Authors: Kevin Hull & Joon Kyoung Kim

Corresponding Author:
Kevin Hull, Ph.D.
University of South Carolina
800 Sumter Street
Columbia, SC 29208

Kevin Hull (Ph.D., University of Florida) is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of South Carolina. Joon Kyoung Kim (M.A., Syracuse University) is a doctoral student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina.

How Major League Baseball Teams Are Demonstrating Corporate Social Responsibility on Instagram

For decades, professional sports teams have worked with local and national charitable groups. These efforts are frequently reported on by the media, but teams now have a chance to showcase their charity work themselves. Through Instagram, teams can post photos and videos about their charity directly to their timeline. This exploratory research study examined how Major League Baseball teams were using Instagram to demonstrate their charitable efforts. A content analysis of 50 posts from every team (N = 1,500) was conducted, with the post content, hashtags used, and fan response analyzed. Findings demonstrated that teams were posting few photos and videos that showcase their charitable work. Additional examination revealed that fans were less apt to like and comment on charitable posts when compared to other types of posts. Implications regarding how professional sports teams should be using Instagram to showcase their charity work are discussed.

Keywords: charity, corporate social responsibility, Instagram, Major League Baseball

In 1926, Babe Ruth promised a sick child that the Yankees slugger would hit a home run for him in Game 4 of the World Series (26). Ruth’s three home runs that day may not have been the first charitable effort by a professional baseball player, but it remains one of the most famous. Almost 100 years later, baseball teams and players continue to reach out to those who are ill, less fortunate, or who represent a worthy cause. The 2016 All-Star Game weekend featured events that led to donations of $5 million for charities in the San Diego area, including the Boys & Girls Club, youth baseball fields, military veteran support, and children with special needs (21).

While charity has long been a part of Major League Baseball, the social network Instagram is a relatively new addition. Teams, players, and fans are using the photo-sharing network to showcase scenes from the ballpark, and in 2015, Instagram was the fastest growing social network among all users (29). As of the 2016 season, every Major League Baseball team has an account that posts pictures and videos for the thousands of fans who follow these accounts to see.

This exploratory study aimed to determine how teams were using Instagram to showcase their charitable efforts. While researchers have examined charity in sports and how teams and players are using Instagram, little attention has been given to how the two intersect. With millions of users now on Instagram, and teams spending many hours and dollars on their charitable causes, it is worth researching how teams are showcasing these efforts on the popular social network. Fan response to these posts is important as teams want to ensure their photos and videos are enjoyable for their followers. Therefore, this research also aims to examine how followers of the Major League Baseball teams are reacting to posts that showcase a charitable effort. Ultimately, this exploratory study aims to examine current practices and provide suggestions for other sport teams and leagues looking to showcase their charitable work.

Sports and Instagram
There are over two billion social network users throughout the world (6), creating a large audience for companies to reach in order to promote their product. Sports are no exception, as teams, leagues, and individual players have used social media to create relationships with consumers (9, 14). Sports teams are also using social media in an attempt to increase attendance and sell merchandise (23).

Sports teams and players are utilizing social media on a regular basis likely because fans are as well. Social networks have helped to create “connected fans” who go beyond watching games on television and reading about them in the newspaper, and who additionally rely on online resources to both find out the latest sports information and interact with other fans (15). One of those online networks helping to inform the “connected fan” is Instagram, a mobile device application designed for sharing pictures and videos. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Instagram users has doubled since the center first started to track the social media platform’s adoption in 2012 (8) and exceeded 500 million users in June 2016 (16). Among baseball fans, Instagram posts at ballparks increased 400% from the entire 2011 season to just the first month of the 2012 season (19).

Despite Instagram’s growing worldwide popularity among sports fans, little is known about how sport teams are incorporating the social network into their social media campaigns. Previous research has focused primarily on Twitter (11, 14, 15, 30), but with more users now on Instagram (18), it is important to examine how teams are using the photo-sharing network. The few studies that have researched Instagram and sports have focused primarily on how individual athletes were using the service (10, 25).

