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Athletics meets Academics

LSU professors channel their passion for football into research.

As Tiger fans prepare for the showdown with Alabama, LSU researchers Anne Osborne and Lance Porter are studying how they interact with each other at the game, in front of the TV, and online.
Eddy Perez/University Relations

Turn on the TV, walk into a Baton Rouge restaurant or take a stroll through the Quad and you will feel it — the excitement in Tiger Country is palpable. While the No. 1 ranked LSU football team prepares for an epic showdown against No. 2 Alabama, it’s the fans who are restlessly waiting to descend on Tuscaloosa to show their Tiger Pride.            

For some LSU researchers, understanding that ‘Tiger Pride’ allows them the chance to combine their academic studies with their own athletic passions.

Anne C. Osborne, Tom Jarreau Hardin Professor and advertising area head at the Manship School of Mass Communication, not only spends much of her Sunday afternoon watching her beloved home-state Pittsburgh Steelers, she also takes particular note of how others watch football, having conducted research on fandom as an aspect of how sports fans actually identify themselves. Recently, she has paid particular attention toward female sports fans like herself.

“Traditionally, fandom is seen as a component of self identity that can be measured and tested based on certain behaviors and attitudes,” said Osborne. “My colleague, Danielle Coombs from Kent State University, and I have suggested a different way of conceptualizing the fan. We see it as a performance.”

Osborne’s research on “Performative Sport Fandom” looks at how fandom is socially constructed. Her major area of interest is how the performances of fandom, particularly for hyper-masculine sports like football, work in conjunction with other performances such as gender. Put simply, how is performing as a fan different for women than it is for men?

Because the stereotypical football fan is male, women can be faced with either conforming to traditionally masculine performances – beer drinking, yelling, high-fiving and (gasp) even cursing – or creating their own performances.

The Tiger Stadium crowd is always willing to lend Mike a hand ... or 184,000 of them depending on capacity.
Eddy Perez/University Relations

There are consequences either way, Osborne admited. Women sometimes face a backlash for being too aggressive, i.e. unfeminine. Other times they aren’t taken seriously because they don’t fit the norm.

“It can be a complicated dance for women,” said Osborne. “Looking at fandom as a performance gives insight not just into sports, but into gender roles as a whole.”

It should come as little surprise that Osborne became interested in this specialized field of research since she is quite a football fan herself. Growing up outside of Pittsburgh during the days of the original “Steel Curtain” defense of the late 1970s, Osborne was indoctrinated to bone-crushing big hits and a sea of waving “Terrible Towels” from an early age.

“Watching football is something I fondly remember from my childhood,” said Osborne. “I went to Penn State as an undergraduate and the University of Tennessee for graduate studies.”

But, even though she attended college at two historical football powerhouses, Osborne admited that when she accepted a faculty position at LSU, she was met with an entirely new experience.

“I thought I’d seen college football fandom, but I hadn’t seen anything until I came to LSU,” she said. “The love for football here, the feeling you get in Tiger Stadium, and the pageantry of Tiger tailgating are unparalleled. It didn’t take long for me to bleed purple and gold.”

Understanding the fan mentality leads perfectly into research conducted by another Manship professor on how these fans interact outside of the stadium.

Cheering Tiger fans have always been a part of the game day experience. Now, Tweeting Tiger fans are getting in on the action as well.
Eddy Perez/University Relations

For Associate Professor of Mass Communication and the Laboratory for Creative Arts & Technologies Lance Porter, studying communication methods and social media is his job, but when he is able to incorporate football, his passion becomes genius.

Porter spent the 2009 college football season studying the SEC and how the Internet and fans interact. Many sites like Tigerdroppings.com and Scout.com are hubs for fans to celebrate or seethe about their team’s performance.

Part of his research on how online fan culture is revolutionizing college football included putting surveys on websites, conducting a content analysis of major sites and interviewing webmasters. The results show that a defensive lineman isn’t the only one with a lot of aggression.

