Twitter Analysis: Who Really Talks About Their Rivals?

It’s rivalry week, and while there is much debate about the best rivalry in college football, it is generally agreed that the Iron Bowl (Auburn versus Alabama) and Ohio State versus Michigan are two of the top rivalry games in college football.  While both sides in these rivalries seem to hate each other, we were curious to determine if the level of vitriol was even or more one-sided in these two storied matchups.  What we found was interesting:  1) discussion around Michigan football seems to encompass A LOT more of the general conversation in Columbus than discussion of Buckeye football in Ann Arbor and 2) after accounting for where the game is being played, the relative level of discussion about the rival school is fairly even in Auburn and Tuscaloosa.

Similar to previous studies, we used geo-coded data from Twitter to serve as a proxy for fan conversation.  We collected all Twitter conversation in Ann Arbor, Columbus, Auburn, and Tuscaloosa for the Monday before the rivalry game in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.  We then calculated the percentage of tweets in that city that were about the opposing school’s football team (“Rival Team Share of Twitter Voice”).   Thus, we had a metric for how much of the conversation in a city was about the rival team.  It is interesting to note that we also determined the average sentiment for tweets in a city that were about the rival football team.  The average sentiment was very negative, but similar across years and cities (translation:  the toxicity of the comments about rivals is the same whether you are in Columbus, Ann Arbor, Auburn, or Tuscaloosa).

We would expect that a rivalry where both local fan bases hated (or were obsessed with) each other at a similar level would have relatively similar “Rival Team Share of Twitter Voice”.  However, we found that in the past four years, regardless of where the game is played, or who won the previous year, the percentage of conversation in Columbus regarding Michigan Football is at least twice the percentage of conversation in Ann Arbor regarding Ohio State football.  Thus, there seems to be a bit of an asymmetric rivalry here with respect to how much one of local fan bases spends its time talking about their rival.  It should be noted that 7% of the population of Columbus are Ohio State students (57,466 out of  809,798) while 37% of the population of Ann Arbor are Michigan students (43,426 out of 116,121).

The Auburn-Alabama rivalry seems to be more even with respect to the level of conversation regarding one’s rivals.  We found that the site of the game seems to change the direction of the ratio of the “Rival Team Share of Twitter Voice”.  If the game is in Tuscaloosa, then local Alabama fans spend more of their time talking about Auburn football than local Auburn fans spend discussing Alabama football.  If the game is in Auburn, then that trend is reversed.  Perhaps the Iron Bowl being played in their hometown adds some more desire to trash talk for the local fans.  It should be noted that 45% of the population of Auburn are Auburn students (25,469 out of 56,908) while 37% of the population of Tuscaloosa are Alabama students (34,852 out of 93,357).

Mike Lewis & Manish Tripathi, Emory University 2013.