Does Negative Buzz Foretell Shrinking Audiences for NFL Games?

You don’t have to be a football fan to know that the NFL is the subject of withering criticism from players, fans, commentators, columnists, and late-night talk show hosts over the performance of replacement referees who it seems were not, as the saying goes, ready for prime time.

Complaints were already mounting before Monday’s game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, when several blown calls by replacement refs at the end of the game gave the Seahawks a potentially undeserved victory, triggering an outpouring of vitriol at the replacement refs and the NFL, which hired them to fill in during a labor dispute with the regular refs. A survey of social media (mainly Twitter) reveals that coaches, players, and fans all seem to be in agreement that the NFL needs to resolve the dispute and bring the regular refs back posthaste. But until that happens, we have all the conditions in place for a great little experiment addressing the relationship between viewer sentiment as expressed on social media and viewership trends -- in short, “social TV.”

The NFL referee controversy provides an almost ideal set of circumstances for observing the correlation between social media sentiment and TV viewership for a couple reasons. First of all, spectator sports and sports fandom tend to be social by nature: fans love to talk about what’s happening with other fans in the moment. Second, football games are classic examples of live, appointment TV events: most viewing takes place as it happens, not after the fact, so everyone is tuned in at the same time, and there’s no possibility of teasers or “leaked clips” to build buzz or prejudice sentiment beforehand. Everyone finds out what happens at the same time, so it’s easy to correlate online discussions with specific events.

Most important for this experiment, however, is the fact that dissatisfaction with the NFL’s replacement referees is, apparently, almost universal: their poor performance is likely to affect every team and every game, meaning that until the labor dispute is resolved, the entire NFL franchise is tainted in the eyes of fans. Significantly, fans and commentators have warned that the referee problem is affecting the “integrity” of the game, which translates directly to “enjoyability”: you can have the best teams in the world, but if the refs are no good, what’s the point?

So will the NFL see a fall-off in viewership between last Monday’s game and next Monday’s game (Chicago Bears vs. Dallas Cowboys, at Dallas)? If I were the NFL and ESPN, I’d be paying close attention to sentiment on Twitter, Facebook, fan blogs, and other online sources. In addition to fans and viewers themselves, I would track the opinions and statements of players, coaches, and commentators, and try to determine how they are interacting with fans and viewers. Are fans re-tweeting skeptical or critical statements from players and commentators? What kind of comments are they appending to these re-tweets? Is the volume of critical comments decreasing as we get further away from last Monday’s game -- or increasing as we approach next Monday’s game (suggesting that fans aren’t ready to forgive and forget)? Once next Monday’s game starts, the NFL’s social media mavens should obviously pay close attention to sentiment after every major call, especially those could be viewed as ambiguous or controversial.

Once the Nielsen ratings are in, you can attempt to correlate the online buzz with viewership. The most important question is, of course, did all the kvetching actually translate into lower viewership? But within that issue, there are some other interesting questions: for example, did negative sentiment from players, fans, and commentators actually discourage other fans from watching? If you can establish a positive (or rather, negative) correlation on this point, it suggests that social media isn’t simply reflecting viewership trends, but actually shaping them.  

Everything’s in place for our little social TV experiment. Now let’s just hope they don’t resolve the labor dispute before next Monday! (Runs, ducks).

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