The online medium has significantly changed the way in which media audiences consume sporting events. Social networks have allowed fans, viewers and different stakeholders to achieve a high level of interconnection and interactivity focused on these sporting events and the news generated. This interconnection has spread regardless of national or cultural borders, turning this digital communication environment into a global exchange of shared experiences, discussion and participation between people of different places and status. Studies such as those by Gila and Molina
) on the Youth Olympic Games are a reflection of this evolution of social networks in the field of sporting events. This study details how, through the internet, the media and large companies are losing the leading role they previously had in favour of users, and the role that the International Olympic Committee plays as a precursor of social networks in the field of sport. All this with a detail of the evolution presented by the different editions of the Olympic Games and their presence on internet.
Previous works have demonstrated how the digital medium has come to play a crucial role in the consumption of sports through the media. Several studies have shown that fans engage in a variety of behaviours around and during sporting events in the online world, including relationships with athletes (Clavio et al. 2013
), the exchange of information (Blaszka et al. 2016
) or the interactivity in this exchange of information (Clavio and Walsh 2014
). Other research has also shown the participation in the digital medium of the different sporting organisations (Lebel and Danylchuk 2016
; Frederick et al. 2014
), how athletes use this medium for the development of their personal brand (Frederick et al. 2015
), or how organisations engage with fans (Thompson et al. 2017
Sporting events are prime examples of interconnected environments that provide the public with a shared context in which to enjoy a sports competition and global electronic communication. At the same time, they illustrate the changing face of sports-consuming audiences, the potential scope that these events have within the online environment and, therefore, how they have evolved as a result of this more global and accessible digital communication. All these aspects were presented by Wang
), while also attempting to predict the attitudes of users participating in social media during these sporting events.
However, the dynamics and measurement of this digital communication involve different parameters than those of conventional media, where the audience is the main indicator. In the online medium, the logic of network communication requires measures to assess which users have the greatest ability to influence the general conversation. This is not a simple question, mainly due to the complexity of the interactions. For example Meenaghan et al.
) analysed how the growth of social media constitutes a great opportunity for sports entities and other companies if they can gauge the effectiveness and impact of campaigns on social networks like Twitter. Just as there is a lack of definition of clear parameters to define the influence on online media, it was not possible to detect any study on influential users in niche sporting events. Although the study by Yan et al.
) features users with influence on a large-scale event, such as the 2017 UEFA Champions League Final, that study did not present the combination of different variables to arrive at a single ranking of influence.
Our article contributes to covering this gap. As the aim is to address such a complex phenomenon as influence on social networks, two techniques were used, the combination of which is also novel. The social network analysis (SNA) technique, which attempts to characterise the interaction of numerous agents, has provided a first basis for activity on Twitter. Subsequently, the analytic hierarchy process (AHP) was applied. This methodology is especially appropriate for this problem, as it allows us to quantify the attributes of a certain phenomenon based on a series of assessments provided by experts. One advantage of AHP is that it ensures the consistency of these judgements, thereby increasing the reliability of the results.
Given the context, this research takes a two-pronged approach. On one hand, identifying the weight of the criteria that measure influence in the Twitter social network and, on the other, discovering which profiles have the greatest weight in said criteria in the context of a major sporting event. For the analysis, two editions of the largest track cycling event in the world were considered: The World Championships. The analysis focused on the event held in London in 2016 and the one in Apeldoorn (Netherlands) in 2018. For the analysis of both, the official hashtags created by their organisers were used; in the case of London 2016, #TWC2016, and in the second event, #Apeldoorn2018. The two editions were chosen to compare and contrast the use of Twitter, and thus analyse possible similarities and differences in the users who participated in the conversation of the two events. The aim is to better understand the influencing process on Twitter.
4.1. Criteria and Subcriteria of Influence
shows the ranking of the subcriteria that determine the influence of a user on Twitter according to the survey carried out. The numbers in parentheses represent the weight distribution of the different criteria and subcriteria considered in the analysis. In the last column, the final weight corresponding to each subcriterion and whose total sum is 100% appears. In view of the results, we deduced that authority, which includes as subcriteria the number of retweets with 37.28% weighting, plus PageRank, 24.75%, is the criterion whereby a user is considered more influential on Twitter (62.03%), according to the experts consulted. Next, we have popularity (29.59%), which consists of indegree (20.17%) plus the number of followers (9.42%). Finally, at a great distance from the previous two, we have activity (8.38%), with the subcriteria of outdegree (5.16%) and the number of tweets (3.22%). The subcriteria belonging to authority (number of retweets and PageRank) have a higher weight than the other four, and all of them are ranked in the same order as the criteria.
