“Trust the process?” How online sports communities are shaped by the offline context

We study the interaction between team performance and fan behavior both at the game level and at the season level.User activity is highly connected with the structure of the NBA season.First, we find that the structure of the NBA season drives user activity in NBA-related subreddits. By comparing the average proportion of comments made in each team subreddit by the hour on the game day during the 2017 season (normalized based on a game’s starting hour), we observe that game time is the most active time in the team subreddits. The five topics with the highest weights can be summarized as: “personal opinion,” “game strategy,” “season prospects,” “future,” and “game stats.” We will return to this later to look at how team performance shapes the discussion.The Top-5 topics discussed by fans in /r/NBA.How does team performance at the game level affect fan activity?One may hypothesize that winning a game would trigger a higher level of activity in the team subreddit. The “surprise” brings extra excitement which can stimulate more comments in the corresponding game threads.For the details of all the hierarchical regression analyses mentioned in this blog, please refer to our paper.How does team performance at the season level relate to fan loyalty in team subreddits?Our results suggest that team performance (estimated by the Elo Rating provided by FiveThirtyEight.com) has a statistically significant negative impact on both season-level user retention rate and monthly user retention rate. Again using the top-3 and bottom-3 teams in the 2017 and 2016 season, it is consistent that bottom teams have much higher user retention rates than top teams, both between seasons and between months.The famous “bandwagon” phenomenon in professional sports may help explain this observation: some fans may “jump on the bandwagon” by starting to follow a sports team that is doing the best and reigning championships at the moment. Better teams have more discussions on “season prospects” and worse teams talk more about “future.” If we project the topic weights of “future” and “season prospect” for all 30 NBA teams in the 2017 and 2016 season, we can see that the top-3 teams are consistently in the lower right corner (high “season prospects,” low “future”), and the bottom-3 teams are all in the upper left corner (low “season prospects,” high “future”).Our results echo an earlier finding in sports management: framing the future is an important strategy for fans of teams with poor performance to maintain a positive identity in the recent absence of success. Connecting with our former observation regarding team performance and fan loyalty, it may suggest that a sports team’s struggle can provide a great opportunity to develop a deep attachment with loyal fans.

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