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Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs records a video for NHL social media during the 2022 NHL player media tour, in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Sept. 15.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Once a minefield of complications for sports teams and players, social media has matured into a key enabler of fan experiences and connections. And when it comes to online engagement, Toronto teams tend to punch above their weight class.

Social media has long been an avenue for fans to interact with their favourite teams and players, but during pandemic-related lockdowns, the need was amplified for these platforms to bring Canadians closer to the action.

“With COVID you really saw teams that relied on ticket sales and had some presence on social media change things fast, because all of a sudden they had to engage fans online, and be creative while doing it,” says Shannon Ross, a professor of social media and sports marketing at Seneca College.

Social platforms are now primary fan-engagement tools, especially during the off-season, or when teams are underperforming. “Even the smallest things that connect with fans can keep them loyal, keep them coming back, keep them engaged – those are the fans you want,” Prof. Ross explains.

She adds that getting the formula right can provide significant value for individual players, teams, and towns. Star athletes can add millions to the economies of the cities where they play. “That’s why you need good marketing strategy to leverage that star power.”

A strong social-media presence can even increase a player’s value to prospective teams. “The No. 1 priority still has to be getting the best players to make the best team, but I would imagine when all things are equal they do consider things like social-media influence,” Prof. Ross says.

In recent years, she points out that teams and players have effectively become media agencies thanks to social media, adding that some of Canada’s biggest sports brands already had built-in advantages. Many of the teams are steeped in history and tradition, they have loyal followings, and they have diverse player communities, well-established rivalries and other existing narratives for fans to follow online.

“[Toronto Maple Leafs captain] Austin Matthews’s connection with Justin Bieber, Drake’s connection to the Raptors – with social media you have to look at the influence of the influencers, and that’s been really good for Toronto,” Prof. Ross says.

The city also benefits from being home to the only Canadian teams in Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA).

“Across TikTok the #bluejays hashtag has more than 464 million views,” says Bryan Gold, co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based social-media marketing platform #Paid. By comparison Mr. Gold says TikTok content with hashtags associated with the Washington Nationals – the baseball team representing America’s capital – have only received 17.5 million views.

“Similarly, #wethenorth – the motto of the Toronto Raptors – has more than 169 million views on TikTok, compared with only 6.8 million views of #birdland, the motto for the MLB’s Baltimore Orioles, again located just outside of the U.S. capital,” Mr. Gold says.

The Blue Jays and Raptors are not the only viral teams in town. According to sports streaming and social-media analytics provider Conviva, the Toronto Maple Leafs rank behind only the New York Rangers among National Hockey League (NHL) teams for social-media engagement across all platforms in 2022. Toronto FC ranks fifth among the 28 teams in Major League Soccer (MLS).

Conviva’s vice-president of strategy Nick Cicero says the sports social-media landscape is constantly shifting, challenging teams and players to show up on an increasing number of platforms. TikTok has recently emerged as the most popular platform for sports content.

“Right now TikTok has the lion’s share of attention by far – it’s the fastest-growing platform,” he says. “I like to think of it as that place where you can have a real personality.”

Mr. Cicero says each platform has something unique to offer players, teams and leagues. YouTube is widely seen as a destination for sharing more traditional content such as highlights, recaps, press conferences, interviews, and miniseries. “Most sports teams and leagues think of YouTube a lot more like Netflix,” he explains.

Twitter, meanwhile, is often used as a real-time messaging platform where teams can provide updates, and fans can interact with each other.

“Sports teams post more on Twitter than any other social network, and that’s because you’re constantly updating or live tweeting,” Mr. Cicero says. “You might post a couple of times a day on Instagram, one or two times a day on TikTok, but you might post 40 or 50 times a day on Twitter, so most teams would say Twitter is essential for that real-time component.”

Instagram and Facebook, meanwhile – both owned by parent company Meta – don’t always generate the same amount of traffic as other platforms, but they are most effective for facilitating online sales.

“At the same time that [the teams are] making content for social platforms to engage with fans, they are selling merchandise, they’re selling tickets, and the ad products that Facebook and Instagram offer are pretty essential,” Mr. Cicero says.

He adds that generating engagement on social media comes down to two factors: winning, and star power. Teams often see a boost when they are winning, and take a hit when their team is losing, or a star player gets traded.

“For example, when Kawhi [Leonard] left the Raptors for the Clippers, tons of fans went with him,” he says. “The Clippers saw a huge bump in their social following and fan base and the Raptors fell to the middle of the league in terms of engagement.”

As the power of social media becomes more widely recognized, leagues and unions are taking a more active role in ensuring players don’t attract negative attention. Mr. Cicero explains that players have long been given media training to help them manage their public profiles, and that has since expanded to incorporate best practices for social media.

“I’m sure everybody is in their ear, too” he says. “From their agent saying ‘don’t mess up your cheque’ to the team saying ‘don’t mess up our brand’ to their wife saying ‘don’t embarrass us.’”

Mr. Cicero says the relationship between teams and their players can be complicated. While teams rely on players to drive engagement, they also need to be careful not to rely on them too heavily.

“You don’t want to put all your eggs in the basket of a player that might be traded tomorrow, or who does something that is not a great reflection of the brand, and then your whole content strategy is shot. Across the board athletes are more aware of the value that their brand can bring on social media, and we’re seeing them become more sophisticated at it as a result.”

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