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Fans wield the most power when they're unhappy, conference told

Geoff Molson, owner of the Montreal Canadiens team speaks in Brossard, Quebec, March 29, 2012. Molson, who created his own Twitter account, reflected at a international sports conference on how websites such as Twitter and Facebook have amplified a din that reaches well beyond arena walls.

Olivier Jean/Reuters/Olivier Jean/Reuters

It appears boos sound louder than cheers to owners of professional sports clubs.

Looking back on a dismal season where he heard plenty of the former and far less of the latter, Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson reflected on how websites such as Twitter and Facebook have amplified a din that reaches well beyond arena walls.

"I think it's much louder, they [fans]can communicate to many more people. When I was young, you go home angry but you can't really share it. Now they can be angry with hundreds of thousands of people. It certainly is impactful and it gives them a voice," Molson said Thursday. "If you respect that, they'll respect you as well."

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One of the things Molson did after buying his boyhood heroes nearly three years ago was to open a Twitter account – his position as a Tweeting franchise owner was doubtless one of the reasons he found himself at an international sports conference to talk about fan power.

It's an article of faith in modern sports that whoever buys a ticket also purchases the right to express their opinion in pointed fashion – when they join their voices, fans become impossible to ignore.

"They're part of our organization, and the Montreal Canadiens are so important to people we have an obligation to listen to them, and we do. Are the fans going to hire and fire somebody? No. But their feedback's important, and it contributes to the valuations that we do internally," Molson said.

That said, there are several contemporary examples of fans having at least a minor role in crucial management decisions: the Toronto Maple Leafs' Ron Wilson was fired in March amid fan unrest and incensed supporters of English soccer club Aston Villa demanded manager Alex McLeish's head earlier this month and got it.

When the Habs replaced coach Jacques Martin with the unilingual Randy Cunneyworth, fans made their displeasure known in no uncertain terms – Cunneyworth's replacement will at least get by in French.

In their efforts to attract an increasingly fragmented audience, sports businesses are increasingly tailoring their strategies toward people who far outnumber those who actually buy a seat.

"Fan power is absolutely growing in exponential terms," said Laurence Applebaum, executive vice-president of the Women's Tennis Association.

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If the WTA uses its interactions with fans to tweak its product – Applebaum mentioned live on-court coaching – the Habs see social media as a barometer of fan sentiments.

"Mostly, I listen," Molson said.

Occasionally he responds to angry Tweets, such as one from an irate fan who wrote to cancel his season tickets – Molson dug up his phone number and called to talk him out of it.

"He'll be a season ticket holder for life if I have my way," Molson said.

Among those who made a point of shaking the Habs owner's hand were Canadian Olympic Committee head Marcel Aubut and Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume, who needs all the allies he can find as the city tries to attract an NHL team.

Conferences involving the International Olympic Committee are a target-rich environment for the ambitious politician, and Labeaume is nothing if not a striver.

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If some people have to put effort into working a room, the diminutive, excitable Labeaume is not one of them.

At this week's gathering, Labeaume has been busily been laying the groundwork for an eventual Winter Games bid, and stumbled into an opportunity to woo young jobseekers in Spain during a meeting with his counterpart from Madrid.

"We have our little networks ... we have access to everyone and anyone we'd like to talk to," said Labeaume, who this week announced a deal to bring a World Cup cross-country ski race to his city and held talks with the International Triathlon Federation about a proposal to launch a new winter triathlon circuit with an event in the Quebec capital.

Those events are all calculated to showcase Quebec as a prime winter sport destination on television, the endgame being an eventual Winter Olympics bid.

That dream got a little more distant Thursday with news that the International Olympic Committee and the powerful U.S. Olympic Committee settled a long-standing financial dispute – the offshoot is Canadian bids from cities such as Quebec City or Toronto will be overshadowed by U.S. bids for the foreseeable future.

It's hard to imagine Labeaume will be deterred – "It's all about the long term," he said.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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