GETTING ATHLETES READY FOR FANDOM

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Professional sport as we know it does not exist without fans.  If no one cared, there would be no market for tickets, t-shirts, news, blogs, and those awesome thundersticks.   Most professional athletes generally understand the value of fans to their sport as many pro athletes grew up as fans of their games.  

But let's be honest, fandom and the expectations on athletes have shifted dramatically and folks it isn't pretty.  The range of issues runs from odd to downright frightening.  Here are some samples for you:

  • Canadian short track speed skater Kim Boutin's dream of winning an Olympic medal in Pyeongchang turned into a nightmare with her social media accounts inundated with abuse and threats from angry South Korean fans after she won bronze on Tuesday. The 23-year-old grabbed third place in the women's 500-metre final at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Tuesday but her joy was short-lived. The disqualification of local Choi Min-jeong, who had finished second, triggered a wave of verbal attacks targeting the Canadian, seen as benefiting from what Koreans thought was an unfair decision of interfering.  "If I find you, you will die," wrote another on-line user before Boutin was forced to block her accounts.
  • A younger player (let's call him James) was telling me a story about how he was going to a University class (as a pro) and heard his name being yelled repeatedly in the school's courtyard as he was walking toward his building.  A girl was waving aggressively at him and still yelling his name to get his attention.   Seeing as he was at school, he assumed he this was a classmate he had met previously, but couldn't place.  She came up gave him a big hug and kiss on the cheek. "It's great to see you again,"  James said, trying to tease out how he knew her. "Oh, you don't know me.", the girl said.  " I don't go to school here.  I just really wanted to meet you.'
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  • The Vancouver Canucks lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals to the Boston Bruins.  Canucks fans rioted causing $4.2 million in damages.  Fans had done the exact same thing in 1994 when the Canucks lost in the finals.
  • Kansas City Royals first-base coach Tom Gamboa, in the midst of a game, was attacked by 34-year-old William Ligue Jr. and his 15-year-old son.  The fans claim Gamboa had exchanged words with them during the game, though Gamboa denied this.  The two attackers, likely regretted the decision, as they were given a 'rough ride' when the Royals calvary arrived.
  • Monica Seles was no stranger to death threats. Her home country of Serbia was in political turmoil, and she had been receiving death threats because of her native roots. In a Wimbledon quarterfinal match with Magdalena Maleeva, Guenter Parche, a 38-year-old lathe operator, ran out from the stands and stabbed Seles between the shoulder blades with a five-inch blade. It was later revealed that the stabbing wasn't politically motivated, Parche being simply a crazed Steffi Graf fan.
  • In a different time, there was Morganna the Kissing Bandit, who would crash fields and courts to snag kisses from players.
  • Jeremy Lin of the Brooklyn Nets has talked about the racism he encountered at the collegiate level, "There was one dude courtside [at Georgetown], and the whole game he just kept looking over at me and he was like 'Chicken fried rice! Beef lo mein! Beef and broccoli!' Like the whole game."  Or he would hear things like, 'Hey! Can you even see the scoreboard with those eyes?'"

It would be very easy to get down on sport fandom especially when one reads some of the vitriol that is directed at athletes via social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook (in fact some high profile athletes are getting off it).  It would also be very easy to counsel athletes to avoid fans like the plague and advise players to avoid taking positions or voicing opinions on anything. That would be a mistake.  Namely, because of positive impact athletes can have in their communities and beyond is massive.  Athletes can instigate conversations around social change and challenge accepted norms and they can help make the lives of their fellow citizens better by being involved and caring (see JJ Watt as a phenomenal example ).   Follow this link to some great examples of how athletes create happiness for many.

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However, the purpose of this conversation is to outline the reality that most athletes don't get enough training on how to deal with fans and how to engage with the community.   It is funny because most athletes inherently understand that by virtue of their position in society there is an expectation they should give back and be involved.  Yet, little is done on a consistent basis to prepare them to get better at it over time.  Leagues and Player Associations deliver the basics, but more should be done to improve players skills set in this space year over year.  

Interactions with fans especially in this day and age are challenging and fraught with pitfalls.  Many younger athletes may be prone hunkering down like a turtle in its shell.  This would be a tragic mistake. Both for the player as well as the leagues, the sport, and the fans.

Better educated and trained players are likely to result in players more confidently engaged in the community, an improved understanding of the business rationale of interacting with fans and critically, an understanding of how engaging in the world outside their sport can help them in the long and short-term.  This training should be pushed down to the minor league level where athletes can learn and make mistakes and improve their skill sets while not under the major professional media glare and then it should continue.

An athlete acting with purpose can literally change a community or the world of an individual fan overnight that is why our mission is to change the world one athlete at a time.