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Volume 20 No. 41

Research and Ratings

Facebook is the social media site avid sports fans generally use most often to follow their favorite teams, according to a survey conducted by Catalyst Public Relations on behalf of SportsBusiness Journal, but when game time rolls around, fans prefer to tweet.

NBA fans flock to YouTube after games.
Twitter’s popularity rises on game days.
More than three-quarters of avid sports fans who use social media to keep up with their favorite teams use Facebook to interact with their favorite clubs, according to the survey results. In the survey, more than 500 avid fans from each of four sports properties — college basketball, college football, MLB and NFL — and more than 300 avid NBA fans were asked about their use of social media (see methodology).

About the survey

From May 25 to June 2, Catalyst Public Relations conducted a national online consumer research survey among a sample of 2,111 adult sports fans who are members of Vision Critical’s Springboard America U.S. panel. The results here represent data from the 1,579 respondents who use social media to follow a college basketball or football, MLB, NBA, or NFL team.

Fans were able to participate in a separate survey for a maximum of two of those sports. Fans were asked “How big a fan are you of the following sports leagues? Please respond using a 1-5 scale, where 1 means you are not a fan and 5 means you are an avid fan of that sport.” Fans who selected a 4 or 5 qualified for the survey. As an additional qualifier, those fans were later asked to indicate how many games they watch or listen to during the course of a typical season. A response of less than 25 percent of games played terminated the survey.

The percentage responses listed have been rounded. The margin of error for each survey is +/- 4.4 percent.

This is the second year Catalyst has conducted a survey on behalf of SportsBusiness Journal. Last year’s survey was conducted April 17-24 and targeted only MLB and NFL fans. Because of this year’s larger survey scope, and the different timetable, the results cannot be statistically compared.

Catalyst’s sports clients (including brands with a heavy presence in sports) include ESPN, NASCAR, Subway, Vitaminwater, Under Armour, EAS, Timex, Powerade and Callaway Golf.

from the survey

•   NFL fans are least likely to use social media while attending a game.

•   NFL fans are most likely to use television as their primary source of sports information.

•   MLB fans are less likely than fans of the NBA and NFL to use social media on mobile devices.

•   NBA fans have the highest rate of trusting social media as a primary source of sports information.

•   MLB fans who follow their favorite teams via social media are most likely to live in the same market as that club.

•   College football and college basketball fans are more likely to say that they are a bigger fan of their favorite team now than they were prior to following that team via social media.

Facebook was the most popular social media site among the fans in the study for following their teams, with usage rates ranging from 74 percent by college basketball fans to 86 percent for NFL fans. One-third of the fans surveyed use YouTube to keep up with their favorite teams, usually immediately after a game, with college basketball (41 percent) and NBA (35 percent) fans the most likely to use the video-sharing site. Twitter is used by one-quarter of fans, but it is the site most likely to be used before and during an event on game day.

The study shows that social media use increases as game time draws near, and it usually peaks with postgame activity.

About one-third of MLB and NFL fans surveyed, for example, access Facebook or Twitter for team information before the game. NBA fans surveyed visit Facebook about that same rate, but nearly half of them use Twitter before tipoff.

Once the game begins, there is little change in Facebook activity among MLB and college sports fans. The NFL’s Facebook users cut back on usage during the actual game, and NBA fans increase their use.

Twitter users, on the other hand, generate a surge of activity during MLB and NFL games. Roughly half of the college sports fans surveyed use Facebook, Twitter or both before and during the game.

The biggest postgame activity comes from avid NBA fans, with 79 percent of them turning to YouTube. Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, NBA vice president of marketing, said more than 650 million videos have been viewed on YouTube since the league signed a content deal with the site in 2005.

The game-day breakdown of social media use matches trends followed by MLB Advanced Media. “These conversations really mirror conversations you see in the real world,” said Andrew Patterson, new media product manager at MLBAM. “Twitter is more of an information network for fans, so it makes sense that things like stats are discussed before and during the game. Our Facebook fans seem to be more social and like to talk about the game itself more.”

Patterson said Volvo and Sprint have had subtle appearances embedded on MLB’s Facebook page this year.

The study also found that 40 percent of fans report that they are bigger fans of any given sport since they started using social media to follow their favorite team.

Brenner said internal data provided by the NBA confirms that increased fan avidity. According to Brenner, the league has aggregated one of the largest social media communities in the world, with more than 120 million fans or followers across 30 teams and its players.

