographic location but this is not the only reason. Twitter can break down geographic borders and reach more fans.

Team Trust

Trust has been defined as a perception of “credibility and benevolence” (Doney & Cannon, 1997). Team trust is likely to be important to sports organisations, although few studies have examined it. Kim, Trail, Woo and Zhang (2011) reported that the quality of the relationship between sports fans and teams is partially determined by the extent of that relationship (e.g., commitment, intimacy).

A fan’s trust in a team or a player may affect his or her intention to attend future games or purchase merchandise and may serve as a long-term connection between the fan and team (Filo, Funk, & Alexandris, 2008).

Team Involvement

Involvement has been found to be a vital determinant of consumer behaviour and can be defined as an individual’s perceived relevance of an object or event based on his or her intrinsic needs, values and interests (Zaichkowsky, 1985).  In sports settings, involvement has been defined as “a psychological state of motivation, arousal, or interest in an athletic team and related activities that is evoked by individual characteristics and situational factors that possess drive properties” (Funk, Ridinger, & Moorman, 2004). Furthermore, involvement has been viewed as acting as an antecedent and a mediator of developmental processes of behavioural loyalty in sport and leisure contexts (Iwasaki & Havitz, 1998).

Team Attachment

Attachment, which refers to emotional bonds characterised by persistence and resistance to change, can influence cognition and predict behaviour (Krosnick & Petty, 1995). It has been suggested that a strong attachment leads to an individual’s resistance to change and the ability of a brand (e.g. sports team) to maintain support regardless of poor performance. Gladden and Funk (2001) suggested that attachment is a logical developmental process of evaluating internal psychological meaning associated with a team, such as identification and pride. They further asserted that team attachment is the psychological connection between an individual and a sports team that is affected by the complexity, stability and strength of psychological associations to sports.

Liverpool FC fans in Asia create sports fan loyalty

Liverpool FC fans in Malaysia show a strong attachment to a club based 6,600 miles (10,600km) away

Twitter and Sport

Sports Fan loyalty through TwitterSome people view Twitter as a form of microblogging, as it requires the exchange of relatively short messages (140 characters or less) between users.  Twitter users who have attachments to sports teams or athletes can share breaking news, post status updates and convey their opinions using short and succinct messages.

The social interest and power of sports to attract fans in real time has significantly changed the role of sports media from a broadcast environment to interpersonal interactions. Therefore, as sports fans interact more with teams or athletes via Twitter, they can build stronger relationships with the teams or players they root for.

Sport-Specific Twitter Use on Nongame Days

A loyal sports fan will often use Twitter to announce upcoming news, to remind people of games, to evaluate those games, or to communicate with teams and athletes. They can also post their thoughts on Twitter and the feedback can provide longer and deeper reflections about games. Twitter has become the hub of gossip especially around football transfers, it can often put the athletes in a good position, showing they car which increases loyalty from the fan and the player. It can alos put athletes and clubs in a vulnerable position. Here (below) you can see Isaiah Brown (a footballer), who in his previous tweet thanked Huddersfield Town and Rotherham United (clubs he was on loan for last season from Chelsea). Here is evidence of loyal fans seeing this and reacting.

https://twitter.com/izzyjaybrown/status/874328240634175490

Izzy Brown talking to fans on Twitter

Through Twitter, sports teams, organisations and athletes can witness the benefits of Twitter because it increases awareness of their brand and reputation by allowing them to directly communicate with their fans. It can help grow relationships as fans see players as real people, sometimes it can even lead to some laughs. Tottenham superstar Dele Alli knows how to get the Twitter crowd on his side as does Stoke City striker Peter Crouch, who can laugh at himself and his appearance (saying he comes from a family of Giraffes).

Sport-Specific Twitter Use During a Game

Spectators often use Twitter during games to upload pictures, to let others know they are attending the game, to make public their personal observations and to share and communicate specific topics with other fans. Twitter is undoubtedly popular during sports events, at the FIFA World Cup in 2014, it is reported that 672 million tweets were sent over the 32 days. During the Olympics tweets about #Rio2016 were viewed 75 billion times and over 187 million tweets were sent about the games when they were on.

The way fans use Twitter while attending a game can be a reflection of their individual preferences and styles. Such use of Twitter can help fans discover news sources, monitor what is happening in their community as it pertains to sports teams or athletes and follow a sports story in real time. Therefore, sports teams and organisations are able to use Twitter during games to sustain or strengthen fans’ attachment by posting up-to-date news, videos or photos, as the Boston Celtics have here (below).

