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Puck Politics: When Sports Turns Government On

02/13/2014 06:26 EST | Updated 04/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Hands up -- how many of you have been "watching" the Olympics on Twitter? And how many of you are noticing all the politicians tweeting about it? It was the same with the Super Bowl: Barack Obama in "beast mode" with Bo the Dog. Canadian Premiers Brad Wall and Kathleen Wynne gleefully laying claim to home-grown Seahawks.

Now why do you think they do that?

1. Because politicians like sports? Yes, many of them do.

2. Because they're related to an Olympic athlete? In the case of Saskatchewan Health Minister Don McMorris -- father of Slopestyle medalist Mark McMorris -- it's actually true.

3. Because it's good politics?

Now THAT is the gold-medal guess!

Of course none of these need be mutually exclusive. Politicians are often encouraged to share their personal side, to appear (if not actually be) approachable, more like "one of us". But can you imagine Prime Minister Stephen Harper being so publicly enthused about, say, cosplay or model railroading as he is about hockey?

The thing is -- sports fans represent an important segment of support for right and center-right politicians.

Case in point: an otherwise unremarkable tweet some weeks ago from the Canucks heralding a visit from B.C. Premier Christy Clark to Rogers Arena, where she talked with Sochi-bound Canucks as cameras rolled for NHL Revealed, the reality TV series focusing on star NHL players airing on CBC and NBC. In other words, this is a show that die-hard hockey fans will want to watch. And when it comes to hockey fans and the BC Liberals, it's a show Clark wants to be seen on.

When we ran a poll a few weeks ago asking British Columbians about their level of support for their hockey team, the findings were stark: only six per cent of "big fans" and "supporters" think the team will make it past the second round of the playoffs, the majority want a core player gone by the March 5th trade deadline.

Then, just for fun, we analyzed the numbers to see how the results shook out along political lines. It turns out among those survey respondents who told us they voted for the BC Liberals in the May 2013 election, 70 per cent identified themselves as "big fans" or "supporters" of the Canucks, while 30 per cent either said the team wasn't their favourite, or that they just didn't care about hockey.

Compare that to respondents who told us they ticked a box for an NDP candidate in the same election: 59 per cent put themselves in the "big fan" or "supporter" category -- while 41 per cent said they either didn't cheer for the team first or didn't care about the sport.

Now let's be clear: an 11-point cleavage on the question of who's the bigger Canucks fan does not make or break provincial election outcomes. Yet it speaks to a trend. The marketing folks employed by the Aquilinis might tell you that "we are all Canucks". But when it comes to politics -- some of us are more so than others. And that spills over into how political narratives, decisions and messaging are built.

While the storylines of competitive sports fit nicely among voters who already subscribe to the right-of -centre "work hard and you'll succeed" school of thought -- it doesn't do as much for those who lean left and believe more strongly that in life, we should all be responsible for taking better care of each other.

Yes, these are broad generalities, but think about what each party has traditionally chosen to publicly support. The New Democrats have long doubled-down on the arts -- they shamed the BC Liberals into at least partially restoring grants that supported dance and theater troupes, symphonies and choirs prior to the 2013 election. Of course, that shame might not have been felt so deeply had traditional BC Liberal supporters also not sat up and howled because the same funding cuts were hitting their kids' high school sports teams hard, too.

It would be wrong to suggest that the premier popping up while a hockey-themed reality show is taping and kibitzing rink-side with Canuck players is purely stunt-politics. Clark is an avowed fan, and has been for a long time. (The same is true for outgoing BC NDP leader Adrian Dix and his NFL fandom).

But, in keeping with the BC Liberals' post-election strategy, the campaign is never over, and political advantage is earned an inch at a time. Clark's government has some big nasty issues to deal with over the next three years: energy policy, teachers' contracts, finding peace with municipalities over transportation improvements everybody wants (but no one wants to pay for).

The potential to upset voters along the way is massive. Therefore, it is always on-strategy to be seen to be connecting with your base. To remind them, "I'm still one of you. I like the things you like."

At a time when it seems we're paying less attention than ever to political news, it's even more crucial for politicians to identify with voters on another level. Be honest -- how many of you watched either the federal budget speech or the B.C. throne speech online? How many of you, by contrast -- have been sneaking peaks at the live-streamed Olympics from your desk?

And who knows, maybe it's also on-strategy for the Canucks to hang out with the Premier. Her team figured out how to turn the political equivalent of a terrible season into a surprise playoff victory. Perhaps the team has something to learn.