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A Pedagogical Exercise on Digital Sociology - Team Sky and Le Tour de France

The last Sunday of July saw the final stage of the arduous and most famous three-week pro’ cycling event: Le Tour de France (TdF). France (TdF).

A Pedagogical Exercise on Digital Sociology

While Alexander Kristoff sprinted to win the final stage in Paris - beating other favourites, such as Peter Sagan (the current UCI World Road Race champion, and record holder of the Points Classification in TdF - the Green Jersey), all eyes were on the new overall ‘General Classification’ winner of the Yellow Jersey: Geraint Thomas (see The Independent, 2018).

Geraint Thomas is the first Welshman to win the most famous of the three Grand Tours. His feat consolidates Team Sky as the most successful and dominant pro’ cycling team in this decade (see The Independent, 2018). Team Sky has won all but one of the last seven outings of TdF, beginning in 2012 with Sir Bradley Wiggins, and then 4 times with Chris Froome (2013, 2015, 2016, 2017). Team Sky also won the second most famous Grand Tour this year - Giro d’Italia - with Chris Froome; he also won the third most famous Grand Tour - La Vuelta a España - in 2017. To confirm their dominance, Chris Froome was also placed third in TdF 2018 (see BBC, 2018). Nevertheless, Froome’s feats never received the same warm reaction by the press as those of Wiggins and now Thomas (see The Independent, 2018)

While Team Sky riders face relentless athletic challenges, they also face substantial challenges from cycling fans (see The Independent, 2018; The Guardian, 2017). Across France, roadside fans ‘greeted’ Team Sky riders with boos and shouts; in some incidents fans pulled and spat at them (see The Guardian, 2018). These fans’ reactions became a central issue in the argument between Sir Dave Brailsford - the Team Sky’s General Manager - and the UCI President David Lappartient that resorted to banal nationalist terms (see Reuters, 2018; Cycling News, 2018).

One possible reason for this intense dislike of Team Sky might rest on the lingering doubts about abnormal Sabultamol result posted by Chris Froome during the 2017 Vuelta a España (see The Guardian, 2017). This doubt dragged until days before the Grand Départ of this year’s TdF. Moreover, back in December 2017 the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) released a report on the investigation of doping practices amongst Team Sky riders (see BBC, 2018; The Guardian, 2018), and specifically to the jiffy-bag ‘case’ during the 2011 Criterium du Dauphine (see The Guardian, 2016).

With these ‘scandals’ in mind, during the Enterprise and Research module for first year’s Sport Marketing and Sport Business Management students we undertook a retrospective analysis on the comments on Team Sky and British Cycling Facebook official pages. Using Bernhard Rieder’s Netvizz app’ (see Rieder, 2013) we extracted 6,896 user comments from Team Sky’s page and 1,880 user comments from British Cycling’s page for the December-April period. Alongside this, some of the students went further to use Gephi to create a social network visualisation of the pages ‘likes’ for both Team Sky and British Cycling.

What did we find?

Harry Benton - one of our first year students - discovered that while Team Sky’s page ‘liked’ British Cycling, this was not reciprocated. His findings seem to suggest that British Cycling was distancing itself from Team Sky’s scandals. Moreover, relatively few comments in the British Cycling’s page related to the doping scandals; three were negative and the rest neutral. One user commented sarcastically: ‘stop cycling you might get asthma’. Harry speculated that possibly British Cycling had removed all the other comments associated with Team Sky or doping.

Ryan Hamblett - another first year student - analysed all the 6,896 user comments, searching for two terms: ‘Froome’ and ‘dop’ (for doping and dope). Surprisingly, throughout these ‘scandals’ many comments about Froome remained positive. Of 6,896 comments, 264 mentioned ‘Froome’; from these, 99 were positive, 66 neutral, and 70 negative. One example of this positive sentiment is highlighted by this user: ‘witch hunt i am sick to death of people against not just Team Sky but against British Cycling in general. Go Sky, go Team and go Froome’. When searching for ‘Dop’, Ryan has found an overwhelming negative sentiment (0 positive; 17 neutral; 42 negative), as with this comment: ‘British Sport is Doping! Shame on you Team Sky! You are the shame of cycling!

This classroom exercise highlights the pedagogical potential of digital sociology (see my blog post on a digital sociological turn to sport studies here). In our exercise we tapped into the three principle, interrelated, facets of digital sociology: we addressed a distinct context (the official Facebook pages of Team Sky and British Cycling); we used novel methods and tools (Rieder Netvizz’s app’ collected all comments; some students even using Gephi to create social network visualisations); and, above all, we researched a ‘hot’ situation to engage our students in fresh ways.

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Dr Renan Petersen-Wagner

Renan is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Business and Marketing at the Carnegie School of Sport.

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