According to the hierarchy obtained from criteria and subcriteria, we shall determine which are the most influential Twitter user accounts during the two editions of the event.
4.2. Determination of the Most Influential Users
and Figure 3
show the graphs of the interaction of users through Twitter during the events studied, considering the interaction as the mentions received among all of them (indegree). Figure 2
reflects the London event, hashtag #TWC2016, and Figure 3
the event in Apeldoorn (Netherlands), where the hashtag was #Apeldoorn2018. Each of the nodes is equivalent to a user and its size represents the importance in terms of mentions received. The different colours show the different clusters or groups identified by the Gephi software used.
The clusters show users that are grouped by close interactions. The largest nodes are in the case of London 2016 Trackworlds, which was the organising account of the event, and in Apeldoorn2018 the International Cycling Union, UCI_Track. At first glance it can already be seen how in 2016 there was a greater number of influential accounts compared to 2018, where a single account of great relevance appears, the aforementioned UCI_Track. With these graphs, we have synthesised the conversation graphically to identify the relative position of the users in the global interaction.
shows a comparison, summary and summation of the two events. In the sum of the total of the two events, we find among the most influential accounts: fourteen athletes, (category one); twenty-one related in one way or another to the event such as organisation, federations … (category six); five media outlets (category two) and the rest of the accounts in other categories (three, four, five and seven). It should be noted that the first three, in each of the two events, belong to the same category (six), in particular, that of accounts related to the event organisation. These outcomes give us an idea of the relevant role played by the organisers in promoting the media diffusion of the event. It is also important to note that the (Twitter) accounts of the event, in one case Trackworlds and in the other wkbaanapeldoorn, appear in very different positions. In London, the official account of the event appears as a great influencer in the third position, whereas in Apeldoorn it comes last.
and Table 7
show the ordering and classification of the accounts according to the weight obtained in the AHP for each of the events. Analysing the 25 most influential accounts of the 2016 event, we found:
Eight accounts belonging to athletes, seven men and one woman (category one),
Eight that were related in one way or another to the event (category six) (organisation, federations …),
Three media outlets (category two),
Six different accounts from other categories.
This distribution is accentuated even further in the top ten positions, as there are six accounts related to organisation of the event, namely @britishcycling, @ucitrack, @trackworlds, @teamGB, @cyclingAUS and @leevalleyvp; three profiles of athletes (@officialwiggins, @markvavendish and @ lauratrott31) and one media account (@BBCSport).
Observing the origin of the athletes who appear in this classification, those of the British team stand out, as five of their profiles appear here, (@officialwiggins, @markcavendish, @lauratrott31, @jasonkenny107 [email protected]
). We have one Colombian [email protected]
, one from Malaysia (@azizulawang) and closing this classification, one Spanish rider (@sebastianmorav). It should be noted that this presence in the ranking comes about in very different ways, as there are several runners who do not present any activity during the course of the event (Cavendish, Trott, Kenny and Dibben), and others who do so intensely (Wiggins, Wang and Mora).
After the athletes, among the 25 most influential profiles, we then find general media, then specialist media, and finally others not attached to any of the above categories. This is the case of the profile of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who appears in this list for his “participation” in the event by congratulating Colombian runner Fernando Gaviria (who also appears in the ranking) for winning his medal.
If we look at the 2018 event, among the 25 accounts we find:
Thirteen related with the event (category six),
Six athletes, five men and one woman (category one),
Two media (category two),
Four accounts from other categories (four and seven).
It should be noted that the first three accounts, UCI_Track, BritishCycling and Fedeciclismocol (the Colombian Cycling Federation), and also the fifth, (FederCiclismo) belong to the same category, that of accounts related to the event organisation, category six. Thus, and as in the 2016 edition, these results confirm the relevant role of the organisers as promoters of the event.
In the 2018 edition, the next group in importance is that of athletes. In this group, the Colombian Fabián Puerta and Spaniards Albert Torres and Sebastián Mora stand out (also appearing in 2016), along with Italian Filippo Ganna and Germany’s Maximilian Levy. The only woman who appears in this ranking is the American Chloe Dygert. Notably, it should be mentioned that all the athletes who appear in this ranking won a medal during the championship, and it is also noteworthy that no athlete from the organising country (Netherlands) appears in this classification, although there were several who had a presence in the medal standings and also had profiles on Twitter.
Lastly, we have another six profiles, two from the mainstream media, Eurosport from Italy and the BBC, which were two media outlets broadcasting the event, and four from two different groups. These were three “public” characters: Juan Manuel Santos, (Colombian President who also appears in the 2016 ranking), Carlos Vives (Colombian singer) and Clara Luz Roldan (Colombian politician), as well as a specialised magazine (Mundo Ciclístico). These four profiles have in common that they are Colombian in origin. This circumstance is related to the medal gained by one of the athletes present in the ranking, the Colombian Fabián Puerta. This data item could reflect the popularity of track cycling and, in particular, of the event analysed in Colombia.
