Around this time last year I wrote a post about my discomfort in my role as a fan. Before I discovered ice hockey, I’d never been so firmly in the position of observer. Every activity I admired — writing, music, sport — I also attempted, for better or worse. I’d never loved something I couldn’t participate in.
Besides that, I found it strange to celebrate a victory I had no hand in, or to mourn a loss I couldn’t have saved. I didn’t understand how to watch players I didn’t know compete for a reward I had no stake in. I loved hockey like I’d never loved a sport before, but I didn’t know how to be a fan.
Over the course of the last hockey season, a few things have happened to advance my thinking on the subject. The first was that this year Michael and I bought season tickets. No longer could I claim to be a casual observer. With this commitment of time and money I was most definitely a fan.
The second thing that happened was Michael volunteered to help out the media team at home games. This meant arriving an hour and a half before every game, and staying back after. It meant Michael often didn’t stand with me during games, leaving me to justify my interest in the game without the buffer of an enthusiastic husband.
I stopped wearing my jersey to games because I was afraid of being mistaken for a groupie while waiting for Michael to finish pack-up. I attempted to gain emotional distance from the games by critiquing the play and predicting the worst. I stopped looking forward to games and I almost stopped enjoying them as well.
By the end of the regular season, I realised I had a choice to make. Either I had to increase my investment in the game, and find a way to be comfortable with this, or stop watching entirely.
Now, I’m aware this isn’t a problem most fans of the game face, and that has never been as clear to me as in the events of the last week. If you’re involved in the Australian Ice Hockey community, or you follow Michael or me on social media, you will be aware that a few days ago the AIHL announced they would not be live streaming the hockey finals for the first time since 2006. The decision was made in an effort to increase viewership of the significantly delayed, cut-down broadcasts on Foxtel in order to leverage a TV deal for next year.
Prior to the announcement, there was a strong social media campaign in support of the live stream spearheaded by Peter Lambert, former AIHL commissioner and current head of the North Stars media team. Michael and I participated in the campaign. It’s a cause we believe in. Two of the things we love best about the AIHL is the level of accessibility for fans at home and internationally, and the grassroots support of its fan base.
We believed these two assets were the lifeblood of the league and without them, the AIHL’s efforts to expand would fail. On Wednesday night the teams and the AIHL Commission voted on the issue, and over half voted against live streaming the games. This decision proved incomprehensible to the fans, who weren’t in a position to see or understand the financial pressures many of the teams are under. As Will Brodie’s article in The Age articulates, for some teams, the Fox deal is essential for survival.
To say the fans reacted strongly to this announcement is an understatement. Some remained convinced support for the Fox broadcasts would only be strengthened if the games were first streamed live. Others were upset because they would no longer be able to watch their friends and family members play for the biggest honour in Australian hockey. And then there were the fans who felt personally insulted by the decision, and who lashed out with a fury normally reserved for the comments sections of online articles.
This cuts to the heart of my discomfort with my own role as a fan, and with fandom in general. In the social media age we have unprecedented access to those we admire, whether they be writers, sports stars, actors or musicians. Organisations and individuals alike are under increasing pressure to participate and promote in the online world. Walls are breaking down between celebrity and civilian. These things can be incredibly positive, but they can also be damaging and downright ugly.
The response to the league’s decision was brutal, showcasing some of the more vile aspects of ice hockey in Australia. On the other hand, the AIHL’s actions in response to this, deleting comments and banning users without prior warning, did more damage than good to the league’s reputation. When fans couldn’t contact the league to voice their complaints, they went to Fox directly and I’m sure you have no trouble imagining how damaging this could be to the league.
From my perspective there are two ways to participate in social media as a fan, and both were demonstrated in equal measure over the last week.
The more bitter reactions to the league’s decision are a good example of the first way. I’ve seen it in the writing world as much as here. Fans who have increasing access to their heroes begin to hunger for more. Neil Gaiman wrote a blog entry on fan entitlement in response to the anger directed at J.R.R Martin for the pace of his book releases. His essay can be summed up with this line: “George R. R. Martin is not working for you.”
The Australian Ice Hockey League relies on its fan base, this is true. But the main responsibility of the league is not to make you (or me) happy. It’s to maintain the healthy operation of hockey in Australia. I may not agree with the decision they made, you may not agree with the decision they made, but we should all agree that the AIHL was acting in what they believed to be the best interest of the league.
The second approach to social media as a fan relies on this tenant: If we love something, our actions should work to ensure its continued survival. Attacking the league, threatening the league, complaining to the league’s sponsors, these things do not help hockey. In the end the social media campaign was successful and the league reversed their decision, but would this have been the case if fans had petitioned respectfully, with the best interest of the league at heart? I believe so. The single most important thing the teams and commissioners needed to hear was this: We will still watch the Fox broadcasts even if the games are streamed.
As fans we decide how we will respond to the access we have to our sport and to the AIHL itself. Either we demand more, comfortable in our own sense of entitlement, or we participate, finding ways to give back.
Moving forward, the attitude of hockey fans in Australia will be tested in whether they rally around the league to watch the Fox broadcasts and prove the financial viability of investment in Australian hockey. Either they will act with a sense of entitlement, “punishing” the league by refusing to show up, or they will support the sport that supports them.
I’ve faced a similar decision, coming to the end of this season. Will I give up on hockey, too concerned with my own discomforts, or will I increase my participation, finding a way to give back to the sport I love?
I made my decision before all the drama surrounding the finals live stream, but I only feel more strongly about it now I’ve seen both sides of the coin.
Earlier this week I volunteered to help the North Star’s media team in whatever way they can use me. Because I believe that if you love something the way I love hockey, you can’t just be an observer. If you love something that much, you have to find a way to give back.