Corporate Social Responsibility in Sports
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is referred to as a set of actions that appear to contribute some social good, extend beyond the explicit financial interests of the firm, and are not required by law (20). Due to the continued call for CSR in firms and organizations, professional sports teams have increasingly engaged in socially responsible activities (4, 13). Given the importance of the role of CSR in the professional sports industry, CSR has also gained growing attention from sports management (13).

While most researchers and professionals agree with the rising importance of CSR in sports as a necessary business function, little is known about how CSR is actually perceived and practiced in the professional sports industry (24). Studies have been limited to the unique context of CSR in sport, such as the difference between sports organizations and other industries in terms of the nature and role of CSR (2, 4). For instance, Sheth and Babiak (24) explored how professional sports executives perceive CSR and the nature of professional sports teams’ CSR-related efforts. They found that sports executives perceive CSR as an important strategy for their business. Babiak and Trendafilova (3) also found that executives in sports organizations play an important role in practicing CSR-related activities.

In addition, research tends to focus on trends across organizations in terms of why and how sports organizations are adopting CSR (27). Scholarly efforts have also been made to link CSR and corporate financial performance (1, 5, and 22). Researchers have argued that sports teams can advance their strategic interests by expending resources and receiving nothing obvious in return (4). Firms employ cause-related marketing (CRM) and cause branding as socially responsible organizational activities to benefit both the organization and society (4). Categorized as sponsorships, CRM includes profit-motivated giving and provides firms with an opportunity to contribute to nonprofit organizations while also increasing their bottom line by connecting those contributions to sales (7, 12, and 28).

Researchers have pointed out that professional leagues and sports teams need to develop and maintain good relations with the communities in which they operate (4). Teams can strengthen their relationships within the community in which they operate through financial donations to foundations (17).

Research Questions
RQ1: How are Major League Baseball teams demonstrating their corporate social responsibility on Instagram?
RQ2: How are fans engaging with charitable posts sent by Major League Baseball teams on Instagram?

In order to examine how Major League Baseball teams are using Instagram to showcase their charitable efforts, the most recent 50 photos were gathered from each of the 30 Major League Baseball franchises on August 30, 2015 (N = 1,500). The end of August was chosen as the time frame for the research because it is during the baseball season when each team is likely active on social media. Screen shots of each post were captured on a smart phone and exported to be viewed on a computer. Posts that contained video had their web address recorded and saved into a separate document in order to watch the video during coding. Within the screen shot, the post, the number of likes, and the number of comments were all captured.

Data Analysis
A content analysis evaluated the content of the photo, and a textual analysis was implemented to examine the use of hashtags by the teams on their Instagram photos. Using a coding scheme adapted from Smith and Sanderson’s Instagram research (25), each post was coded into one of fourteen categories and one of fifteen hashtag categories. For this exploratory study, the focus was on the category of “charity” that appeared in both the post content and use of hashtag. Additionally, the number of comments and the number of likes on each post were recorded.

Two researchers examined 150 posts (10% of the sample) to determine intercoder reliability. Testing with Krippendorff’s α determined a high level of reliability for hashtag used (α = .842), category of photo (α = .834), number of likes (α = .973), and number of comments (α = .987). Based on the acceptable level of initial agreement for intercoder reliability, the remaining posts were divided among the same two researchers.

Research question one asked how teams were demonstrating corporate social responsibility on Instagram. While it is possible that teams were completing charitable activities, their Instagram feeds were not reflecting this effort. Only 53 posts (3.5%) were coded as charity and 50 posts (3.3%) used a hashtag that reflected charitable efforts. The Tampa Bay Rays had the most charitable posts with six, while eight teams did not have a post that was categorized as charity. Several posts from this time period were about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, with both the Miami Marlins posting a photo and the Cincinnati Reds posting a video of their players getting water dumped on them for charity. Other examples of charitable posts include the Arizona Diamondbacks providing information about a charitable auction and the Oakland Athletics posting photos during their Breast Cancer Awareness Day. Some of the charitable hashtags included #ALSIceBucketChallenge, #EveryAugustUntilACure, and #HatsOffToHeroes.

