Over the past two decades, the subject and growth of social media have been exponential, along with its relevance to the sports marketing industry (Green & Green, 2016). The past two decades have seen a fundamental shift in relation to the tools and strategies used by sports properties to communicate with customers and fans through the emergence of a phenomenon known as social media (Hoffman and Novak, 2012). Therefore, the impact of social media on the current media landscape is undeniable (Boehmer & Lacy, 2014). Social media has also said to rival traditional media in the realm of sports (Boehmer, 2015) by profoundly impacting the delivery and consumption of sport (Filo, Lock, & Karg, 2015). Since the use of social media is an increasingly popular activity for Internet users (Filo et al., 2015) sports is ranked among the most read topics on social media (Mitchell, Kiley, Gottfried, & Guskin, 2013). This proves that social media use is a phenomenon that has grown rapidly in the sports industry over the past decade (Pedersen, 2014). Social media have gained significant importance in the sports media ecosystem (Boehmer, 2015), thus social media platforms are concluded to be ”causing a paradigm shift in the management of sport media relations and flattening the sports media hierarchy” (Gibbs & Haynes, 2013).
The rise in social media has not gone unnoticed in the world of professional sport (Pegoraro, 2010) allowing for heightened interaction between athletes and their fans (Sanderson, 2010). Social media have become major places to encounter news, with media organizations, sports teams, and athletes allocating significant resources to harness these new tools and gaining substantial followings (Boehmer, 2015). In their very short history, social media have had a profound effect on sport, as many leagues, teams, and athletes have embraced these platforms (Pegoraro, 2010). The widespread adoption of social media among both professional communicators and their audiences has opened up new lines of communication between fans, teams, and athletes (Boehmer & Lacy, 2014). Diverse social media platforms are used by sport organizations (Sellitto, 2014), college athletes (Browning & Sanderson, 2012) and professional athletes in an attempt to raise interactivity levels among sports fans (Billings, Qiao, Conlin, & Nie, 2015). Subsequently, social media technologies are said to provide new ways for fans to interact with sport celebrities (Sanderson, 2010), and attract millions of users while becoming an especially popular medium in the sports industry (Madden & Zickuhr, 2011). Researchers found athletes, cyclist Lance Armstrong, tennis player Andy Roddick, basketball player Shaquille O’ Neal, converse through SNSs (Hambrick et al., 2010) providing fans with a real, unmediated look into their lives (Kassing ; Sanderson, 2009). These findings suggests that SNSs are being used more frequently by athletes as a tool to communicate with fans (Pedersen, Miloch, ; Laucella, 2007) therefore sport teams and athletes embraced social media at a very rapid pace (Pegoraro ; Jinnah, 2012).
Researchers identified commonly used SNSs such as: Twitter, a “conversational” source of information which is more appropriate for fan engagement through its live nature (Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy, ; Silvestre, 2011) while Facebook is used to provide longer pieces of content, post pictures and promote upcoming events (Green ; Green, 2016). One social media platform that is currently reshaping the nature of fan-athlete interaction is Twitter (Frederick, Lim, Clavio, Pedersen, ; Burch, 2014). Athletes, coaches, and broadcasters from nearly every sport maintain a Twitter presence, which allows sports fans to obtain immediate information directly from these sports figures (Browning ; Sanderson, 2012). Twitter is the “place” for instant breaking sports news (Sanderson ; Hambrick, 2012) and has made considerable inroads in the sports communication landscape since its introduction in 2006 (Clavio ; Kian, 2010). The growth of Twitter has been noticed in the sports industry; it is now a common place to hear about athletes who “tweet” or upload photos related to hobbies, eating habits or even providing support for a political cause (Green ; Green, 2016).
Due to the popularity of social media, sports brands invest significant time and resources to drive engagement and relationships online (Filo et al., 2015). Specific papers have documented how international athletes have used social media to develop aspects of a personal brand (Frederick et al., 2014; Hull, 2014; McEnnis, 2013; Frederick, Hoon Lim, Clavio, ; Walsh, 2012; Lebel ; Danylchuk, 2012). Events such as the Super Bowl, FIFA World Cup, and the Olympics; professional teams such as Manchester United and Real Madrid; and brands including Converse, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo, expend significant resources to integrate social media practices into their marketing strategy (Filo et al., 2015).
