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The big leagues' love-hate relationship with social media

Athletes, major sports leagues and media have competing views about social media, what it brings to sports and its drawbacks.

Social media is a game changer for pro sports

Baseball fans can't seem to get enough of Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista's home run — and his triumphant bat toss. This Vine video posted to Major League Baseball's official account has been looped more than 15 million times. And counting. 

Vine is just one of the ways major sports leagues are embracing social media to appeal to younger and more plugged-in fans, who aren't content to wait for TV to show them the highlights.

"All the leagues know that a lot of their younger consumers are going to be on social media. They're going to get their information from social media first," said Israel Fehr, a sportswriter for Yahoo Canada. 

"They know that they have to be right on top of it," he said. 

Fehr said all the North American leagues have come around to social media, as well as to new smartphone apps, like Periscope, that allow users to stream live video from their phones. 

"Leagues are doing that with practices and pre-game stuff," says Fehr. 

Twitter accounts suspended after NFL complaint

Apps like Periscope and Twitter accounts that post Vines and animated GIFs of game highlights can be a headache for the big leagues too. 

This week, Twitter accounts belonging to Deadspin and SB Nation were shut down temporarily after the NFL complained to Twitter that they were posting GIFs of their copyrighted material. 

The NFL itself posts video highlights to Twitter that routinely get thousands of retweets apiece. It extended a deal with Twitter over the summer to do so for the next two years.

"I understand why they do it. There's a lot of money at stake," said Fehr. 

But Fehr said he doesn't agree with the NFL's complaints to Twitter or Twitter's decision to take down the accounts. 

"I don't think that even an account as big as Deadspin… when they throw up a five-second GIF of a touchdown, it's not really affecting the product," he said.

Under copyright law, media covering sports do have the right to use some game footage, but leagues are sticklers when it comes to their intellectual property. 

"It gets complicated when you start to argue who owns what," said Fehr. 

CR7 has biggest following in sports

It's not just the leagues that have embraced social media, but also the players themselves.

Soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo has more than 38 million followers. In the U.S., the king of Twitter is basketball's LeBron James, with over 24 million followers. And in hockey, it's defenceman P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens with 675,000 followers. 

Part of the draw for fans is the photos and videos the athletes post, said Fehr. 

Those posts, he said, "give some inside access to what it's like to be Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James when they're just at home with their kids, they're just out on the town between games." 

Star players can also let their personalities shine through on social media.

"LeBron's not afraid to make some political statements. He's not afraid to take stances that some athletes might find unpopular, so for a lot of people that's something attractive," said Fehr. 

"They like to see that these athletes that do take their jobs very seriously have a fun side to them. That's definitely the case with P.K. Subban," he said. 

Online heckling 'comes with the territory'

Fehr said the teams and the leagues they play in often have opposing views when it comes to players' use of social media. 

"I think a lot of the teams — especially in the front offices or coaching staffs — would want their players to have nothing to do with social media because they always like to talk about potential distractions, while the leagues know that they have a product to sell and the more people that are following their big-name players on Twitter, on Instagram or even on Facebook, is good for their product." he said. 

Besides the possible distraction, the direct line of communication with fans offered by social media has other drawbacks, as heckling and chirping at players has gone online. 

"If there's a key play in a game, and a player happens to be on the wrong end of it, if he goes on his Twitter account and opens his notifications, there are going to be a lot of angry, unfiltered people that are making some pretty nasty comments or even attacks at these players," said Fehr. 

"I think they realize that it comes with the territory now," he said. "It's something that they have to learn how to deal with."

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