It could also be valuable to delve into fans’ Twitter behaviour and its effects towards their favourite team during a game. However, sports teams should remember that in the heat of the moment fans do get angry and may not always be rational.

Angry fan on Twitter

Methodology

College baseball fans

In this study by Yoon, Petrick and Backman the target population was college baseball fans of one university. College baseball games were selected due to their highly committed fan base and increasing popularity, the ease of data collection and the perceived potential benefits from Twitter.

On game days, fans were randomly approached at the stadium and asked to voluntarily participate in the research survey. They got 412 responders, 264 men and 148 women with an average age of 34.4 years. 41% of respondents used Twitter during a baseball game while 59% did not. For Twitter use in everyday life, there were 173 (42%) non–Twitter users and 239 (58%) Twitter users. For full demographic details and details on how they collated the data, check out the full journal. This also includes how they specifically analysed trust, involvement and loyalty.

Findings

Build attachment and increase loyalty

Results confirmed that three determinants—team attraction, team trust and team involvement—positively influenced team attachment, which further positively led to fan loyalty. [bctt tweet=”Team attachment was found to be key in creating sports fan loyalty.” username=”humankineticseu”] This finding is supported by the argument drawn by Funk and James (2001, 2006) that team attachment, as the consumer’s psychological connection to a sports team, is positively associated with an individual’s loyalty toward a team. In addition, Wann and Branscombe (1993) demonstrated that individuals with a high level of team attachment tended to support a team by more actively attending home games than those with a low team-attachment level. Thus, the more fans feel attached to their favourite team, the more likely they will be to identify with the team and become loyal.

Twitter can create attraction and fan involvement

This study examined a moderating effect of Twitter on the developmental process of sport-fan loyalty. Furthermore, it investigated if and how fans’ Twitter use—both during a game and on nongame days—played a moderating role. The findings revealed that the use of Twitter for a team, both in the person’s daily life and during a game, enhanced the positive effects of perceived team attraction and team involvement on team attachment. However, notably, Twitter use did not moderate the association between team trust and fan loyalty.

In addition to the moderating effects, the analysis represented direct effects of Twitter use on fan loyalty. That is, the sport-specific use of Twitter during a game and also on nongame days was positively related to loyalty toward the team.

The present study provides significant contributions from both theoretical and practical standpoints through a mechanism by which the principal constructs of relationship marketing contribute to the formation process of sport-fan loyalty. It is an initial step in understanding the moderating effect of Twitter on the development of fan loyalty. These findings have theoretical and practical implications.

Theoretical Implications

Three important theoretical implications can be drawn from the findings of this study.

Research models

This study advances our theoretical understanding of the effects of Twitter on the formation of fan loyalty by proposing and testing a research model including the moderating role of Twitter. Although a large number of sport-related researchers have highlighted the importance of the use of social media by sports organisations as an expansion of traditional marketing departments (Dixon, Martinez, & Martin, 2015), the effects of Twitter have generated relatively little research attention in fan–team-relationship marketing. Furthermore, in the present investigation, the moderating effects of Twitter were carefully defined and the measurements were also empirically validated. Specifically, this study went beyond interrelationships among the determinants of sport-fan loyalty to examine the characteristics of Twitter-user behaviours and the resulting effects in a sports context.

Sports fan loyalty

Secondly, this study broadens the understanding of the effects of attachment on loyalty in sports fan–team relationships. Specifically, it indicates that attachment to a team, as a fan’s underlying psychological factor, is a direct and significant determinant of fan loyalty. This loyalty was also found to link consumers’ perceptions of team attraction, team trust and team involvement to their team loyalty. These findings are supported by previous research regarding consumer behaviour not only in the field of sport but also in general brand/product marketing.

Sport management researchers (e.g. Funk & James, 2006) have concluded that fans’ attachment to a team acts as a bridge to bond their liking of and loyalty to a team. Similarly, according to Park, MacInnis, Priester, Eisingerich and Lacobucci (2010), consumers’ brand attachment is a crucial construct for understanding their behaviours including product purchase. Furthermore, Fedorikhin, Park, and Thomson (2008) concluded that brand attachment positively affects consumers’ willingness to pay, word of mouth and brand forgiveness. As such, this study concludes that attachment is a key concept for strengthening the relationships between fans and the teams that they support.

