Commentary

The social media effect

Updated: September 10, 2012, 2:35 PM ET
By Craig Custance | ESPN.com

Before he posted the YouTube video "Together We Can" for the world to see, Janne Makkonen (@JanneMakkonen1) estimates that he had 500 or so followers on Twitter. One week later, that number quadrupled.

It helps when NHL players Jack Johnson, David Perron, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Matt Duchene and Logan Couture plug your video, and it helps when you're getting love on Twitter from everyone from director Kevin Smith to the Canucks Green Men.

Makkonen's following on Twitter erupted and the video, an eight-minute passionate plea on why the NHL must avoid a lockout, now has more than half a million views.

It's also the best example yet of how social media has the potential to be a game-changer during NHL CBA negotiations as another lockout closes in. And so far, public opinion has been strongly favoring the players.

Makkonen is a 21-year-old freelance editor from Finland who wouldn't have had a voice during the previous lockout. But suddenly through Twitter, YouTube and the traditional interviews on radio and in print that have inevitably followed, he has become the face of a million frustrated hockey fans. Worth noting, he's someone whose anger is directed more at NHL commissioner Gary Bettman than the players.

"I'm hoping now inspiration is there for everyone," said Makkonen, who has also set up a change.org petition to further the cause. "Everyone kind of knows what is going on. We can start doing these small things that can hopefully become something big."

T.J. Tully, a fan from Edmonton, set up the website YouHaveTwoWeeks.com with a petition that quickly gathered 1,000 digital signatures from fans threatening to boycott the businesses of NHL owners if an agreement wasn't reached in the next two weeks. His website lists every business connected with the NHL owners of all 30 teams so fans can hit owners where it hurts. It's a sign that frustration is shifting from the commissioner to those who hired him.

Tully's hammer? The threat of social media.

"Over the next two weeks, we will initiate a social media frenzy to have YouHaveTwoWeeks.com viewed by as many NHL fans as possible," his website reads. "If the CBA negotiations are not resolved by September 15th, the boycott will begin."

Players and their agents have taken to Twitter to express their views, refute data and show a united front. When it was reported by RDS' Renaud Lavoie earlier this week that the NHL lost $240 million the past two seasons, agent Allan Walsh (@walsha) was quick to repost the NHL's own media release about the record-breaking revenues generated in the NHL this season. A release that didn't remotely hint at any teams losing money.

[+] EnlargeSteven Stamkos
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesPlayers and their agents have taken to Twitter to express their views, refute data and show a united front.

Through social media, players are winning the PR battle and fans are starting to organize, but it's hard to tell if it will make any difference at all in the big picture.

"I think it will for sure," Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff said. "Last time, minus Twitter, in a lot of ways Gary [Bettman] and the league could control what gets said in the media. Now, it's almost impossible. It's already happened a couple times where Gary has made a statement and, literally three minutes later, it's being rebuffed and proven not to be true."

Through it all, the NHL and its teams have remained quiet on the social media front during CBA negotiations. The last tweet from Bettman (@Commish_Gary) came in April 2009. The NHL's official Twitter page has avoided the labor talks, focusing on environmental initiatives around the league.

There wasn't even a snarky tweet from the L.A. Kings pointing out the difference between revenue and profit or net and gross when the NHL's own revenue media release was used against it.

There seems to be a realization in NHL offices that little is gained in publicly alienating the players, the lifeblood of the league. At some point there's going to be a deal struck and the two sides will have to work together. The league needs the players not only for games but to cooperate with the expanding media empire at NHL Network and NHL.com.

So don't look for the league to wage its PR battle on Twitter any time soon.

"We understood going into this that the landscape was going to be different with the prevalence of social media. But that fact has not and will not affect our approach to collective bargaining," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email. "Ultimately, our job is to negotiate an agreement that will make the league and the clubs stable and healthy, so that we can continue to invest in the business and grow the business for the benefit of all of the stakeholders in the game, including the players and our fans. We do not intend to abdicate that responsibility in reaction to uninformed ramblings on Twitter."

Information from the league's perspective has emerged through more traditional outlets. Daly recently spent time with ESPN.com, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Los Angeles Times and others to explain the league's position in negotiations. Even if he's not posting on Twitter, Daly's viewpoints eventually end up there as fans and media highlight his interviews.

And there's certainly risk in the players' online strategy.

Social media has helped gather the fans in the players' corner now, but it's support that can quickly be lost. In 2010, goalie Dan Ellis learned how fans can turn when he complained on Twitter about salary reduction and escrow, souring those who felt little sympathy for a player earning millions while they looked for work. A momentary lapse in judgement from one of hockey's most approachable players sent him from a popular early Twitter adopter to a punchline (see: #DanEllisProblems).

The players remain united, but one player's tweet of discontent toward the NHLPA or an opinion about the league or owners that fans find distasteful would unravel today's momentum. Even something taken out of context or misconstrued could end up doing damage.

Perhaps that's part of the reason many players prefer to strictly read and not post. Red Wings forward Danny Cleary is firmly in that camp.

"I can get in trouble on Twitter," he joked. "My opinion would be too strong. My sense of humor probably wouldn't go over as well either."

But right now, he sees the value in it.

"The public opinion is for sure on the players' side. Now through Twitter and other streams of media, they can see our side. See what's going on," he said. "The real stuff that's going on, the real numbers that are being put out there. The league says one thing and now we can dispute it openly and in a forum. That way is a lot better."

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