“We found that the more active you are in the these social areas, the more passion you have for the sport and the team. People that were high users had a lot of frustration and anger — they are more aggressive,” said Porter.

One of the things that separate sites like Tigerdroppings.com from Scout.com is access, which is how sports information directors haven’t allowed access to site webmasters. If you talk to anyone who runs these big sites like Tigerdroppings.com, they don’t want access. They want to be the outsiders, or the Wild West.

The Wild West of Tigerdroppings.com allows users to have a much larger latitude, and vocabulary, when discussing their team. While some things are allowed that would likely make one’s grandmother cringe, generally personal attacks against a player aren’t permitted.

LSU vs. Alabama Facts

LSU vs. Alabama games have been played in a number of cities, including Baton Rouge, La., New Orleans, La., Birmingham, Ala., Montgomery, Ala., Tuscaloosa, Ala. and Mobile, Ala.

LSU won the first game played against Alabama in 1895, but it took 69 years to establish the annual rivalry that fans know today when the two teams began playing annually in 1964.

Last year's game on November 6, 2010 was an LSU victory (24-21), and the highest scoring game was in 2007 when LSU won 41-34.

Former LSU coach Nick Saban joined the Crimson Tide in 2007. The four games since then have resulted in two wins for LSU and two for Alabama.

Scout.com, stands far away from the untamed frontier as they have access, control user content and, in turn, are allowed to attend practices and games. 

This aspect of Porter’s research highlights how empowered the fans actually are.

“The news cycle happens so quickly,” said Porter, “I mean, if you log onto Tigerdroppings at 3 a.m., there are people on there talking about LSU. It’s enjoyable and fascinating to see such passion.”

These organized forums aren’t the only places on the Internet where college football fans discuss their teams. The Internet giant Facebook and 164-character-driven Twitter have become an extension of Death Valley — a place to cheer, yell and discuss each and every move a team makes.

Noticing this trend when he was analyzing message boards, Porter made social media his next avenue for combining football and communication. He looked at the top 25 BCS teams and how they use Twitter and Facebook to relate with their fans.

“We are analyzing everything they do,” said Porter. “Like the head coach Twitter feed and how it compares to what is commonly done in relationship management.”

While many LSU fans follow Les Coach Miles and LSU football players, some coaches have banned it.

LSU Professor Anne Osborne has conducted research into how gender affects the performance of sports fans. Here both male and female LSU super fans cheer on the Tigers at the 2007 BCS Championship game.
Eddy Perez/University Relations

“It’s like saying you can’t talk on the phone during the season,” said Porter. “It’s a common way of communicating.”

The LSU football team is no stranger to Twitter and LSU marketing professor Thomas Karam discussed the connection between social media and personal branding.

“What I have seen is when working with football players is that they have come to understand that the personal brand they have and how the fans see them has a direct impact on LSU football,” said Karam.

Karam doesn’t agree with banning players from using social media outlets, but he does advise caution.

“One tweet or text can become the entire way people see you,” said Karam. “I would never tell them not to do it because it is so much part of their lives. I just urge them to consider what they tweet.”

With the high level of exposure a team ranked number one receives, Karam noted there is more of an opportunity to damage than create a memorable brand.

“You have to be extremely careful what is said and done. Opinions can form so quickly,” said Karam.

Many players use Facebook and Twitter as a means to brand themselves. Karam remembers offering advice to one notable LSU alumnus before social media existed.

“When Shaq was here, I was visiting with him, and he asked what he could do to better brand himself, said Karam. “This was the moment I thought personal branding can be applied to student-athletes, they can understand the value when they are getting drafted and going into the NFL.”

As LSU fans are gearing up for the epic showdown with purple and gold blood pumping with excitement, they will take to the Internet to rant, share predictions, check Russell Shepard’s most recent tweet and bide time until Coach Miles and his team take the field.