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Author Topic: The power and passion of message boards  (Read 3086 times)

NYWarrior

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The power and passion of message boards
« on: October 31, 2006, 09:22:05 AM »
from last weekend's NYT supplement called, 'Play'. Rivals is specifically profiled here -- enjoy....

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/29/sports/playmagazine/1029play_theshow.html?ref=playmagazine&pagewanted=print

******************


The Show Up Close and (Very) Personal

By BRYAN CURTIS

I mean no disrespect to my fellow college football fans when I say that we might be the closest thing America has to European soccer nuts. Not in the blood and mayhem departments — unless, of course, you’ve been to a postgame party in Columbus, Ohio.

No, we college fans most resemble our overzealous European cousins in our quest for information. First, we demand obscurities, like the status of a backup strong safety’s injured hamstring. Second, we demand that information be reported to us from a sympathetic point of view. So outsize are our passions for the Sooners, the Trojans and the Crimson Tide that neutrality, in the general sportswriterly sense, just won’t do. We want journalists — and here I use the term very loosely — who know the words to the alma mater.

Orangebloods.com, a part of the Rivals.com network, could fairly be described as my favorite Web site. It is devoted to the Longhorns of the University of Texas, where I went to school. I surf its news articles and message boards daily — and, along with 7,000 other Longhorns fans, pay $9.95 a month (or $99.95 per year) for the privilege. This “living, breathing thing,” in the words of Bobby Burton, the editor in chief of Rivals, rocks with the passions of a digital fraternity house. The loves are great; the hates are greater. And when the conversation veers away from sports, you can see subscribers turning to the tender questions of undergraduate life. As one message board denizen asked this summer, “Do you feel comfortable receiving a massage from another man?”

Rivals has a similar site for every major college: Warchant.com for Florida State, IrishIllustrated.com for Notre Dame and

so forth. Scout.com, a competitor, offers a similarly comprehensive service, and there are dozens of unaffiliated message boards as well. What has emerged from these swamps of fandom, from message boards frequented by pseudonymous posters like “Longhorn Babe” and “Hornius Emeritus,” is — don’t laugh — an essential journalistic resource. For people who fancy themselves serious fans of the college game, it’s safe to say that these sites have, in some cases, replaced the traditional media. We go to the Web seeking more news, better gossip and more passionate opinion. What we find there is often even true.

Ever since Grantland Rice immortalized Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen in deadline metaphor, college football writers have had a penchant for swooning. But outside of a few great local papers, they never combined the cheerleading with an intensive study of a particular team. It wasn’t until the late 1970’s that the national coverage began to get satisfyingly micro. First came the recruiting “gurus,” the men who inspired Bobby Burton. In his early career, Burton put together comprehensive studies of high school seniors, compiling his findings in a print newsletter that drew about 5,000 subscribers. The Internet changed the game. Burton and others realized that it offered unlimited space for minutiae — heights, weights and 40-yard-dash times — as well as a chance to tailor that information to every fan base. Finally, college football writing would be directly linked with rabid fandom. It was on this principle that Jim Heckman, a Seattle-based entrepreneur, founded Rivals in 1998.

Burton and two partners acquired the network in 2001, after it had gone bankrupt. (Heckman went on to build up Scout.com, which he later sold for a reported $60 million.) With a site for nearly every Division 1-A school (and a handful for 1-AA powers), Rivals now claims more than 160,000 subscribers. There are strains of Granny Rice’s giddy poetry in Rivals’ journalism, because Burton’s sportswriters can only halfheartedly be described as objective reporters. Burton found some of his digital proprietors on the Web, after they already erected shrines to their favorite teams; others he recruited from the traditional media. What has emerged is something beyond even what you’d find in the most boosterish local columnist: a new Internet species — half dogged reporter, half deliriously over-the-top fan.

Orangebloods is presided over by Geoff Ketchum, a former Austin television reporter and producer. Ketchum is what we could safely call a Texas homer, the kind who would take every available swipe at rivals Texas A&M and Oklahoma. Orangebloods consists of articles posted daily by Ketchum and his writers, as well as message boards full of subscribers who supply opinion and their own amateur muckraking. When the mix works, you can almost justify those windy platitudes about citizen journalism. This September, two Texas players were arrested on drug and weapons charges. Within hours, Orangebloods subscribers had posted the arrest affidavits on the message boards. Reporting from the press conference of the Longhorns’ head coach, Mack Brown, Ketchum contributed the news that Brown had suspended the players from the pivotal contest against Ohio State. Later that week, a poster claiming intimate knowledge of the situation contended that one of the players had merely been an innocent bystander. “People can either accept the veracity of this post or can choose to discard it,” he wrote. Indeed, the drug charges were soon dropped, and the players were reinstated the following week.

