With baseball playoffs just around the corner and the start of the NFL season letting us know that summer is officially over, we’ve been seeing a lot more sports-related content on Twitter as of late. Which made us wonder – when it comes to social media activity, how do the four major American sports leagues stack up?

As it turns out, there’s no one simple answer, but here’s how the four sports leagues rank by mentions on Twitter over the course of the past year (as defined by tweets mentioning the respective league’s Twitter handle, hashtag, or full name):

  • NFL: 12.84 million mentions
  • NBA: 12.75 million mentions
  • MLB: 10.28 million mentions
  • NHL: 4.15 million mentions

Seasonal Trends

Here’s what those mentions looks like over the course of the past year, broken out weekly:

If you look closely at the weekly view, you can make out the rhythm of each league’s season. Chatter around MLB (dark blue line) remains relatively steady throughout the season that starts in March and dies down after the playoffs in October. Mentions of the NHL (red line) stay at a consistently low level throughout the long season, only ticking above mentions of any of the other leagues for the Stanley Cup Finals in June.

While the NFL and NBA have about the same number of total mentions, the NFL (orange line) sees the biggest spikes of all four leagues. Total volume of mentions taper down dramatically, however, after the Super Bowl in February, giving the NBA (light blue line) its time to shine. Let’s dig a little deeper.

NFL vs. NBA

Interest in the NFL starts picking up in late summer, sees several large spikes and then culminates in the largest spike of activity any of the sports leagues see all year – the Super Bowl. 

That pattern becomes even clearer when we look at the data broken down by day:

There’s a reason each of those orange spikes from August through January appears at regular intervals – they coincide exactly with the NFL schedule. There’s no doubt about it – on a per-game basis, the NFL is the most successful sports league in America at reaching and engaging an audience.

If you need further evidence, check out the light blue line, which represents when people are talking about basketball. There’s one major spike in the entire year, on June 13th – the day that the Toronto Raptors claimed their first-ever NBA Championship.

But compare the weeks before that spike to the period preceding the Super Bowl – it’s easy to see where the NFL playoffs took place, but the previous five games of the Raptors-Warriors series? Almost impossible to spot, and none of them even came close to generating the kind of attention that the NBA All-Star game did in February.

America’s Pastime

So what of baseball, our third-placed sport? At this point, it’s probably better if we limit our chart to a single line, so we can get a better look at what’s going on:

Check out those two huge spikes in late March, one on the 21st and one on the 28th. The latter is opening day, probably the closest thing that Major League Baseball has to the Super Bowl in terms of a one-off annual branding opportunity.

So what’s the spike a week before it, the biggest story in baseball in the past 12 months?

Yep, that’s right: Ichiro Suzuki’s retirement overshadowed everything else that happened in baseball in the past year – including opening day and the playoffs. That’s great for Suzuki, but not so great if you’re in charge of marketing for MLB.

The patterns for both MLB and the NBA underscore how difficult it is to sustain interest over the course of a season with so many games. Although the NBA and the NFL have about the same total volume of mentions throughout the year, the NFL’s limited number of games makes every week of the season an event, and its winner-takes-all, single-game playoffs only serve to turn the volume up even further.

Is the NFL Running Out the Clock?

While this short season strategy seems to be working for the NFL right now, if there is one thing that should concern the NFL as an organization, it’s that its dominance of the conversation around sports seems to be slipping in the long-run – something that comes into focus when we zoom out beyond just a single season. Check out this chart of how the four major sports leagues have fared on Twitter over the past decade:

At first glance, that doesn’t seem particularly problematic for the NFL – just two years ago, it recorded the largest share of voice ever seen for any of the four leagues. But look at the date – the Super Bowl isn’t played in October. Here’s what people were talking about instead:

Nothing before or since has caused the NFL – or any other sport – to be more at the center of the conversation than the political fallout from player protests.

More worrying for the NFL is that there have been two Super Bowls since the controversy first ignited. Not only has neither come close to matching the level of conversation around the protests, but the level of interest seems to have declined year on year. At its second-highest point, the NFL was mentioned 2.6 million times in January 2016 – a fair proxy for interest in the playoffs and the Super Bowl. By January of 2017, that had fallen to 2.1 million, even before player protests became a political football. Since then, the NFL has recorded just 1.8 million and 1.56 million mentions in January of 2018 and 2019, respectively.

While the NFL is still the leading sports league in the USA, it’s clear that its position is under threat, at least as far as share of voice goes. With that in mind, we’ll be watching this season with interest – not just for the touchdowns, but to see if it can hold off a serious challenge to its number one spot from the NBA.

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