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NFL TV Ratings Case Study: The Power of Social Media Data to Predict Cultural Trends Ahead of Traditional Research

For the last four years, students in the sports marketing program at Samford University’s Brock School of Business have benefited from a unique partnership with Affinio. Samford students have used Affinio to develop insights into fan behavior related to college and professional sports teams, sports leagues, sports brands, sports sponsors and high-profile athletes.

In 2017 Samford University became the first university in the world to launch a Center for Sports Analytics. The center was created to support the unique educational program for students that desire to work on the business side of sports and has quickly become an international thought leader in the emerging field of sports analytics. The center seeks to advance the sports analytics discipline by generating innovative research in the field. To this end, the center launched the NFL Relevance Rankings as one of its first projects.

The center utilized Affinio’ to examine almost 7 million U.S. sports fans behaviors on social media to produce a relevance score for each of the 32 NFL teams. Relevance is a measure that taps into the emotional connection fans have with sports teams. Fans are drawn to the most relevant teams – the ones that connect with them on a deep emotional level (both positively and negatively). Here is a link to the current NFL Relevance Rankings.

Relevance is built on the unwavering, passionate support that loyal fans have for the team. The larger and more passionate a fanbase – the stronger the relevance scores. While all teams will experience small fluctuations in relevance over time, the center has noted that NFL team relevance scores are relatively stable. Small changes have been observed which are likely based on current team performance, players performance, coaching staff news, general team news, primary rival news, time of year, etc.

During 2016 and 2017 the NFL experienced a significant decline in TV ratings. In 2016 NFL TV ratings declined 8% from the previous year and in 2017 they fell another 10%. Going into the 2018 season pundits were predicting another down year for the NFL. Predictions of doom and gloom for the NFL filled sports fans’ news feeds right up to kick off of the season in September. The headlines during the summer of 2018 included, “Deflated: NFL popularity at new low, just 3 in 10 are favorable” and “Will the NFL survive? Five things it can do to save its future” and “NFL sales prices being hurt by league’s declining popularity”.

However, in March of 2018, the center started noting a systematic increase in relevance that seemed to be spreading across all 32 NFL teams. The trend continued to grow into the summer months causing the center to surmise that, contrary to popular opinion, the NFL had turned the corner and would experience a significant increase in viewership for the 2018 season.

After week eight of the NFL season, the Center pulled social data from 6.9 million U.S. sports fans for the first half of the season and published its annual NFL Relevance Rankings. The rankings showed thirty out of thirty-two NFL teams had experienced positive growth in relevance since the 2017 season. Only the Jets and Cardinals had declined in relevance while twelve teams experienced double-digit increases. Overall NFL relevance was up over nine percent.

Now with Super Bowl Sunday recently past, we learned that the NFL did indeed experience a significant improvement in TV ratings for the 2018 season. According to the NFL, TV ratings were up 5 percent compared to 2017 and averaged 15.8 million viewers across all networks (excluding the early-morning games from London).

Traditional survey-based research from the same time period was pointing in the opposite direction and predicting the NFL would have another disappointing season. As recent as this past summer, only thirty-five percent of Americans held a “favorable view” of the NFL, which was down from fifty-seven percent since the previous August.

According to Dr. Darin White, executive director of the Center for Sports Analytics at Samford University, “Its yet one more proof of the power of social media big data to correctly predict cultural trends more accurately and quickly than traditional research methods.”