At the centre of every popular interest is a large and dedicated fanbase. It’s something we can all related to, as we’ve all been fans of something during our lives and been apart of a fan culture in the process. Major professional sports leagues, such as the NHL, NFL and NBA, live and die by the strength of their fan base and are the reason they are the economic juggernauts they are today. However, it is not just the amount of fans that is important, but also the quality of the fans. Afterall, it is the fans that define the identity of the league, and in turn can attract more fans to help build the success of the league. While the role of the fan has largely been the same throughout the existence of these leagues, the introduction of the internet has expanded and transformed the way we communicate and gives fans new avenues to connect. Before fans were connected by a shared community such as a city or country, but restricted to areas such as bars, workplaces or a pre-existing group of friends to share in their fandom. The internet has also given fans a new way of communicating with teams that was previously restricted, but now expanded to being able to contact teams through social media to get a more direct response. The purpose of this research blog will be to look at some of the evolutions of fandom in the internet age, particularly with a focus on hockey and the NHL, while analyzing how fandom can continue to evolve in a digital age.
The Basic Uses of Social Media in Hockey Fandom
Perhaps the most blatant change that social media has caused to the world of sport, is simply social media itself. While that may seem redundant it’s incredibly relevant to how the landscape has changed in sport. Social media and message boards provides a seemingly unlimited space for users to interact and discuss hockey in a number of ever changing ways, both meaningful and meaningless to the game of hockey. Armstrong, Delia and Giardina comment in their article Embracing the Social in Social Media (2016) “that consumers have subsequently grown to expect information to be available to them instantly, regardless of a topic’s significance” (p.149). Within the context of hockey, platforms such as Reddit, including it’s main hockey subreddit r/hockey, Twitter and message boards have become areas where fans can not only catch breaking news regarding the sport, but also follow games through live discussion as if they were at a bar.
Twitter has also provided a platform for hockey analytics to thrive, giving hockey statisticians such as HockeyGraphs and IneffectiveMath a way to present their data in a way that is appealing and readable to mainstream fans, despite being constructed my talented mathematicians. David Sutera also notes in his book Sports Fan 2.0 (2013) that “Now with social media, and most especially Twitter, sports fans can engage in substantial communication with their favourite athletes across great distances with remarkable efficiency” (p.128). While this is meant in the context of athletes, it can extend to the analytics community who can receive feedback from fans and fellow analytics buffs to hone their models for more accuracy, in turn creating a sub-community for themselves.
In a digital age, Rowe and Hutchins note in their chapter Globalization and Online Audiences (2014) that sports fans expect to access any piece of sport history at any point (p.7). Reddit features dedicated sub communities dedicated exclusively to individual teams as a way for fans of the team to connect across the world, where before the best way to meet a fan of the same team was largely left to chance if you lived outside of that team’s city. Reddit also features a dedicated video archiving community that allows fans to access a seemingly endless number of specific highlight clips from any given game.
Furthermore, Reddit also has somewhat underground channels that allow users to access full live games, which is especially helpful if the game you want to watch isn’t on television or accessible in your area or if you are unable to afford the NHL’s expensive game package. The biggest take away here is how social media platforms have expanded not only the reach of the game of hockey, but also the ways that fans can engage with some of the content and other fans in ways they weren’t previously able to.
From Fanatic to Pundit – How YouTube has changed hockey fandom
One of the most notable features of social media in our economy has been for users to take control of their employment through exercising their social capital to accumulate wealth. Creating large YouTube, Twitter or Instagram followings can in turn lead creation of a new type of job revolving around the person’s personality or stylized content. While this concept hasn’t been lost on NHL teams, who are able to utilize the platforms to further spread their brand, it has also allowed some fans to create positions for themselves as dedicated analysts. Before, hockey analysis was typically left to journalists or television personalities with a noted history playing the game, but this shift towards user created content as allowed for what we normally be considered a simple hardcore fan to translate their knowledge and passion for the game into a long term career for themselves. In doing this, these personalities have been able to cultivate their own communities and put their own unique spin on content analysis that was previously left to professionals. The two primary methods that allow users to create their own analysis content have been through YouTube videos, as well as podcasts to allow fans to talk about anything from deep statistical analysis of the game, to politics surrounding the game, and even around merchandise for the NHL.
Two of the best examples of this are YouTube creators SteveDangle and The Hockey Guy who have provided their own unique spins to the game that have translated into enough success that allows them to maintain their channels as full time employment
SteveDangle for example, combined a mixture of hockey knowledge, internet style humour and quick cut YouTube editing to create a style of video blogging that has amassed over 78,000 subscribers. While he often reserves his coverage for events related to the Toronto Maple Leafs, SteveDangle will also cover some of the biggest NHL news pieces such as trades giving his content appeal outside of the Toronto fan base. It’s also worth noting that his content has largely remained unchanged despite being employed by Sportsnet.
