COLUMBIA, Mo. – In previous generations, when professional sports franchises had athletes who were considered to be all-star caliber on their teams, those teams would experience a "star effect," which would result in long-term increases in publicity, fan interest, and merchandise and ticket sales. Now, University of Missouri researchers have analyzed the Twitter usage of Major League Baseball (MLB) teams, athletes and fans and discovered that the "star effect" had no long-term impacts on MLB teams' Twitter following and fan engagement. Nicholas Watanabe, an assistant teaching professor in the MU Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, says this is important for professional sports franchises that are looking for ways to improve fan engagement and expand their brand reach.
"Economically, sports franchises grow by increasing fan engagement, which ultimately leads to increased television revenues and merchandise and ticket sales," Watanabe said. "In the past, teams could earn boosts in fan engagement by acquiring star athletes, through trades, free agent signings or by developing them internally; these boosts would last for several seasons, or as long as star players remained productive on those teams. In the current generation, it appears that this 'star effect' doesn't translate to social media, so teams will need to find alternative strategies to building fan engagement other than acquiring high-profile athletes."
For the study, Watanabe and coauthor Grace Yan, an assistant teaching professor at MU, analyzed data from the Twitter accounts of all MLB teams and every player who played in 40 or more games from July 2013 through June 2014. They found that MLB teams did experience small short-term boosts in their Twitter followings after acquiring star players, but that those boosts did not last long.
"In the current social media age, athletes are able to build their own followings and develop their own brands outside of their teams," Yan said. "Fans may follow specific athletes they like without caring much about the specific teams for which they play. It is much more effective and important for teams to connect with fans directly, engage with them and promote conversation on Twitter among fans themselves. We found that this is a much more effective strategy for maintaining and growing fan and consumer bases on social media."
"Interaction with fans matters," Watanabe said. "It is smart for MLB teams to promote their new star players in the short-term, as they can bring in new fans attracted by the high profile-names. However, in order to keep those new fans engaged, teams need to work hard to interact and foster communities with those people. If teams do that, they can create tight-knit and profitable fan bases. Otherwise, those Twitter followers may move on to the next exciting thing."
While the MLB is unique due to how many games are played each season, Watanabe and Yan believe these findings can be applied in some capacity to other professional sports teams as well. The study "Consumer Interest in Major League Baseball: An Analytical Modeling of Twitter" recently was published in the Journal of Sport Management. Brian Soebbing, an assistant professor at Temple University, was a coauthor of the study. The MU Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism is housed in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.