It's accepted wisdom that no one won in the NHL lockout. That's the impression you'd get from commissioner Gary Bettman's grovelling media apologia on Wednesday.
But there was one player in the drama who came out ahead. Social media, the new voice in the field of NHL opinion, emerged as a powerful voice by defying both the league and traditional media who have long brushed them off.
"As a journalistic tool, social media ruled the lockout," said Puck Daddy blogger Greg Wyshynski. "The final night of the lockout was almost a Twitter-exclusive event, with fans all over the world following the breaking news in real time. Countless stories were broken on Twitter first. Reporters camped out at the CBA talks tweeted information before they blogged it or reported it on TV."
Anti-lockout sites found traction on Twitter and Facebook. NoHockeyLockout.com ("Giving the Fans a voice to save our sport!"), stopthelock2012.com and NHLexpertpicks.com are among a few sites that hammered the issue. The tone was anti-NHL.
Player agent Allan Walsh of Octagon, a prodigious tweeter on behalf of the NHLPA during the lockout, called Twitter's performance the past four months "a game changer" in how hockey is covered. After the previous lockout, when the league and mainstream media dominated the flow of information, Walsh said, "the fans' anger had a seat at the table [because of social media this time]. The voice of players could be heard, discussing the issues with fans directly in an aggregate community. Look at one Youtube video, Together We Can, had 1,325,863 hits."
That attention brought varying degrees of success for those posting, Wyshynski said. "The [initial] support for the players because of this was massive, but it eventually gave way to 'we blame both sides' from a lot of fans. Soon, the players were getting flamed on Twitter for innocuous comments; and in the cases of Derek Roy's car and Evander Kane's stacks of dollar bills in Vegas, some fans took issue with the alleged disconnect between players 'crying poverty' yet flaunting riches."
It also created backlash for those such as Walsh, who engaged in heated debates online. The Los Angeles-based agent is unfazed. "If I ever cared about what other people thought I wouldn't be true to myself. I'm just one little Twitter feed, they can follow me or they can disagree or unfollow me."
To many supporters Twitter's success was also a rebuke for mainstream media. Describing it as a "tool to keep journalists honest," prolific hockey researcher and contributor Tyler Dellow (mc79hockey on Twitter) said in an e-mail, "the fact that there are a lot of smart and well-educated people on Twitter means that fans who were following the right people were able to learn a lot of interesting things from people who are outside the media.
"The Internet provides people who wouldn't otherwise have a forum with one; in many cases, this is a terrible idea but in a few cases it's really good. If you knew who to follow on Twitter, you got a lot of excellent information."
The emergence of social media's power and influence was a transformation the NHL either ignored or ridiculed, to its peril. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly criticized the "uninformed ramblings" of Twitter, while the league made few if any attempts to get its message to its connected fan base beyond the "disappointed, very disappointed, very-very disappointed" meme. As a result, the NHL and commissioner Bettman were pounded in the Twitter community. Hence Bettman's abject apology.
Ironically, the NHL could have found all the research it needed to gauge public opinion on its reckless gambit during the lockout. "The [fans'] interest, or lack thereof, is entirely measurable. It's silly for the media to speculate on what fan response will be, or conduct silly polls, when the data exists via social media.," Jesse Hirsh, president of Metaviews.ca, said in an e-mail.
"This go-round they could measure fan interest, they could measure that geographically, and they could project how much market or audience they're losing and thus how hard it will be to get it back to the numbers they need," Hirsh said.
"I think they also have the resources to mine social-media data, so moving forward they will be in a much better position to measure the value of their sponsorship and engagement with the NHL and its franchises. Ironically they may become advocates of fan sentiment as they are armed with what is being said on social media and use that to compel the NHL to adapt to their and the fan's needs."
Dividing the spoils
The good news for TSN Sports Radio 1050? It is getting half the available Toronto Maple Leafs radio games this shortened season. Great for the challenger in Toronto sports radio. The bad news: it also has to carry half the Toronto Raptors radio broadcasts as a result of purchasing 37.5 per cent of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., owner of the Raptors and Maple Leafs.
That means its competitor, Sportsnet Radio The Fan 590, gets to dump half its Raptors game inventory, which is something less than a scintillating radio property. Plus it gets 24 Maple Leafs broadcasts, the real prize in Toronto sports radio.