The potential benefits of social networking can be linked to relationship marketing (Grönroos, 2004) and this can help strengthen and leverage relationships, endorse causes, sponsors or products, or demonstrate a capacity for reflection instead of just action (Ik Suh, Lim, Hee Kwak, ; Pedersen, 2010). Sports teams are capitalizing on Twitter’s popularity and have integrated Twitter into their promotional and marketing activities (such as tweeting clues to guide fans on a scavenger hunt for free game tickets) (Browning & Sanderson, 2012). One reason for Twitter’s popularity is the increased access it gives fans to athletes and sports figures (Sanderson, 2011). As a form of communication, which enables quick and dynamic interaction (Fischer ; Reuber, 2011), Twitter provides athletes with the opportunity to showcase their personalities (Gregory, 2009). Within social networks athletes have direct contact with the end users, providing them with the opportunity to generate planned advertising or sales promotions (Green ; Green, 2016).
Cristiano Ronaldo (global initiatives), Kobe Bryant (personal photos), Rafael Nadal (emotional experiences) and Russell Wilson (underprivileged children) have all used social networks to connect with fans and develop effective personal branding (Green ; Green, 2016). Professional cyclist Lance Armstrong once invited his fans to meet him for a ride around Dublin after completing the Tour of Ireland where 1,000 fans showed up hours later (Frederick et al., 2014). Antonio Brown, a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, tweeted when he arrived in Indianapolis for the SuperBowl (Rovell, 2012). A fan tweeted back to Brown and invited him to lunch. Brown responded and they ended up spending the whole day together (Rovell, 2012). Professional basketball player, Allen Iverson, utilized Twitter in order to keep fans abreast of trade rumours (Sheridan, 2009). Michael Beasley, another professional basketball player, posted a photo of one of his tattoos on Twitter, which described his depression and thoughts of suicide (Frederick et al., 2014). Twitter accounts of 49 athletes were examined over a 7-day period, indicating a high percentage of tweets were responded directly to fans (Pegoraro, 2010). Through the development of social media, athletes can now introduce followers to increasingly intimate elements or perspectives of their everyday lives (Green ; Green, 2016). Previous research (Frederick et al., 2014; Hull, 2014; Pegoraro ; Jinnah, 2012; Kassing and Sanderson, 2010; Pegoraro, 2010) suggests that athletes discuss their personal (backstage) rather than professional (front stage) lives through interaction, offering behind the scenes access and differentiating a personal brand through direct communication with fans (Green ; Green, 2016).
Social media has become an unavoidable part of the current college experience (Browning ; Sanderson, 2012). A significant, positive relationship was found between college students’ attitude about sharing information and the frequency with which they used Facebook and Twitter (McKinney, Kelly, & Duran, 2012). Using social media does not require a great financial investment, and the relatively low cost is certainly a benefit of utilising online social media as a marketing communications tool (Michaelidoua, Siamagka, & Christodoulides, 2011). Several of the student-athletes also disclosed that they used Twitter to search out what people were saying about them after games (Browning & Sanderson, 2012).
1.3 Statement of the Problem
Social media is fundamentally changing the nature of sports media consumption (Hull & Lewis, 2014). As a result of the overall growth of social media, more fans are using social media at live sports events (Jensen & Limbu, 2016). Media organizations, teams, and athletes increasingly turn to social media to engage their audiences and in the case of university sport, SNSs allow athletic departments to keep fans updated with the latest news and information, by providing fans with access to insider information that might not be reported by traditional media outlets (Kassing & Sanderson, 2010).
With the continuous increase in the use of SNSs in sport, the influence of this growth on university students’ spectator behaviour cannot be underestimated. However, the orientation of students in terms of their behaviour is not understood with respect to determining whether a relationship exists between students’ activities on SNSs and their spectator behaviour. Specifically, students’ behaviour in terms of attending university sports games, demonstrating loyalty toward university sport, students’ level of trust toward information shared on university sport’s SNSs, and students’ commitment expressed toward supporting university sports teams. Therefore, an opportunity exists to examine and describe the relationship between the use of SNSs and student spectator behaviour. As a result, this study seeks to contribute knowledge that will enhance our understanding to effectively use SNSs for university sport.