Research question two asked about how fans were engaging with charitable posts and hashtags. Posts coded as charity averaged 49.85 comments (SD = 76.463) and 4,968.64 likes (SD = 4,070.319). Posts that had charity-related hashtags averaged 54.36 comments (SD = 72.667) and 7,053.26 likes (SD = 5,552.120). Charitable posts that were photos had a higher numbers of likes (5,230.23 to 3,689.78) and comments (50.59 to 46.22) than posts that were videos.

Corporate Social Responsibility
When examining how Major League Baseball teams were demonstrating their corporate social responsibility, the obvious observation is that very few posts were labeled as charity. Only 3.5% of all posts were a photo or video that demonstrated charity. Additionally, 3.3% of the posts had a charity-related hashtag. This demonstrates that Major League Baseball teams are not using Instagram as a primary way to showcase their corporate social responsibility.

However, a closer look at the statistics reveals that it may be wise for teams not to be displaying their charitable efforts if the goal is fan engagement. Posts that were coded as charity had the third lowest average number of comments and the fourth lowest average number of likes out of all the posts analyzed. A photo from the White Sox about their “Sox Serve” program showed three players at their stadium with children from Chicago-area charities. Despite the admirable cause, not a single person commented on the post, making it the only post in the sample not to have a comment. A charity-related post from the Tampa Bay Rays had only two comments, meaning that two of the least commented-on posts in the entire sample of 1,500 posts were charity photos. A post from the Cincinnati Reds about a charity bowling event had only 842 likes, which was the second lowest of any post in the sample. Three of top ten least liked photos were coded as charity. This demonstrates that perhaps followers of Major League Baseball teams are not as interested in these posts.

This leads to a scenario in which teams have to find a balance between their corporate social responsibility and their desire to give their fans content that is interesting to them. While charity has been a major part of Major League Baseball for many years, promoting these efforts on social media has not led to the response teams may wish to generate from fans. The fact that one charity post garnered not a single comment and another had one of the least number of likes in the entire sample demonstrates fan indifference to these posts. Major League Baseball teams must, like any business with their charitable efforts, find a way to optimize consumer interest in these efforts at similar levels to what their on-field posts generate. If fans do not care about these posts, then a team must wonder what social benefit they are generating beyond those directly impacted by the charity.

Limitations and Future Research
Due to the fact that this is an exploratory study, there is an obvious need for more research on this topic. A limitation of this study is that only one sports league is featured and it is at the highest level in the United States. While the results may be applicable to other teams and leagues, it is worth examining if the National Football League or minor league baseball leagues have similar results. Another league, or one with a smaller fan base, may approach corporate social responsibility differently.

This research does, however, provide a good starting point for examining how charitable efforts are demonstrated by professional teams. Future research could examine other social networks (such as Facebook or Twitter) to determine if Instagram is similar or an outlier when referencing charity. Another research goal would be polling fans themselves to see why charitable posts are not received as positively as other posts. If the goal of social media is to engage fans, speaking directly to the target audience should provide further ideas as to how teams can showcase their work in the community.

Social media coordinators for sports teams should not ignore the opportunities provided by Instagram. The social network is one of the fastest growing in the world, with over 500 million global users. In particular, sports fans are navigating to social networks to obtain the latest information about their favorite teams. This exploratory study demonstrates that Major League Baseball teams are not extensively using Instagram to showcase their charitable efforts. However, results also demonstrate that fans are not engaging with likes and comments on these posts as much as they do with other types of postings.

This does not mean that social media coordinators should move away from charity-related posts. Instead, these posts should continue to be sent to followers due to the additional benefits that could possibly come from them. An Instagram video of a player working with a children’s charity may not result in a large number of likes and comments, but it has the potential to showcase a side of the player that might not have been previously known to the public. These posts could then, in turn, lead to additional opportunities with other charities and could help increase the standing of the team in the eyes of the public. While likes and comments may be a sign of popularity online, teams should remember that there is another goal, one of awareness and corporate social responsibility that can be achieved through posting photos demonstrating charitable efforts.


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