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The concussion debate says a lot about modern marketing, communications and social media

The debate over the heavy hit on Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens took a fascinating twist recently when Air Canada threatened to pull its sponsorship of the National Hockey League. This isn't just about the future of hockey and sponsorship - it also tells us a lot about modern marketing and communications and how social media empowers its audience.

Over the past year, there has been a frenzy in the Canadian media over head injuries in professional hockey. Sidney Crosby, Canada's golden boy, has lost months to a concussion and when he will return remains uncertain. Medical researchers from Boston University confirmed that former NHL tough guy Bob Probert had chronic traumatic encephalopathy when he died at the age of 45. Then, Boston's Zdeno Chara checked Mr. Pacioretty heavily into the boards, resulting in a fractured vertebra and severe concussion.

This is a difficult time for the NHL, as the debate about its next step rages on the sports networks and Twitter. But a new voice has entered the conversation - the sponsor's.

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Air Canada, airline sponsor of several NHL clubs and naming rights sponsor of the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, sent the following warning to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman:

"From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, it is becoming increasingly difficult to associate our brand with sports events which could lead to serious and irresponsible accidents; action must be taken by the NHL before we are encountered with a fatality. Unless the NHL takes immediate action with serious suspension to the players in question to curtail these life-threatening injuries, Air Canada will withdraw its sponsorship of hockey."

Another sponsor, VIA Rail, also decided to engage. While distancing its statement from its sponsorship, VIA nonetheless stated that "being a sponsor gives us the right, as a stakeholder, to say what we said to the NHL today, from inside the arena if you will."

This hard-line and very public position by a major sponsor is rare, but it is appropriate when a sponsoring company decides that an organization or personality no longer shares its corporate image or values. A number of Tiger Woods's former sponsors made this decision.

However, we can find no precedent in which a sponsor has made such overt demands, under the guise of corporate social responsibility, including the offer to remain a sponsor if the league responds to its demands.

The strategic value of sponsorship - a promotional tool - extends beyond traditional advertising. Sponsorship is about demonstrating that a company shares the values of its target market. It is about building a deep emotional connection with the audience through what is called a halo effect, the value a sponsor receives by being associated with the product's image.

In this context, the halo effect is powerful: Canadians are deeply passionate about hockey. Sponsors are therefore passionate about the NHL, because it offers an opportunity to build an emotional connection with a large, affluent market. This passion nets the Toronto Maple Leafs alone more than $50-million a year in sponsorship revenue.

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What has motivated Air Canada and VIA to risk this sudden and public intervention? The fact that both organizations are headquartered in Montreal cannot be forgotten, because their employees are also passionate hockey fans, and the injured player in this case is a Canadien. Perhaps the companies are driven by a true concern for the violent nature of the game. Or perhaps they've decided that recent events have tarnished the NHL's halo so significantly that the value of the sponsorship itself has dropped. If so, these sponsors' positions may have more to do with Twitter and Facebook than Mr. Pacioretty or Mr. Crosby. In the world of social media, fans are no longer merely spectators; they are also active and empowered participants in issues around the game.

The companies clearly saw the opportunity, through social media, to capitalize on this event by positioning themselves on the popular side of this debate among the hockey fans who are also customers. It then becomes the job of these millions of newly empowered fans to spread the word and tell the league which side is right - one tweet at a time. Our early analysis of social media traffic suggests that the outrage of these fans, measured by volume, is almost unprecedented.

However, the league's response to Air Canada in particular was immediate and blunt. The league said it will miss Air Canada but there are other sponsors who will be happy to fill that void - in particular, other airlines that would be happy to take the reported $20-million a year Air Canada generates from its NHL partners.

But if the league wants to use social media to promote the league, it must also be prepared for a conversation on more serious issues. Air Canada and VIA are betting on the public interest in continuing that conversation.

Both the league and these sponsors are treading in uncharted territory. The league's recent actions on concussions suggest that it recognizes the risk to its brand's value. When it comes to Air Canada's threat, who will blink is anyone's guess. But who is winning is easy: the newly empowered fan.

David Finch is assistant professor with the Bissett School of Business, Mount Royal University. Norman O'Reilly is associate professor with the faculty of health sciences at the University of Ottawa.

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