Next, Table 8
and Table 9
reflect the distribution by categories and geographic origin of the different users for the two editions of the event, in addition to the detail of the medals achieved by each of the countries that had influential users.
The aim of our research was to identify influential Twitter users during an event, the Track Cycling World Cup. Two editions of the championship were considered: London 2016 and Apeldoorn 2018. The influence was evaluated according to the criteria of activity, authority and popularity. Thanks to the hierarchical analysis methodology, we were able to assign weights to different variables that measured each dimension of influence. This way, we identified the most influential Twitter accounts for each event and the typology of these accounts/users according to the seven major groups established.
With the results obtained, and in response to RQ1, it was verified that the authority criterion was rated with 62% weighting according to influence, followed by popularity with 29.6% and finally activity with 8.4%, as the order and degree of the criteria to be considered within influence. This highlights the importance of the contents of a tweet, as when the content is relevant it will have a high number of retweets, a subcriterion belonging to authority, which represents 37.28% of the total influence.
In fact, the number of retweets received has a weight of more than 37% within the total for influence according to the experts consulted, with the remaining 25% being the PageRank variable. Continuing with the ordering of the subcriteria, the mentions received (20%) would be the next variable to consider, along with the number of followers (9%), the outdegree (5%) and the number of tweets (3%).
Focusing the discussion on RQ2, firstly, the presence of category six user accounts, which are cycling-related institutions, such as national federations or the event organisation, should be highlighted. Between the two editions of the event there were 21 accounts in this category. They are “specialised” accounts that present weights in all the subcriteria, so that the “construction” of influence is carried out from all possible aspects. Secondly, the accounts of the athletes taking part (category one) stand out, of which there were 14.
Therefore, with the quantitative results and the qualitative categorisation defined, the second research question would be answered. The highest ranked accounts are those belonging to cyclists and institutions related to the event, in addition to the accounts of the different national teams. This result could be understood as logical, given that these users are the main “actors” of the sporting event. This logical assumption that athletes are the most important actors in a sporting event can also be extrapolated to the case of social networks and the possibilities offered both to followers (Stavros et al. 2014
) and to clubs and associations (Sanderson 2014
) or the organisers of a sporting event (Sjöblom et al. 2018
). In these three studies, the motivations of club fans or attendees of a sporting event for interacting with clubs and at events are already verified. Therefore, if athletes are an important users of networks that generate more interest both in the practice of sport and through their activity in social media or even in other media, the limitation of the use of their social networks, which occurs on some occasions as indicated below, can greatly limit the scope of the conversations that are generated in them.
Moreover, the great importance of event organisers and related accounts (federations, teams, etc.) in providing the event with great media coverage is notable. If these accounts promote that participation, the messages of the rest of the actors involved could be greatly amplified, with all the implications that could be derived. Similarly, it could be seen how promoting the event is not the responsibility of the cyclists, as they are taking part in the races, but if the participation of any of them is achieved, the possibilities of the “involved” being considered as an influencer greatly increase. This point is thus a line of discussion that can be agreed between the organisers of an event and those responsible for the athletes, incentivising the use or participation of athletes in the digital conversation, as in minority sports it this can help greatly to extend the scope and significance of media coverage, or even the construction of an experience with the user, which is much more complicated to achieve in sports or events of the greatest global significance, such as the Soccer or Basketball World Cups, or club competitions in these sports at the highest level.
After this point, we consider it interesting to carry out the analysis of the geographical origin of the accounts that appear in the classification, to try to analyse causes and/or possible connection points and respond to the last of the RQs. One of the parameters that we understand may be relevant is the origin of the athletes who were awarded a medal in the course of the event (Cerezuela 2003
; Rojas-Torrijos 2012
). Carrying out the geographical analysis of the origin of the medal winners and the influential users as shown in Table 8
and Table 9
, it is important to distinguish between both editions and observe that the greater or lesser influence of these accounts will not always be related to the number of medals achieved in the different trials.
In the 2016 event, Great Britain appeared to lead both rankings. It was the country with the highest number of medals and the one with the most influential users. The fact that it was the organiser country that year may explain the large number of influential users in that edition. This contrasts with the results for 2018, where the Netherlands, despite being the organiser and the country with the most medals, only had one user among the 25 most influential. Equally notable in the same sense were other countries such as Germany and Australia, which despite winning a large number of metals in both editions, had barely one or two users among the most influential accounts. In 2016, Germany won eight medals and had zero influential users and in 2018 Australia got six medals and had no outstanding users. In the opposite sense, Colombia appears, with two medals, one in each edition, and a great following among its profiles in the two years, five in 2016 and six in 2018.
