There are hundreds of voices, speaking simultaneously in different inflections. Still, they can all be heard clearly, neatly organized into a crimson-clad chorus. Their thoughts, clever, vitriolic, emoticon-laden, crawl down the screen. Many cry in written ecstasy as their savior, the caveman-looking superstar, slams into the plexiglass celebrating yet another goal. Others debate the merits of defenseman Mike Green’s various hairstyles, and the likelihood that he actually consumes Muscle Milk. Some clamor for photos of Brooks Laich’s garage. A noble few swap cupcake recipes honoring ill-fated enforcer Matt Bradley, while others dissect Brendan Morrison’s Corsi rating.
This is the Washington Capitals Twitter community, an intangible section of the Verizon Center unto itself.
Twitter, a technology once employed solely by Shaquille O’Neal to alert people of his favorite places to eat in the greater Phoenix area, is now not only accessible, but downright pervasive. Millions of users worldwide use the service to share news, links and opinion via short bursts of wisdom, idiocy, and everything in between. For a sizable group of Washington Capitals fans, it has become a hockey haven, where celebration, socializing, and good old-fashioned puck talkin’ reign supreme. More so than on Match.com or eHarmony, Capitals fans have found a connection with their true love through social networking.
Log on during a game and do a quick search of the keyword “#Caps” and you will find endless chatter from folks in their seats, people watching at home, and others stuck with social obligations relying on their Twitter buddies to keep them abreast of both score and nuance.
Ed Morgans, a longtime Capitals fan from Owings Mills, Md., uses the technology as an added way to experience the game from home. “If I’m watching at home, I’m on the couch, with the remote and my iPhone, watching and Twittering as the game goes on, and shouting when we score. I’ll tweet during game action, then give it a rest between periods – mainly to charge the phone.” Morgans and other Caps fans, especially in the Baltimore area who can’t make the trek to D.C. a routine, not only rely on their fellow fans, but the media members who cover the Caps, virtually all of whom tweet regularly. One Caps blogger noted that “it is much faster to read a tweet from @TarikElBashir (who covers the Caps for the Washington Post) about an injury update/important tidbit of Caps news/etc than wait for him to post it on his blog or even wait until the next day for it to be in the paper.”
The connection between the Caps media and the Caps fans has set up a dynamic for healthy debate, accountability, and the traditional inside scoops. The toughest thing about writing about sports is that everyone feels they could do your job. Everybody’s a critic, and everybody’s got an opinion if they’ve watched one game or even heard about it secondhand. If you present one side of an argument, your work is often dismissed by those on the other side of the argument ad hominem. This love/hate the sportswriter dynamic is evaporating amongst those on the Caps beat and those who beat the drum for the Caps. Through reading their tweets, fans get a better understanding of the writers and reporters who cover the Capitals as people, and more practically, a better understanding of what their jobs are like. The trade-off is that the media members are expected to share the rare inside looks at the beloved team with their fans readily and frequently, which many seem happy to do.
While Capitals fans galvanizing electronically is nothing new (see Japers’ Rink, et. al.), what makes Twitter different is that the content and dialog is 100% user dictated. There are no moderators like a Caps message board, no one blog post everyone is reacting to, nobody approving comments or writing any more anonymously than their account name. This creates a meritocratic environment where the funniest and most insightful get “retweeted” or responded to, while the inane or offensive is quickly dismissed or shouted down.
Lori Russo, a PR consultant from Baltimore, has rallied a regular group of Caps tweeters for in-game meetups that have expanded the community beyond the virtual world of Twitter, and even the real world of hockey. “We have taken social networking, which has been encouraged and so well supported by the league and made it a real live experience. As far as I know, we are the only group of fans that meets in person during every home game. There is a core group that is always there, but we see new faces every game and it’s so much fun to meet new people who are Caps fans and Twitter users. The [NHL] actually came to one of our in-game tweet-ups (organized on Twitter with the tag “#caps108″) to talk to us about it. Our friendships have expanded beyond hockey and we have supported one another through tough times. My father recently went through a very serious and risky surgical procedure and everyone in the community sent their prayers and expressed their support every day while my family was waiting for him to recover. It meant so much to me to know they were thinking of him.”
This way of connecting fans is not a new concept, but it has rarely been embraced by a major sports organization like it has with the NHL or with the Capitals. The community on Twitter talking Capitals hockey is as tight-knit as it is fanatical about its boys in red.
Capitals Sr. Director of Media Relations Nate Ewell sees great public relations value in the service, despite the fact the Capitals have sold out 59 consecutive home games. “The more engaged we can be with our fans, the more passionate they will be about the team. At this point it’s not a question of selling tickets for us, fortunately, but we still need to build that connection between us and our fans,” says Ewell, who regularly tweets back and forth with fans on his @nateewell account. Ewell is joined on Twitter by Caps PR staffer Paul Rovnak (@paulrovnak), who along with the @capsmedia account and the @washcaps account, keep fans and media members alike updated on to-the-minute happenings around the team.
But it’s not just the PR guys that are Twitter-accessible. Caps fans can also trade 140-character missives with the team’s owner (@TedLeonsis), the star d-man (@GreenLife52), the elusive “Great 8” (@ovi8), the power winger (@EricFehr16), the team’s resident blogger (@VogsCaps), the web producer/third-string goaltender (@brettleonhardt), and even the mascot (@Caps_Slapshot).
Heather Mabb, a teacher from Alexandria, Va. has, like many Caps fans on Twitter, found it to be a direct and meaningful link to the club she loves and supports. “It’s a very welcoming place. I know that sounds terribly weird but it’s just the best way for me to say it. Toss a “#caps” onto a tweet and before you know it you’ll have more followers and people conversing with you about Caps and daily life. I really appreciate it when people like Nate Ewell reply back to a question or when Mike Green sends a direct message. There’s just something there that says we’re appreciated.”
As children, we loved athletes and the people around them so much we wrote them fan mail, shouted at them for their autographs and shook their hands if we saw them in the mall. Now, as adults, we find ourselves just 140 keystrokes and one click away from the team that we love, and the people who love it with us.
Dave Gilmore writes about Capitals hockey for Baltimore Sports Report on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can email him at BaltimoreCaps@gmail.com or find him on Twitter @BaltimoreCaps.