Orangebloods readers may be Texas fans, but they maintain a deep suspicion of the Longhorns’ program. They know college football powers are reluctant to share news about poor grades, bad behavior and, especially, injuries. John Bianco, a sports information director at Texas, says that Longhorns players have gone off to class with ice packs on their knees — and then, within hours, an “injury report” surfaces on the message boards, usually posted by a fellow student. (More often than not, the player was just sore.) Such phony reports have made the skeptical among us strangely suspicious. This summer, the University of Oklahoma quarterback Rhett Bomar was kicked off the team for accepting improper payments from a car dealership. As SI.com’s Stewart Mandel reported, Bomar’s indiscretions had been revealed six months earlier on a message board on TexAgs.com (a Texas A&M fan site not in the Rivals.com network). The poster had been flamed, the Aggie faithful believing that the story was so good it couldn’t possibly be true.

There’s another spirit animating sites like Orangebloods: the sense that our mood swings really matter. Though they are loath to admit it, college programs are sensitive to the howls of their fans, and the only real way to measure them is the Internet. An early example was FireRonZook.com, a site dedicated to the ouster of the University of Florida coach in 2002. The site — and the fact that print reporters covered it incessantly — started the clamor that led to Zook’s sacking. Even allowing for the grandiosity of the Internet, and for the fact that bile plays better there, you need to poke around only for a few minutes on a Rivals site to get a sense of a fan base’s mood. Indeed, Texas’s Bianco has assistants keeping an eye on the message boards.

Actual college football is not the most important thing on Rivals.com. That would be recruiting. For the uninitiated: every year the college football powers woo a fresh supply of 17- and 18-year-olds, and the college fans eye them like raw meat. “It’s a level of fantasy sports,” says Bruce Feldman, a writer with ESPN magazine who’s working on a book about recruiting. “They fall in love with these kids, even though they’ve only seen a 20-second clip the size of a postage stamp.” In addition to video clips, Rivals readers may scrutinize a high school prospect’s height, weight, 40-yard-dash time and — I am not making this up — grade-point average and SAT score. With the Rivals dossier in hand, the fan then tracks the recruits until “Signing Day,” in early February, the first day the recruit can bind himself to his chosen school. According to Burton, on Signing Day this year, Rivals attracted some 57 million page views.

Until I started following recruiting on Rivals, I thought Dan Jenkins had taken great comic liberties in his football novels. In fact, the stuff you read on Rivals is far stranger than anything Jenkins has dared to write. Rivals correspondents from the various schools call prospects every few days to “check in.” The kids, being 17 years old and sought after by famous college football coaches they do not wish to offend, issue bland pronouncements like “I want to make a decision soon, but I’m not ready to make one yet.” Still other recruits learn to brilliantly play one site off another, swearing allegiance to, say, Oregon when the Ducks’ editor calls, then doing the same to the Washington Huskies’ reporter.

Recruiting remains one of the outlaw zones of covering college sports. Rivals writers walk a thin line between reporting the player’s intentions, in their capacity as journalists, and recruiting the players, in their capacity as fans. If the old fear was that players were besieged by coaches offering favors, the new fear might be that they are besieged by Internet “reporters,” each of whom is selling his or her school. As Bianco points out, there are dead periods when coaches are prohibited from calling recruits, but a Rivals writer can call anytime. In effect, he becomes the school’s intermediary.

Writers must sign a code of ethics mandating that they won’t try to sway recruits. Even so, it could be easy to bend the rules. An Oklahoma writer could ask a quarterback prospect leading questions like “Are you concerned that Texas already has three young quarterbacks on the roster?” In September, The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., reported that Cris Ard, who runs Rivals’ Clemson University site, met the N.C.A.A.’s designation of a booster. (Ard had ended his financial relationship with the school, but the N.C.A.A. makes no distinction between current and former boosters.) Clemson investigated Ard and cleared him of any wrongdoing. But while Ard might not have violated the spirit of the rules — he’s not actually recruiting for Clemson — he is doing what every Rivals journalist does, which is trying to boost the team with his Web site.

My bet is that recruits are smart enough to know when they’re being led around by the nose and that, in the end, calls from all the Rivals sites will cancel out any undue influence. For readers, Rivals and its counterparts mean a different trade-off: more news but with less pretense of objectivity. It’s a trade-off that we fans are increasingly willing to make. In my case, perhaps it’s because I feel connected to the Longhorns in a way that I don’t to any professional team. Or perhaps it’s because we Orangebloods have descended so deep into the bunker that we hardly notice we aren’t reading, say, the sports pages of USA Today or The New York Times. On Orangebloods, the conversation rages 24 hours a day and puts an outlandish amount of importance on things that happen within a five-mile radius of campus. In other words, it’s a lot like being in college.

Curtis is a staff writer at Slate.