These data on geographic origin could be understood a priori, by trying to link them with the importance that each country attaches to this sport, so in Colombia cycling in all its forms is one of the sports with the greatest media impact, as also occurs in England. On the opposite side we would have Germany and Australia, countries with a great number of successes in this discipline, but with little impact on their digital environment. As we have verified, the participating cyclists (category one) are one of the groups with the greatest presence in the list of influential accounts determined. Their role as promoters of the event can therefore be considered crucial. For this reason, the analysis of the connection between medals achieved and presence in the ranking of influential accounts is interesting. When analysing this parameter, we see that all the athletes who appeared on the list of influencers did achieve a medal, but nevertheless there are many athletes who despite winning a medal did not appear among the influential accounts. Analysing whether the reason is that they did not take this social network into account, or did not use it, we observe that:
In the 2016 edition, there were 76 athletes who won a medal.
From that total, 53 had a Twitter account, so only 23 did not have one.
Eight athletes appear in the list of the 25 most influential, and of these eight (seven men and one woman) all won a medal.
In the 2018 edition, 80 athletes achieved at least one medal.
From that total, 54 had a Twitter account and 26 did not.
There were six athletes among the 25 most influential accounts, and all of them (five men and a woman) won a medal.
Among the athletes who did have an account, it was analysed whether they used it during the course of the event, understanding “use” as use to send a tweet. Whereas some athletes did make considerable use of it, others sent out only the odd tweet and others never used it at any time. So, again it appears that activity is not the most prominent criterion, and in fact it turns out that, among the most influential athletes, there are some who did not send any tweets. In contrast, this user group did score very high rankings in the other criteria and subcriteria.
In the light of these data, we could extrapolate that, if the athletes who obtained the medal had had outstanding scores in all the subcriteria, their appearance among the most influential accounts could be facilitated. It cannot be concluded that their appearance among the influential accounts is a consequence of the result obtained, but of the sum of all the criteria, just as happens for the rest of the users. Summarising, and responding to RQ3, in the 2016 edition the most influential users came from the organising country, Great Britain, which had 12 accounts in this classification. However, this was not the case in the 2018 edition, where only the event organiser account appears among the 25 most influential, specifically ranked 25th.
7. Theoretical and Practical Implications
This study provides other implications regarding the management of sporting events, as this research is useful for all those interested in identifying the most influential accounts in an event. Thus, the accounts of the most mentioned and most authoritative national cyclists and teams could be particularly relevant for those companies interested in sponsoring events. Therefore, national teams and cyclists should pay attention to their Twitter accounts as part of their strategy, due to their impact on the conversation. Similarly, event organisers must be aware that promoting the event cannot be the responsibility of cyclists, as they are competing in races. Rather, this responsibility must fall on themselves, in addition to “taking advantage” of specialist media and those fans with influential accounts according to some of the dimensions analysed. The information they provide can help organisations better understand the customer experience and target the most influential for building relationships and stimulating interaction.
Likewise, and placing this study as a prelude to other subsequent research, once the criteria that measure influence have been identified and the most influential users are identified, the next step could be to analyse the possible impacts regarding return both in media coverage of an event and when evaluating possible sponsorships, either for an event itself or for a particular athlete.
The analysis of the activity on the Twitter social network of athletes taking part in an event could be another of the implications of this study. Sometimes, the activity of these athletes is limited by the indications and “orders” of those responsible for them, either coaches or the event organisers themselves. Thus, for example, during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, there were several coaches who did not allow or restricted the activity of their athletes on social networks, so the possibilities for them to take part in the conversation and/or fulfil their sponsorship contracts with some brands may be limited, with the implications that this would entail. Or the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that limits the use that can be made of social networks by athletes during their participation in the Olympics, as dictated by Rule 40 of the IOC Olympic Charter. Or even the practical work by Loayza Valarezo
) that analysed possible relationship between the use of social networks and sporting performance. Given all of the above, it would be interesting to know the reasons that caused, for example, the athletes of the Netherlands team to have little activity in the edition of the event analysed in this research.
Gender analysis might be another interesting implication. Studies such as those by (Lebel and Danylchuk 2016
) or by (Burch et al. 2015
) already established differences between the ways in which athletes of one sex or another use Twitter, and implications could therefore be established that explain the fact that fewer women appear in the ranking of influencers, one woman only in each of the editions among influential athletes, namely Britain’s Laura Trott in 2016 and the American Chloe Dygert in 2018 in Pruszkow.