One of my research interests is the ways in which new media such as blogs and Twitter are both reshaping the social experience of being a sports fan and dismantling the near-monopoly that the mainstream media has traditionally held over the interpretation and meaning of hockey. Yesterday, I wrote about the politics of naming rights and usage of the former Maple Leaf Gardens facility in light of the lawsuit brought by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) against Ryerson University and Loblaw. Given the strong emotional and spatial attachment felt by many Torontonians and hockey fans toward the Gardens, I decided to do a quick data collection of how people have reacted to the news on Twitter.
The topic was less widely discussed than I anticipated, although between roughly 2:00-10:00 PM I observed (via TweetDeck) 108 tweets that mentioned Maple Leaf Gardens. The responses can broadly be divided into three categories: news reports about the lawsuit and subsequent name change; nostalgia for the old Maple Leaf Gardens; and outrage at MLSE. The last two are, for different reasons, of interest to my sociological imagination.
Nostalgia for the “good old days” of hockey features prominently in the collective Canadian consciousness. While there is much hockey history for Canadians to reflect fondly upon, nostalgia can also obscure the sociopolitical circumstances that enabled or constrained certain actions at certain historical moments (for example, the circumstances surrounding the construction of Maple Leaf Gardens); and can be used to normalize the status quo and thus suggest that certain aspects of hockey are inherent (e.g. “fighting has always been a part of hockey!”). The nostalgic tweets about Maple Leaf Gardens fell into the former category, suggesting a reverence for the building that ignores much of its less palatable history (e.g. Conn Smythe’s underhanded business dealings to maximize his personal wealth; the sexual abuse scandal in which Garden employees were guilty). Rather, they drew upon the arena’s significance to the Maple Leafs team, personified the building, or drew upon powerful national discourses to mythologize it:
For this Twitter user (and presumably many other Maple Leafs fans), nostalgia is primarily linked to the Gardens status as the Leafs’ home rink for over 60 years. The tweet is an idealized remembrance of the venue’s spatial and sensual characteristics.
Joe O’Connor is a writer for The National Post, although his articles generally do not concern sports and this tweet appears to be a personal statement. O’Connor demonstrates a very strong personal attachment to the Gardens, personifying it as his “[old] buddy.”
This tweet spotlights the militaristic origins of the Maple Leafs nickname and Conn Smythe’s own military history, drawing on discourses that honour and mythologize the sacrifices made by Canadian men during the First World War and tying these to a nostalgic understanding of Maple Leaf Gardens.
The second set of tweets, which was more common than the nostalgic messages, directed outrage toward the decision to change the name and, particularly, at MLSE for forcing the change. New media are frequently used as sites of protest (most notably in recent uprisings in Iran and Egypt) and have dramatically altered the possibilities for social protest and dissent.
I certainly don’t mean to compare the role of Twitter in protesting the name change of a hockey arena to the anti-government uprisings in which many Iranian and Egyptian citizens lost their lives, which would indeed be a gross trivialization of those momentous events and the many lives lost. But I do believe that they highlight the possibilities for dissent and contestation of social meaning that are opened up by new media. The individual criticism of and anger toward MLSE that I observed likely reached a far wider audience than it would have in the days before Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. In this sense, new media can be seen to have a democratizing effect on sports coverage – whereas most mainstream media reports attempted to project an apolitical stance, Twitter users took direct aim at MLSE and what they perceived to be its corporate greed:
Steve Dangle is a popular hockey blogger and passionate Maple Leafs fan, with over 7300 followers on Twitter. He took to Twitter to publicize his anger in a message that was retweeted by a number of others on Twitter.
Two examples of Twitter users villainizing MLSE in a manner that would almost certainly not occur in the mainstream press. The first user expresses “hate” for MLSE and draws on nostalgia in her defiant hashtag #itwillalwaysbethegardenstome. The second tweet, in response to another user’s comparison of MLSE to the Boston Red Sox ownership, labels MLSE as an “evil” empire.
And finally, Adam Proteau of The Hockey News, weighed in from his personal Twitter feed to humorously express his outrage. Proteau, who has over 14,000 Twitter followers, was the most influential voice amongst those discussing the MLSE decision – over 30 other Twitter users either retweeted this message or publicly responded directly to it.
And that concludes my little experiment on the impact of Twitter on sport fans and new media. I personally find the whole thing fascinating, and it is the focus of a lot of my academic attention at the moment. Given the possibilities for resistance and social advocacy presented by new media such as Twitter, and the many areas toward which these can be directed within the sphere of sport, I believe it is certainly a topic worth exploring.
 See David Cruise (1991), Net Worth: Exploding the Myths of Pro Hockey, pp 85-86.