FACEBOOK MLB NBA NFL College football College basketball
Before game 36.3% 35.5% 38.0% 45.8% 42.5%
During game 37.7% 42.6% 30.4% 46.0% 44.0%
After game 62.4% 57.1% 68.5% 68.9% 61.9%
TWITTER MLB NBA NFL College football College basketball
Before game 39.8% 49.1% 36.4% 53.8% 57.1%
During game 52.1% 51.5% 42.0% 51.5% 51.0%
After game 59.3% 53.3% 62.5% 53.1% 53.1%
YOUTUBE MLB NBA NFL College football College basketball
Before game 16.5% 23.3% 15.9% 23.1% 29.7%
During game 14.9% 14.8% 14.8% 29.6% 18.9%
After game 59.2% 78.8% 56.6% 65.7% 55.4%
FACEBOOK PLACES MLB NBA NFL College football College basketball
Before game 16.9% 25.4% 14.8% 26.5% 33.3%
During game 32.9% 28.9% 8.4% 33.3% 25.0%
After game 31.8% 42.9% 25.8% 47.0% 41.7%
OFFICIAL TEAM MESSAGE BOARDS MLB NBA NFL College football College basketball
Before game 8.2% 8.0% 4.4% 11.6% 12.8%
During game 7.2% 8.4% 3.6% 15.7% 13.9%
After game 17.8% 15.8% 12.2% 22.4% 22.8%
SITE MLB NBA NFL College football College basketball
Facebook 83% 77% 86% 79% 74%
YouTube 22% 35% 17% 33% 41%
Twitter 21% 27% 17% 25% 27%
Facebook Places 16% 21% 15% 26% 33%


Source: Catalyst Public Relations survey

“Fifty percent of our enrolled Facebook fans interact with our page in any given 30-day period,” Brenner said. “And Facebook is No. 2 only to Google in terms of referrals to”

Although the NHL was not part of the survey, data provided to SportsBusiness Journal by the league shows that its fans that follow a team through Facebook, Twitter or both spend up to 51 percent longer on each referred visit to, watch three times as many videos, and are more likely to visit the NHL online store than fans who come straight to

“The transactional behavior of these fans overindexes in every way, by a wide margin,” said Mike DiLorenzo, NHL senior director of social media. “And in the partner marketplace, there is robust interest in leveraging our social media interest.”

Forty-three percent of the survey respondents claimed that the ads and promotions they see on social media are more relevant to them than the ads they see on TV or hear on the radio.

MySpace, Flickr, Foursquare and Scavenger were also included in the survey, but overall, use of these sites was not high enough to register statistically reliable results.

Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s vice president of corporate communications, said in an email that the study validates the league’s internal data.

“More consumption and conversation centered around content leads to fans staying longer on our websites, buying more merchandise and viewing more games,” he said.

When you see research about sports fans, it tends to be focused on a specific sport or type of consumer, or it is a listing of the most popular sports by attendance or ratings. You rarely see the full description of the typical American sports fan — the number and kinds of sports a person likes and how that varies depending on how interested they are in sports, how old they are, how much time or money they have, or as compared with other free time options. So here are three quick keys to the anatomy of American sports fans (built from “Luker on Trends — Powered by the ESPN Sports Poll”) to use as a starting reference on the composition of fans.



T-Mobile has had a basketball strategy invested from the NBA down to the high school level. How has that worked for you?

“We chose a sport rather than just a league because we realized people are passionate about the game, and a full relationship engages every aspect of the sport. So when high school kids participated in our programs, they felt even more connected to our brand because they also watched our NBA-themed commercials on TV with Dwyane Wade and Charles Barkley. As a result, our sports strategy matched the company strategy to enhance relationships, increasing our share with basketball fans.”


Are we doing enough in college sports marketing programs to understand the full context of the fan experience?

“For years our students have had a data-driven approach to understanding the fan experience, but too much of what exists focuses on isolated pieces. Not enough is done on the full context. There is no doubt that sports marketers face stiff competition for scarce free time and dollars from within and outside of sports. Our graduates need to be ready to build strategies built on a deep understanding of the full context.”

1. American sports interests are dominated by three sports.
“What is your favorite sport?” is asked as an open-ended question on The ESPN Sports Poll, and more than 100 sports or varieties of sport are mentioned every month. But football, basketball and baseball account for 68.9 percent of all mentions, and 87.9 percent of Americans are fans of at least one of those three sports; 51 percent are avid fans of at least one. And the 11 sports listed in Chart 1 have dominated the interest for the 17 years of Sports Poll and account for 92.5 percent of preferences in sports today.

2. But Americans like variety.
Thirty-three sports properties can claim at least 15 percent of the population in their fan base. And on average, Americans follow nine sports as a fan. Few people are dedicated to one sport, let alone one specific league within a sport. There is no such thing as an “NBA fan” (a sport picked at random for illustration, in Chart 2).

Sports to a fan is like food to a human. As eaters, humans like variety. We have favorite foods and foods we eat more often than others and foods we never eat, but nobody eats just one kind of food. In the same way, sports fans, on average, carry a potential menu of nine sports.