Using Twitter on nongame days

Finally, the current study assists with the comprehension of Twitter’s effects by applying it to a sports context and exploring it in two different uses: sport-specific Twitter usage on nongame days and during a game. It was found that on nongame days and during a game, fans’ Twitter use had positive influences on their fan loyalty development. Similar to Kim et al. (2014), the more follows and tweets in which fans engage on the team’s Twitter, the stronger team identity they develop in a sport-fan–relationship context. The authors state that Twitter could be considered a supplementary element in developing fan loyalty.

Managerial Implications

In addition to contributions from sports scholars, this study provides meaningful implications for practitioners.

Interact

The findings of this study could be useful for leaders or marketers in many sports teams and organisations to develop the role of Twitter and its implementation in marketing strategies. In particular, the results present some strategic insights for team marketers to employ an online brand community on Twitter as a channel to strengthen relationships with their existing fans or make connections with potential fans. In relationship marketing, partner selection has been found to be a critical component in competitive strategy (Morgan & Hunt, 1994).

The more sports marketers strengthen their relationships with their fans through Twitter, the more likely those fans will be committed and attached. Additionally, with social media’s rapid dissemination of information, team marketers or managers are recommended to encourage their fans with a higher awareness of or more interactions with a team by posting interesting content related to team news or inside stories of athletes, such as real-time images, videos, promotional events, or economic incentives (coupons, free gifts) on their team Twitter page(s).

Measure

This study suggests an effective approach for sports marketers to understand the value of their sports team as a brand. Sports marketers could use fans’ perceived team attraction, team trust, team involvement and team attachment toward a team as criteria to measure their self-expressive and emotional values for a team, which could further enhance their loyalty.

One of the key findings revealed that team attachment is an important factor affecting fan loyalty both directly and indirectly using Twitter. This has the potential to provide substantial insights into practical applications. In addition, since loyalty has been found to be closely associated with brand performance, sports marketers could evaluate their team brand by measuring these five factors, including fan loyalty. This also suggests that team managers should focus and invest their resources in improving their team’s brand image or position to better foster emotional bonds.

Outreach

Results suggest that college athletic departments should be able to effectively build stable, long-term and profitable relationships between their fans and teams in stages through Twitter. From a macro perspective, strong online relationships with fans could bring benefits to the university as a whole. As athletic programmes are one of the key components that represent the university and help increase support (e.g. sponsorship, especially at American Universities) and donations from alumni and other associations, the findings of this study suggest that Twitter can assist in building and maintaining good relationships with their alumni, fans and sponsors.

The authors report that a college that has a successful Football (American) or Basketball programme may ask former star players to direct their Twitter followers to a fund-raising page. Such messages may be more effective for fund-raising efforts. For a European audience where college/university sport is not as big as those in America, it may not be as beneficial but this could work for academies or sport specific schools such as Lilleshall or Loughborough University (who have had many elite athletes graduate from their University).

Conclusions

Sports fans are likely to have a strong sense of pride, passion, attachment and loyalty toward their favourite players or teams over time. This is likely to continue to grow at a fast pace and the passion in sport is unlike anything else (except possibly politics). The authors state that it is crucial for future research to require the latest data with regard to social media.

Restrictions

This study does not provide a representative reflection of all fans or fans of all sports. More specifically, this study was restricted to four Baseball games in one conference (Atlantic Coast Conference), permitting it to have only limited external validity. Further investigation is needed to enhance the accuracy and generalisability of the results through other conferences in Baseball as well as other sports such Football, Basketball, Tennis etc. It would also be interesting to see how individual sports vary from team sports.

Additionally, this study is limited by the inability to capture processes and monitor changes in the attitude of fans over a period of time, as the data was collected at only one point in time. Future research should involve longitudinal research methods and capture possible fluctuations of fans’ attitude over time.

Use Twitter, it’s worth it

Overall, developing a general study approach toward fan loyalty that includes a close look at Twitter use could lead to worthwhile research in the future.

The authors state that future research should involve longitudinal research methods and capture possible fluctuations of fans’ attitude over time. Overall, developing a general study approach toward fan loyalty that includes a close look at Twitter use could lead to worthwhile research in the future. The authors state that the findings provide implications for both theory and practice and suggest that Twitter can be a valuable tool that needs to be better understood by sports management.

I’d like to conclude that if you want to grow as a sports team/club/organisation then fans are one of the most important aspects. If you aren’t using Twitter then you could be missing out on building strong relationships.

