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Social media giving sports fans greater power both on and off the field

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

QUEBEC CITY, Que. - Jumping on the Twitter bandwagon was a scary experience for Geoff Molson.

But the owner of the Montreal Canadians figured he needed to at least keep an eye on his athletes and his team, who were using the social networking website to communicate with fans.

Since then, he told a crowd at a sport conference in Quebec City Thursday, he's used it mostly to listen to what they're saying.

Except when one fan, frustrated by the team's dismal performance this season, tweeted to Molson that he was going to give up his season tickets if things didn't improve.

He wrangled the individual's cellphone number out of his ticketing department and called him.

"We had a nice conversation, we talked about the team," Molson said. "He'll be a season ticket holder for life."

Whether it is people tweeting their dinner recommendations in Toronto for tennis star Maria Sharapova or their game commentary streamed live at the stadiums during NFL games, social media is giving fans unprecedented opportunity to interact with their teams.

"That tipping point has been reached now where it is unsustainable to not have your organization out there on Twitter, your players, your athletes, your personalities talking," said Matthew Higgins, president of Related Sports and Entertainment, which works with sports teams on how to best harness technology.

"And that I think is fan power. Who made that tipping point? Those who wanted that information, that access."

It's also changing sport itself.

Tennis matches now include broadcasted on-court coaching sessions, said Laurence Applebaum, executive vice-president of the Women's Tennis Association.

That was driven by fans demanding more inside access to the game, he said.

"Fan power is absolutely growing in exponential terms and for us it is a positive power, it is voice that needs to be heard," he said.

"From an administrative point of view it's not easy to find that line to draw and for us, we go through a pretty rigorous process in vetting out these ideas."

But there's not always a positive element to the growing chorus of fan voices.

In February, Toronto Maple Leafs fans filled the Air Canada Centre with chants calling for the ousting of Leafs coach Ron Wilson after the team's disastrous season.

And when Wilson was fired days later, Leafs general manager Brian Burke said it was, in part, a response to the fans' demands.

"After the last home game, it was clear to me that it would be cruel and unusual punishment to let Ron coach another game in the Air Canada Centre," Burke told reporters at the time. "I wasn't going to put him through that.

"And I don't fault the fans. If you buy a ticket and you want to boo, you can boo. Fans show their emotions in many ways. But the deadliest thing is when a fan votes with their feet and they don't come."

There lies the tension with how much of a role fans are coming to play: are they merely customers of a sports team or should they have a say in how it works?

Molson said he doesn't feel fan power extends that far.

"Are the fans going to hire or fire somebody? No." he said. "But their feedback is important and it contributes to the valuations that we do internally."

Athletes are also using social media to change perceptions of their own sports.

In the often conservative world of golf, a quartet of golfers shocked insiders when they posted a YouTube video last year of them pretending to be a boy band.

Among the performers was Bubba Watson, who later went on to win the Masters, and who was filmed dressed in coveralls and playing golf in bare feet.

The video, which has been seen more than four million times, caused the golf world to wring its hands over the potential image it was portraying, said Matt Corey, a sports marketing executive.

"You know what image it portrays?," he said. "It portrays fun and passion and inspiration and people loved it."


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