But notice that far fewer NBA avid fans are avid fans of other sports. This suggests sponsorship strategies, like T-Mobile and basketball, that cross the spectrum of one of the big three sports are casting a wider net and may be getting greater success than those that focus on a single property.

3. The bigger the fan, the greater the competition for the person’s time.
Sports fan avidity peaks between the ages of 12-17, when we have lots of time and little responsibility. So they spread their interests over more sports. As we age, we have higher priorities in life than sports and we start to cut back on the number of sports we follow. But it gets worse. There is no such thing as a “sports fan.” We are just people with limited free time and resources, and it turns out that the bigger the sports fan, the greater the interest in activities outside of sports (movies, concerts, outdoor activities, etc.).


The economy is back on top, but labor issues still garner a lot of top votes. Concerns over attendance rose considerably over the last quarter.

Rank (Pvs) Issue Score (% 1st-place votes)
1 (2)  State of U.S. economy  259 (43%) 
2 (1)  Ability of middle-income American families to spend money on sports  230 (10%) 
3 (3)  Pending league/union labor negotiations  223 (33%) 
4 (7)  Attendance trends in pro and major college sports  164 (3%) 
5 (5)  How financial pressure that companies feel will affect sports investments  162 (7%) 

Note: Results from a panel of 30 industry leaders. Participants ranked each of 10 issues, with 10 points being assigned for a 1st-place vote, nine for a 2nd-place vote, down to one point for a 10th-place vote. Percentages have been rounded. Only the top five are listed.

Chart 3 shows the differences in free time priority by level of sports fan avidity. Only true avid sports fans have sports fan activity as a high priority. But avid fans also give the highest priority scores for every one of the eight traits compared with all other Americans. And from current Sports Poll data, avid sports fans also index significantly higher than the rest of Americans on hours spent social networking, going to movies and concerts, and on other non-sports activities. So avid sports fans are also America’s most active segment of the population.

The good news, in addition to sports being a top social priority, is that avid fans are also the most frequent sports spenders and are aware of and appreciate what sponsors do more than the rest.

Bottom line: There is a LOT of competition for your fans’ time and money. While the competition for avid fans is even greater, it’s clear the greatest payoff comes from taking care of them first. That starts by thinking more about the complete fan experience.

Rich Luker ( is the founder of Luker on Trends and The ESPN Sports Poll.

Chart 1: Sporting Interest

Football 38.8% 78.3% 42.0%
Basketball 15.3% 68.6% 28.1%
Baseball 14.8% 68.6% 23.6%
Soccer 8.2% 43.2% 11.6%
Racing 4.0% 55.0% 18.4%
Hockey 3.8% 43.5% 10.0%
Fighting 2.1% 58.4% 21.6%
Golf 1.8% 39.7% 10.2%
Tennis 1.8% 39.5% 8.2%
Skating 1.1% 46.5% 9.8%
High school 0.8% 56.0% 16.9%

(a) Asked to name just the one sport they consider to be their favorite sport.
(b) Asked their level of interest in each of 33 sports.
(c) Fans with the highest level of interest.
Source: Data from 7,510 U.S. interviews of those age 12 and older from January-May 2011, Luker on Trends — Powered by the ESPN Sports Poll

Chart 2: Crossover Fans

NFL 87.8% 70.8%
NCAA basketball 82.5% 58.0%
NCAA football 81.5% 52.4%
MLB 80.3% 47.3%
High school sports 67.9% 33.6%
Action sports 62.2% 27.2%
Boxing 56.6% 31.1%
Other college sports 55.6% 18.4%
NHL 55.5% 20.0%
Minor League Baseball 53.4% 17.0%
WNBA 52.7% 21.9%
PGA 50.3% 20.7%
Figure skating 50.2% 12.3%
MMA 50.1% 28.2%
International soccer 49.3% 22.1%

Source: Data from 7,510 U.S. interviews of those age 12 and older from January-May 2011, Luker on Trends — Powered by the ESPN Sports Poll

Chart 3: Setting Priorities

On a priority scale of 0-10, where 0 is no priority and 10 is the highest priority, how big a priority are each of the following to you when it comes to how you use your free time?

Family and friends 7.57 7.07 7.20 7.67 7.85
Personal leisure 6.68 6.40 6.63 6.64 6.85
Non-sports TV 5.90 4.98 5.61 5.94 6.35
Productive leisure 5.16 4.08 5.02 5.30 5.45
Socializing/On the town 4.99 3.94 4.45 5.02 5.68
Outdoor activity 4.94 3.46 4.34 5.09 5.64
Sports fan activity 4.53 0.62 2.00 4.70 7.24
Play sports and exercise 4.51 1.99 3.32 4.62 5.99

Source: 9,000+ scientific random sample interviews with Americans 12 and older from 2008 Luker Lifestyles on The ESPN Sports Poll