One-stop sports talk in a click

Die-hard college fans are getting their news fixes on computer message boards, spending hours chatting up the latest gossip.

Published February 15, 2005

TAMPA - Larry Bishop regularly catches heck from his wife, but then it's her fault.

"I didn't like reading and she was always like, "Read something you like,"' said Bishop, 35, a mentor to underpriviledged children and assistant high school football coach in Roanoke, Va. "I do love reading sports and I took it from there."

A few years back, he hunched over a computer keyboard, found a message board devoted to Florida State athletics, the school he began following as a fan in 1984, and discovered the joy of reading.

And writing.

Bishop unabashedly tells you he spends about a dozen hours a day on warchant.com, chatting away until 4 or 5 a.m. Going by the handle 1ChopCity1, he has nearly 11,400 posts since March 2002.

Do the math. That's more than 10 posts a day. Every day.

"I like to keep up with my team," said Bishop, who is subdued and polite on the phone but far more boisterous in cyberspace. "I like to know every little detail."

His wife, Tierra, can't say much. It's her doing and she's also a FSU fan. She had a baby girl last week and named her Semiya, news you could find on the boards, by the way.

"I'm reading out loud to let her know what's going on," said Bishop of Tierra. "It's kind of a Catch-22 for her. She likes it, but she doesn't like it."

Yes, his time commitment and zealous participation may sound extreme, but he's not talking to himself, even in the wee hours. He has company. Lots of it. Message-board populations are mushrooming in numbers.

Gator Country, the message board on the florida.scout.com site and one of two popular sites for Florida fans, has more than 10,000 regulars. During the days leading up to national signing day for football, there would be as many as 3,000 insatiable fans desperate for the latest tidbit, the juiciest rumor about who was heading to Gainesville and who was making, in their estimation, a poor choice.

USF doesn't have the history or tradition of UF, but thebullspen.com, one of two sites for the Bulls, has more than 1,300 registered members and more than 4,000 visitors per month. It doesn't require registration to post or read.

As for warchant.com, its owner and administrator Gene Williams said he has more than 25,000 registered users and several thousand subscribers who pay $9.95 a month or $99.95 for the year. That affords access to premium services, an especially coveted commodity during recruiting season.

"I'm amazed every year of the continued growth and how much people get into the message boards," said Williams, who jokes that some FSU coaches know him solely by his handle, Dot Com. "There's no way when I started it up I had any idea what this would grow into."

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One of the lures of a message board is the convenience. There's all sorts of information supplied by countless sources from virtually anywhere and everywhere.

It's like a Super Wal-Mart, one-stop shopping.

Sometimes, it's the only stop.

Jim Leahy, a USF alumnus, has spent the last 13 years living in the San Francisco Bay area. When he wears a green and gold USF football jersey, sports fans there assume it's a retro University of San Francisco Dons' shirt. So, keeping up with the other USF in the local media isn't easy.

Hello, message boards.

"It really stems from the desire to learn what's going on and finding out news about the school you love," said Leahy, 42, who estimates he spends two hours a day messaging on both the usfbullseye.com and thebullspen.com.

The drawback for the information-starved is sifting through the vastness and trying to separate news from speculation or wishful thinking disguised as an inside scoop.

For more than a month after the 2004 regular season, warchant.com posters were sure coach Bobby Bowden would be reshuffling his staff and were naming who was leaving and who was coming. The rumors took on lives of their own. Almost all turned out to be wrong.

"There are some people, if that person posts something, there might be something to it or this person over here is usually full of it," said frequent warchant.com poster Eric Luallen, 36, a loan officer for a mortgage lender in Tallahassee. "If you spend enough time around it (the board), you learn who to pay attention to and who not to."

In his case, his posts carry some weight. He's a former FSU football player and is cognizant that he's accountable for whatever he may put out for public consumption. For unlike many who can chat uninhibitedly, secure in a blanket of anonymity, Luallen goes by his college and sports-talk radio show nickname, LuLu.

There's no doubt who he is.

"Certain people are going to say some things they wouldn't otherwise because they're hiding behind the anonymity of the keyboard," he said. "That can be both good and bad. From time to time, you might find out some stuff you might not have found out because of that anonymity. It's wading through what is correct and what isn't that can be a little difficult."

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Besides providing a forum to share information, debate the water-cooler issues of the day or gain street credibility through posting an actual scoop, a message board is an electronic social mixer.

Ask Doug Hatch, 50, a USF alum who goes to the usfbullspen.com board "probably more than I ought to" and admits it's "obsessive for me, but it's not a preverse obsession."

A professor of education at Illinois State, Hatch has met fellow posters at viewing parties and games and formed a "kinship" with some. While he lived in Americus, Ga., he met another USF fan/poster, el-toro, who lived in Warner Robbins, Ga. The two would meet near the state line and carpool the rest of the way to Tampa for USF football fan appreciation day.

Those trips ended when he moved to Illinois, but the boards still are his link to USF and its extended family. He'll listen to football games over the Web and, at the same time, visit the boards to chat about what's happening. His boys, Daniel, 14, and Timothy, 12, huddle nearby listening and reading over his shoulder.

"It's the passing of the Bull Torch," he said, joking. "A passing of the cyber following to the boys."