For Bo Yu, Ph.D., the power of sport and athletes to impact fans’ lives is something he knows well — both through his research exploring online communities and how they enable athletes to express themselves to connect with fans, as well as from his own personal experience.
Bo Yu, Ph.D., is a sports enthusiast with a particular interest in sports marketing and branding. He’s interested in how athletes’ careers and personalities can have a meaningful impact on fans – something he knows firsthand.
As a tennis fan, Dr. Yu took up sports as a student at Beijing Jiaotong University. It was his favorite athlete, tennis star Li Na, who had even more influence in his life and inspired him to enter the sports management arena.
When Li retired in 2014 after a career-high ranked World No. 2 by the Women’s Tennis Association, Dr. Yu at a turning point in his own career. During his internship as a sports editor, he worried about his own future, and he says Li’s retirement inspired him to change career paths and move to the US to pursue it.
“I was deeply inspired by her ‘rebellious’ personality, her tough performance and her humor on the pitch,” explains Dr. Yu. “I made the decision to switch from an English major to a sports management career and came to the other side of the world to pursue my own sports dreams and explore a different culture. My personal story shows that athletes like Li Na, who are role models, can have a positive impact on their fans. This power of athletes as role models fascinates me the most in the sports industry and in science.”
After coming to the United States, Dr. Yu received a master’s degree in physical education from the University of New Mexico. He also earned his PhD in Kinesiology from Texas A&M University, which allowed him to delve deeper into how athletes brand themselves and resonate with their fans. Earning his Ph.D. and the research he conducted in the process connected him in many ways.
“A fun fact about my name ‘Bo’ is that it actually means PhD in Chinese,” he said. “So I always joke with people and ask them to call me ‘Dr. DR'”
“Athletes as Influencers on Twitch”
As part of his dissertation, Dr. Yu conducted a series of studies examining how e-sports and new media can provide athletes with alternative personal branding opportunities. With the pandemic putting professional sports on hold, athletes have been looking to new media and ways to build their brands and connect with fans virtually, including Twitch. It wasn’t just esports enthusiasts who used the platform — “traditional” athletes like NBA star Devin Booker and pro soccer player JuJu Smith-Schuster — use Twitch to share their stories with fans.
dr Yu watched a dozen Twitch channels created by professional athletes that explored online cultures and communities. He found that the platform’s features, such as the live streaming capability, community engagement, and exclusive gaming content, had a major impact on athlete behavior and their ability to develop positive personal brands.
“Twitch enabled athletes to construct their existing identities as athletes and celebrities, as well as to build new identities as gamers, streamers, and ‘average people,'” explains Dr. Yu. “Twitch has even helped retired athletes navigate their career transitions by giving them a channel to connect with sports fans and attract new fans after they’ve retired.”
Twitch, explains Dr. Yu, allowed athletes to take on the role of “performer” as they gained more control over how they presented themselves. The platform allowed them to customize their content and control how they told their personal stories and how their fans would perceive them. He also used techniques like data mining to study fan perceptions of athletes on Twitch.
“The majority of comments on Twitch reflect a positive attitude toward athlete performance,” he said. “This again shows that most Twitch fans, who are primarily Gen Z consumers, have more positive attitudes towards the athletes in this study. My findings suggest that athletes as influencers on Twitch have gained credibility from their expertise in traditional sports.”
“A strong team brand”
for dr A passionate gamer who enjoys playing League of Legends and Fortnite with friends, Yu felt it was natural to shift his focus from sports like tennis to esports. His game of choice is Dota 2, a multiplayer online battle arena game that Dr. Yu’s abilities both at the controls and in real life.
“According to Bartle’s taxonomy of gamer types, I’m a ‘socializer’ who values interacting and collaborating with other gamers,” he explains. “Dota 2 is a team game that requires very good communication between players and some teamwork. I also appreciate the aesthetic pleasure of watching this game because it has one of the largest international tournaments run in similar business models to traditional sports.”
The main research of Dr. Yu focuses on how fans interact with athlete brands, particularly in the digital environment, such as e.g. E-sports and new media. As a new lecturer in sports management at the university, Dr. Yu looks forward to working with esports students and sharing his passion with them.
“I look forward to working with our own eSports team at the university and applying my own branding expertise to help them identify the positive brand attributes of Chargers eSports that contribute to a strong team brand,” said he. “I also want to help individual players from both college and esports to use digital media to build their own personal brands and find financial opportunities in the age of name, image and likeness (NIL).”
“The Real Joy of Education”
After living in the southern United States for the past seven years, Dr. Yu is excited to discover everything Connecticut, his new home state, has to offer. He is particularly looking forward to experiencing the cold and snow again. He is also tasked with connecting with his students, inspiring them and helping them succeed in their own careers.
“During my visit to the campus, I was very touched by the professionalism of the students I dealt with,” said Dr. Yu. “Many Chargers are determined and have concrete plans to pursue their own careers. So I look forward to working with them and supporting our students in their personal development. I value my own positive impact on student growth and success, which I consider a real joy in education.”