Check out the full journal article.

The current big players on Twitter

Biggest sports stars (athletes), clubs, leagues and events on Twitter (Twittercounter).

Most followed Athletes 

  1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Association Football) 53.4 Million
  2. LeBron James (Basketball) 37 Million
  3. Neymar (Association Football) 29.7 Million
  4. Kaka (Association Football)  27 Million
  5. Sachin Tendulkar (Cricket) 16.6 Million
  6. Andrés Iniesta (Association Football) 16.5 Million
  7. Kevin Durant (Basketball) 16 Million
  8. Virat Kohli (Cricket) 16 Million
  9. Mesut Özil (Association Football) 15.5 Million
  10. Gerard Piqué (Association Football)  15 Million

Although the top 10 consists of predominantly Football (Soccer) players, Basketball and Cricket players also feature. There is a real mix of athletes from nations from across Europe, North America, South America and Asia.

The most followed female athlete is 23-time tennis Grand Slam winner Serena Williams with 8.6 million followers (31st sports person overall). Tennis seems to be the most popular sport for females, Maria Sharapova is the 2nd most followed female athlete with 6.1 million followers. The most followed male tennis player is Novak Djokovic with 7.6 million, the 38th most followed sportsperson, still 1 million followers behind Serena.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Twitter account is the 13th most followed of any account in the world, ahead of the likes of Bill Gates, Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey.

Ronaldo on Twitter

[bctt tweet=”Cristiano Ronaldo’s Twitter account is the 13th most followed of any account in the world” username=”humankineticseu”].

Most followed sports teams

  1. Real Madrid FC 23.9 Million Real Madrid champions of Europe and Twitter
  2. FC Barcelona 21.5 Million
  3. Manchester United FC 11.5 Million
  4. FC Barcelona – Spanish 11.2 Million
  5. Arsenal FC 10.1 Million
  6. Chelsea FC 8.8 Million
  7. Liverpool FC 7.5 Million
  8. Real Madrid FC – Spanish 7.4 Million
  9. Galatasaray FC 7 Million
  10. Alhilal FC 6.8 Million

Teams/clubs have a much smaller following than the top individual athletes. Interestingly, all the most followed teams are Football teams and 9 of the 10 are from Europe. Only one sports team from USA (Los Angeles Lakers – Basketball) makes it into the top 20. It could be argued the sports fans in the USA are less loyal to their clubs and would rather follow individuals than their team.

Most followed leagues/events

  1. NBA (Basketball) 25.5 Million
  2. NFL (American Football) 23.8 Million
  3. Champions League (Association Football) 15.8 Million
  4. Premier League (Association Football) 14.4 Million
  5. FIFA (Association Football) 10.9 Million
  6. WWE (Wrestling) 10.9 Million
  7. MLB (Baseball) 9.1 Million
  8. NHL (Ice Hockey) 7.4 Million
  9. UFC (Martial Arts/Cage Fighting) 5.8 Million
  10. Olympics (Various, mainly Track & Field) 5.4 Million

The leagues in the USA, as a general rule, have more followers than those in the European leagues. This could be because there are more leagues in Europe and promotion and relegation throughout all the European leagues. There isn’t just one association such as the NBA which has all the professional Basketball teams from North America. In the UK for football example, there is the Premiership, Championship, League One, League Two, FA Cup, League Cup and the Champions League and Europa League for the teams that have qualified. All data correct at time of publication (22/06/2017).

Sport Marketing book Strategic Sport Communication-2nd Edition   Applied Sport Management Skills 2nd Edition With Web Study Guide  Contemporary Sport Management Web Study Guide-5th Edition

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About Ryan Parker

Hi, I’m Ryan, one of the bloggers here at Human Kinetics Europe Ltd. (If you want my official title, it’s Marketing Executive.) I’ve always had a passion for health and fitness, having previously worked in gyms and played a variety of sports all my life. Now (as a somewhat of a washed-up athlete) I find myself working at the world’s biggest independent publisher of sport, health, dance and fitness resources. Which is amazing! Why? Because I get unrestricted access to all the best, most interesting, scientifically-proven writing on sports science. And what’s more, I get to share it all with you!

There are 2 comments

  1. Kelly Hogervorst

    Great read!! I did my MSc thesis about this last year (definitely looking to do a PhD about that too) and it encompasses all of it.. Can’t wait to see what the future holds for social media and fan engagement/loyalty!

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