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Exploring fan sentiment around concussion in rugby and football

An rugby player and football player running towards each other with concussion imagery visualized on their heads for a blog about fan sentiment towards concussion.

The concussion debate has encircled football and rugby. Already financially costly, with the NFL agreeing to an initial $765m concussion settlement with former players and rugby facing a similar lawsuit around the impact of head injuries, both sports also need to consider fan sentiment when it comes to these injuries.

The monetary hit of lawsuits is inconsequential when compared with the long-term damage of fans turning away from each sport. Whether this is down to lack of safety or the impact of rule changes, it puts sports administrators in a difficult position.

Not prioritizing player safety will dissuade fans and participants who recoil at the damaging, long-term impact the sport has on players. However, changing the sport too much can affect it as a spectacle.

Finding a balance among the concussion debate that satisfies both sides requires in-depth understanding of fan sentiment. The recent Rugby World Cup, with its record number of red cards for head contact and complaints about how the dismissals changed games, illustrates this challenge.

How do you find out exactly what fans think? Thanks to social media, they’ll tell you without prompting. Traditionally, the overwhelming volume of social posts makes it too difficult to discern key topics and themes from them. However, text analysis tools such as Relative Insight cut through the noise, pinpointing actionable insights found within social data.

To understand how football and rugby fans approach the concussion debate, we used a social listening tool to gather conversations surrounding head injuries in both sports. Uploading both sets of text data into our comparative text analysis platform enabled us to understand the topics, words and phrases that were more prevalent in concussion discussions for each sport.

Our analysis highlights that fan sentiment around head injuries in both sports diverges hugely.

Football fans focus on the field

Football’s concussion debate centers around games themselves, rather than other elements related to head injuries.

Conversations focus on who is and isn’t playing due to head injuries. Fans used words related to ‘expectation’ 3.8x more, discussing whether star performers were ‘expected’ to play or not. They also used the word ‘cleared’ 25.9x more, as well as being infinitely more likely (meaning these didn’t appear in rugby fans’ conversations) to use the phrases ‘cleared concussion protocol’ and ‘cleared to return’.

This highlights that football’s emphasis on removing players suspected of being concussed is a key element to fans’ perception of head injuries in the sport.

The NFL has been more strict this year with head injuries, so I wouldn’t expect Demario Douglas or Juju Smith-Schuster to play next week.

With fans emphasizing the importance of who is on the field, it’s unsurprising that they’re quick to pick up on hits around the head and neck area — particularly if this leads to players having to exit or miss games with a concussion.

They talked about ‘hits’ 4.4x more overall. These discussions focused on the legality of tackles, with football fans using the word ‘clean’ 4.8x more and ‘dirty’ 17.9x more to describe legal and illegal hits.

This audience also talked about ‘targeting’ 27.6x more, again in reference to whether opponents were looking to deliberately hurt players and knock them out of a game by hitting them in the head.

@nfl really gotta check itself. Hit to the head and player goes in concussion protocol and the player who caused it plays no problem? He should also go out until the affected player returns. If he can’t then the dirty player is also out for the game. Be equal.

In contrast to football fans, rugby fans talked about the wider implications head injuries have on the sport.

Player welfare – and the impact of head trauma in later life – are key components of rugby fans’ concussion debates. They discussed ‘mental health’ 15.8x more and were infinitely more likely to talk about ‘dementia’. These fans also used the word ‘welfare’ infinitely more, showing concern about players who suffer head injuries.

Yeah, nonsense to say it ruins rugby. What ruins rugby is head injuries, players being stretchered off and 45 year old men with dementia.

These concerns over long-term health extend to areas beyond the professional game. Rugby fans also discuss the impact injuries have on participation, particularly dissuading children from taking up the sport.

This group were 3.2x more likely to talk about ‘kids’ and ‘children’, as well as discussing ‘school’ participation 2.5x more. They also used the word ‘parents’ 15.8x more, with conversations highlighting that many parents are refusing to let their children play rugby due to the risk of head injury.

I coach kids at grass roots and there has been a significant drop off in numbers both due to Covid and due to fears about head injuries. The RFU has to take control of the narrative around amateur rugby and steps taken to safeguard players and pro players need to tackle lower.

Our analysis demonstrates that rugby fans are much more aware of the existential threat the concussion debate has on the sport.

Different head injury priorities for rugby and football fans

Relative Insight’s analysis of social conversations illustrates the huge differences in fan sentiment around head injuries in different sports.

Audiences discussing concussion in football are most concerned with player availability and the rules surrounding hits to the head. This suggests that these fans are more willing to conclude that concussion is an unfortunate consequence of football’s violent nature. They discuss head injuries in a matter of fact way, with no fears about the long-term impact on players and participation.

Rugby fans hold the opposite view. They’re not just worried about the immediate impact of head injuries, they’re also concerned about players’ long-term health. This group makes the logical leap around what this risk means for participation — and by extension the long-term future of the sport.

These insights indicate that rugby’s authorities need to take further action to reassure people that the sport is safe to play and that participants aren’t doomed to suffering from long-term health conditions.

Despite the noise surrounding the concussion debate in both sports, Relative Insight’s platform efficiently and effectively pinpointed key talking points for each group of fans. If you have social listening data that you’re struggling to analyze, try Relative Insight for free to decipher insights from online conversations.

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