In contrast, The Hockey Guy focuses his content on in depth discussion of everything NHL and posts several videos per day on a variety of topics affecting the NHL and hockey in general. This can include previews of every upcoming game during the day, later followed by a recap of every game. Video topics can also focus on player acquisitions, hockey culture, roster building and player legacies. The Hockey Guy also features a heavy focus on community, often including viewer responses within his videos and maintaining an open dialogue with his viewers by having live streams during games.
But why do fans follow and support this content when they could rely strictly on the standard television personalities who are more interconnected with various league sources. The first angle to look at this from is based on Stuart Cunningham and David Craig’s text Being ‘really real’ on YouTube: Authenticity, Community and Brand Culture in Social Media Entertainment (2017), who comment that the form of discourse by YouTube personalities is attractive to users because it differs from what traditional media would offer (p.74). In this case either the comedic take of SteveDangle or in the in depth takes of The Hockey Guy provide alternatives to the typical canned intermission speak that fans would normally be subject to. There is also the angle of hope, as Matthew Kulgman covers in his chapter entitled Online Fansites and the Circulation of the Past in the Preseason Hopes of Sports Followers (2015), where he suggests that fans enjoy discourse because it can fill them with either “realistic hope” or “magic hope” (p.135) based around their teams upcoming or current seasons. Finally, community is a major aspect of why these channels grow in popularity, as Starvos, Meng, Westberg and Farrelly state in their article Understanding Fan Motivation for Interacting on Social Media (2013) that “fans may want to experience camaraderie…affiliated to group affiliation” (p.457). Ultimately, legitimate fan created content is key in hockey fandom in the digital age.
Social Media, Hockey and Activism – #MelnykOut
On March 19th 2018, several billboards went up in and around the city of Ottawa to rally fans around the cause of removing the local teams owner, Eugene Melnyk. Melnyk, who has been owner of the team for 15 years, had developed a reputation as an owner who valued money over team success and has publicly called out fans for not showing up to playoff games. The Senators recently endured one of the most tumultuous seasons in league history, with rumours swirling that their face of the franchise would be shipped out of town by the trade deadline on February 26th 2018, due to Melnyk not wanting to pay the player full value on his next contract. What Twitter provided in this case, was a chance for fans to voice their displeasure with the team. As noted by William Housley et. al in their article entitled Interaction and Transformation on Social Media: The Case for Twitter Campaigns (2018), “social media platforms play a key role in the emergence and/or growth of activist campaigns” (p.2). In this case twitter played a huge role in short lived #MelnykOut campaign.
Shortly before the trade deadline, the #MelnykOut campaign caught fire on Twitter as means to publicly show the fanbases detest and belief that the owner was actively hindering the potential success of the team. The campaign launched alongside a GoFundMe page that amassed enough money to have the billboards posted within a month of the campaign launching. Not only was the campaign widely popular with fans and the media, it had also spread enough to grab the attention of some of the Senator’s players. While the campaign brought in plenty of local and national attention, it ultimately failed to bring about any change in the Senators organization, although realistically what can be expected from a horde of fans trying to take control of a privately owned company. It did however display the level in which social media allow fans to voice their displeasure with how their team is being run, even with the desired result being unrealized, it certainly puts those that the campaign targeted on notice of the fanbases general feelings towards them, and could influence future decisions made by Melnyk, such as resigning their franchise player, or building a new stadium. It is also interesting to connect threads left by the players in response to these tweets, as Thomas Corrigan notes in his chapter The Political Economy of Sports and New Media (2014) that “social media tools allow athletes, fans and sports activists to directly communicate with one another” (p.43). This was displayed in the case of the fans against Melnyk when the face of the franchise followed a twitter user who posted a rant on the trade rumours. Although Karlsson never commented on the choice to follow the user, it received both media and fan attention and led many to believe that Karlsson was either on his way out or that he was unhappy about the rumours.
Also worth noting that fans of the New York Islanders ran a similar campaign entitled #SnowMustGo , to oust general manager Garth Snow after over a decade of mediocrity. This campaign managed to grab some media and fan attention, but was ultimately ignored in the larger scheme of things as Snow is slated to return for another season as general manager.
As Social Media has impacted our lives with both positive and negative aspects, yet it has undoubtedly expanded the way we look at the world and everything in it, and sports is no exception. In the digital age, social media has provided fans numerous ways to engage with their favourite sports and hockey and its fans are seeing numerous benefits from this change. While social media has given a platform for more fans to be introduced to the game, it has also been breaking down barriers typically reserved for previous NHL professionals and allows fans an outlet to share their frustrations and leave a mark on their favourite teams, which will certainly expand in the future.
Reference List (APA)
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