Measuring Shifts in US Conversation Around the World’s Favorite Sport
Every four years when the World Cup is held, many people anticipate and hope, some more than others, that the sport of soccer will find itself more in the hearts and minds of American fans. It is our goal in this post to discover, based on social media, where and how soccer finds itself in the United States before, during and after the World Cup. One unique advantage we have in this analysis is the fact that the sport most the world knows as football is called soccer in the U.S. This makes studying mentions of this term that much easier and more unique. And it is based on this logic that our analysis begins.
All I want to do is play soccer. Soccer soccer soccer soccer soccer.
— Kristin (@KristinM2512) August 27, 2013
Our first examination was merely the use of the word, soccer, on Twitter since January 1, 2014. On average, this term is mentioned somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 times weekly. Over the course of the World Cup (June 12—July 13), the term was used just shy of 11 million times, an obvious uptick when considered in relation to the weekly averages. In the week preceding the tournament, the number of mentions was 1,128,880; and the total mentions in the week after the tournament’s completion was 1,027,345. Based on this brief snapshot, there was slightly more interest in soccer leading up to the World Cup than there was after the event.
But what else can we say about this sport? Conveniently, the ForSight platform of Crimson Hexagon has a unique offering in its Segments section. As a brief aside, Segments are interests shared by specific groups of Twitter users. For our purposes, there are two Segments that are quite interesting: “U.S. Soccer” and “Soccer.” In reference to U.S. Soccer, 1 in 770 Twitter users are said to have this particular interest. In contrast, 1 in 5 have an interest in Soccer (the term “soccer” within Segments is used in a way that includes people who have an interest in European Football as well as any other way soccer is referred to in the rest of the world). The term soccer is obviously a bit more inclusive as well as more global in its scope. Nevertheless, it is hard not to see the disparity between this number and that of U.S. Soccer. What is also interesting about the U.S. number is where people with this interest find themselves. When this interest is projected on a map based on a per capita breakdown, it can be seen that the Pacific Northwest as well as the Midwest contain the most ardent supporters of the sport. These are obviously not the major markets of New York and Los Angeles which other sports, such as basketball, can claim as their primary hubs of interest.
According to this angle, soccer is still on the fringe when it comes to commanding interest within the US sports scene. Nevertheless, there is another perspective we can explore that might provide a different picture. Examining the term soccer as we did initially provided us with a bird’s eye view of the conversation. But simultaneously, it did not provide us with much context to work with, apart from viewing the mentions in relation to time period of the World Cup. How else are people talking about this sport?
For the sake of this project, we decided to focus in on the use of the term soccer and mentions of wanting to play this sport in comparison with other major sports: football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. What we found was both interesting and insightful. Beginning January 1, 2014, and looking at this topic month-to-month, we found soccer and basketball fighting head to head for support from January to the end of April.
But come May, there was no longer a contest. The shift is drastic, with 79% of people registering their interest in playing soccer over all the other sports. June does not hold the number as high but the trend continues to a greater or lesser extent with a 66% interest. Soccer still takes the cake in July but with a more modest 53%. The popularity of soccer as a sport to be played is obviously undeniable, even during the months when it is difficult to do so in the U.S. due to the winter season. But it also seems, based on these statistics, that the World Cup itself did not have much influence on people’s interest to play the sport. This may hint, in the very least, at a divide between the desire to view soccer versus actually play it.
All I want to do is play soccer.
— Ethan Brown (@EthanMBrown) April 29, 2014
For the last part of our analysis, we wanted to take an even more granular look at the soccer conversation and how people discuss individual positions. But we also wanted to use some point of comparison. The language flexibility of the Crimson Hexagon platform allowed us to create an analysis in French for this task. Four categories were created in each analysis, containing the positions, goalie, defense, midfield, and forward. Popular synonyms for these positions were used, in both languages, to record as many mentions as possible.
The results of this comparison were interesting. In the case of the U.S. test, we found high mentions of both the goalie and the forward positions, while much lower percentage references to defense and midfield. Over the period of the World Cup, the position of goalie won the position battle with over 53% of mentions. The French test (examining the country of France) too favored the goalie position with 55% but saw a clear preference for defense over offense.
One can easily imagine Tim Howard’s stellar World Cup performance as some reason behind the favoritism for this position but one can also see the popularity of the same position in France. The real difference that seems worth reflecting upon is the second position people were talking about. In the France test, this was defense while in the U.S. monitor it was offense (or the forward position). One knows well the standard complaint of many Americans against soccer: there are not enough goals. In one way, this breakdown seems to support this claim. The 29% preference of defense in the France analysis versus the 4% in the U.S. analysis seems rather indicative, or at least supportive, of this notion. Could the growth of soccer as a viewer sport change if the appreciation of its other positions also changed? It is hard not to entertain this thought. For the time being, it will be worth seeing how the soccer conversation trends as the memories from Brazil begin to fade.