Football and Politics: The Resounding Voice of the NFL on Social MediaNovember 01, 2017
The first quarter of the 2017 NFL season sparked unprecedented activity on social media for the league. Much of this activity can be traced back the 2016 season when Colin Kaepernick first began protesting police brutality by refusing to stand during the National Anthem.
Fast forward to Friday, September 22, 2017. At a rally in Alabama, President Trump criticized the NFL over continuing protests during the anthem. This struck a nerve with many NFL players and set off more protests across the NFL during Week 3 of the season.
NFL protests generated the highest amount of engagement at the beginning of the 2017-2018 season.
While the first two Sundays of the NFL season generated more than 345,000 tweets, that third Sunday after the rally delivered 46% more tweets than that.
We used Zoomph to track Twitter activity around each NFL team and to dig deeper into the data, which painted a vivid picture about how athletes and fans felt about topics that transcend football.
Still America’s Team?
Traditionally, the Cowboys have been one of the most covered teams in media. This quarter was no exception.
The Dallas Cowboys ended the first quarter as the team with the largest share-of-voice (or the largest percentage of mentions) on Twitter. Twitter users mentioned @DallasCowboys or “Dallas Cowboys” in 11.2% of the tweets revolving around the NFL. The Cowboys also had 16.0% share-of-voice, the largest in terms of engagement or the number of Twitter users directly involved in a conversation.
Seventeen of the top 25 tweets that covered the Cowboys concerned protests. Following President Trump’s statements about firing players for protesting, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his team took a knee before the anthem ahead of the “Monday Night Football” kickoff.
The President tweeted about his conversation with Jones regarding the Cowboys’ activity during the anthem. Jones, in turn, spoke about how the Cowboys would bench players who disrespect the flag during the National Anthem as opposed to before the anthem is played.
The two most influential tweets about the NFL as identified by our ZPoints® algorithm were by President Trump tweeting about the matter.
A big salute to Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who will BENCH players who disrespect our Flag."Stand for Anthem or sit for game!"
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 10, 2017
Spoke to Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys yesterday. Jerry is a winner who knows how to get things done. Players will stand for Country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 27, 2017
Statement of the Steel Curtain
The Pittsburgh Steelers also found themselves in the middle of politically charged conversations. Twitter users mentioned @Steelers or “Pittsburgh Steelers” in 7.7% of the tweets revolving around NFL teams—just 3.5 percentage points shy of the Cowboys. Eighteen out of the top 25 tweets about the Steelers were in reaction to how the team approached the National Anthem following President Trump’s statements.
— Fox News (@FoxNews) September 25, 2017
Alejandro Villanueva (the one @steelers player who stood for the National Anthem) has the best selling NFL jersey today! HELL YEAH.
— Liz Wheeler (@Liz_Wheeler) September 25, 2017
This contributed to the Steelers becoming one of the teams with the largest shares-of-voice. However, the sentiment towards the team skewed negative.
Twitter users who expressed negative sentiment about the Steelers possessed a greater share-of-voice than users who expressed negative sentiment about other NFL teams. At the same time, users who expressed positive sentiment regarding the Steelers possessed a large share-of-voice than users who expressed positive sentiment about other teams.
However, there was a bigger discrepancy between users who tweeted about the Steelers negatively versus people who tweeted about them positively, both in terms of overall activity and share-of-influence. Their share-of-voice in negative sentiment was 8.7% versus 6.3% share-of-voice for positive sentiment. Regarding share-of-influence and reach, the Steelers’ had 9.1% in negative sentiment versus 6.3% in positive sentiment.
We Now Return to Regularly Scheduled Programming
In Week 6, the NFL Twitter audience returned to focusing on football. Among the top 25 tweets in Week 6, there were only three posts mentioning the protests. The most influential of those tweets also ranked fifteenth.
After the tremendous lift in tweet volume from the protests, the tweet volume overall began to normalize at the end of the first quarter of the season and into the second quarter of the NFL schedule.
Tweet volume after widespread protest across the NFL
In Week 7, only one tweet among the top 25 tweets touched on the controversy.
After Week 3, during which tweet volume peaked over 500,000, tweet volume fell back to below 300,000 by the Sunday of Week 6.
If there were to be another surge in tweet volume, it would’ve been expected to happen on Sunday, October 29, of Week 8. A few days prior to that Sunday, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair used a controversial analogy that portrayed players as inmates. Many expected Texan players to respond with a demonstration before their game—and they did.
There was a slight uptick in activity compared to Week 7, but the overall tweet volume for Week 8 matched that of Week 6.
Twitter activity around the NFL during Week 8
In Week 8, only three of the top 25 tweets that covered the NFL mentioned McNair’s statements and the players’ response. That was far less than the 68% of the top 25 tweets that mentioned players responding to President Trump’s comments in Week 3.
Effects on NFL Social Media Ranking
A recent NFL study by professor Michael Lewis at Emory University ranked the Cowboys and the Steelers as second and fifth, respectively, in terms of social media equity among all NFL teams. Lewis defined social media equity, which was calculated using statistical models, as “fan willingness to engage as part of a team’s community.” His model ranked and indicated a team’s reach across the social media.
According to ZIndex, our industry tracker for ranking teams by social performance and influence, the Cowboys ended September as the number one most talked-about team, with the Steelers close at third.
Their momentum carried over into October, largely due to ongoing political conversations.
The Cowboys and the Steelers made two of the biggest headlines during the protests, boosting their social media equity.
ZIndex, which evaluates teams based on KPIs (views, shares, likes, mentions, ZPoints, etc.) exclusively on tweets mentioning the teams (not content created by the teams), reflected the 821,100+ tweets generated by commentators on the Steelers and Cowboys in the last two months.
As of August 2017, the teams have also been two of the most-followed NFL teams. The Cowboys have 3.45 million followers on Twitter while the Steelers have 2.75 million. Teams with larger audiences often have greater shares-of-voice, so long as they actively foster high engagement.
As the season plays out, will there be an event that rekindles the conversation among the NFL audience? Will NFL teams continue their stance on the controversy? Will the discussion change? We’ll find out.