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Staying Connected is Important to the Modern Era Fan

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That is the best word to describe a number of modern college football fans. Much the same way political polling seems to provide a voice to the masses, message boards and blog sites give fans a chance to voice a ready-made opinion about a team, a player, a game, or a series of downs each time a game is played. Even when there is no game for months – see “recruiting” season – the online haven of fans stays hot and heavy with news, notes, speculation, and discussion.

Since Al Gore, the U.S. Army, the people from the planet Xeron, or whoever invented and launched the Internet, our world became, in many ways, much smaller. Our access to information became constant as well as the craving for it. College football fans craving for more information on the team, players, and program led to the rise of sites like Rivals and Scout where college football (and other sports) junkies can get a ready-made fix for this information. There are dozens of other sites as well. Some supported by newspapers and beat writers, some by fans who just have a lot of time on hand to devote to gathering information.

I spoke with David Wasson, Managing Editor of Alabama Football Magazine and about the kind of information and access the modern fans seek and even provide. He relayed a story from his days as Sports Editor of The Tuscaloosa News about the Mike Price scandal.

“The Mike Price thing happened online before it got out (in the mainstream news),” Wasson said. “We were reading all about that before it was official.”

Whether or not mainstream media accepts, rejects, or even gets what these sites are about is largely debatable. What is not is the voice these sites have given to the fans. Mainstream media pays close attention to those voices.

“I used to monitor various online sources because it gave me access to what people were talking about,” Wasson said. “It was a way for us to get a feel for what people think.”

Barry McKnight, voice of the Troy Trojans and co-host of SportsLine on WMSP 740AM, concurs about the power of fan feedback.

“The reaction and fallout is instantaneous instead of waiting,” McKnight said. “There’s no longer a wait to see how some of the population will react to changes, announcements, etc.”

McKnight also spoke to the relationship between players and fans.

“College football fans have unprecedented access to players,” McKnight said. “It can build a very strong bond between student athletes and fans, but it can be bad if not used properly.”

And that begs a question: What is too much information?

If so inclined, for about $10 a month (sometimes less), it is easy to read and discuss a great deal of information about a prospective player that you want to know. Coaches and scouts used to be the people that watched film on a recruit or player, but no more. Now the walkabout fan can watch highlights on the prize tight end the team is recruiting. Fans can discuss this guy or that guy and break down “his game” long before he ever wears the uniform. Take last year’s prized recruit for the University of Alabama – WR Julio Jones.

His legend was two hundred feet tall before he ever even committed to Saban and the Tide and only grew after signing day. Leaked video of Jones catching a ball in a scrimmage only added to the mystique and even drew the ire of his head coach towards those who leaked it and the fans who swooned over it. But not even that dissuade fans from countless posts about Jones’ prowess on the field of play.

Jones has lived up to the hype. He led the team in receiving this season (as a true freshman) and showed the promise of a big time player for the future. His legions of fans grow with every catch, but it started amongst fans on the Internet.

It is not just the fans getting in on this action. Take All-Pro TE Chris Cooley from the Washington Redskins for instance. He runs a popular personal website and blog. You can read his reactions to games past and future, share pictures at games or team events, as well as get his insight into his life as professional football player. Cooley’s site is nothing new; there are plenty of players who operate these interactive portals for fans. But it shows that players not only read what newspapers or watch ESPN for highlights. They pay attention to the Internet fans as well.

And that leads to the last caveat about the modern fan that lurks, posts, and reads the boards and blogs – the power of anonymity. Once reserved for nameless letters to the editor or fake names of the radio show caller, the Internet message board fan can hide behind the virtual wall of an online handle and deliver harsh barbs or borderline obsessive love for players, coaches, teams, and even other fans. I believe in the freedom to speak (or write in this case) as much as the next person. I like to think that rationality prevails over most folks who read through piles of “out there” posts, but then again, who knows?

Barry McKnight alluded to this in our conversation when he said the increased level of attachment fans have to a program can be dangerous if it leads to severe impatience. Such can be noticed any game day when a team loses a big game and the coach’s head is called for immediately. Most universities, to their credit, are a bit detached from this rhetoric, but the idea that players are not at least aware of this is a bit naïve. The truth is the online fan base may not have a great deal weight in decisions of the athletics department, but their reaction is closely monitored after every decision.

Just ask Auburn University Athletic Director Jay Jacobs who, in the wake of the recent hiring of Gene Chizik, responded to some rather loud negative fan reaction by releasing a statement acknowledging the differences and calling for unity.

Like it or not, the modern college football fan is connected and as they age it will be interesting to watch how the relationship between fans and teams continues to grow.

Enough for now. I need to go check the local message board for the latest on the hot recruit de jour.

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