The WNBA and the Internet: Part One
When Seattle Storm Coach Anne Donovan found out a week before the start of training camp that Australian Jessica Bibby, whom she had signed to replace Tully Bevilaqua as the Storm's backup point guard, had injured her back, the news was shocking. Even more shocking, however, was how Donovan found out about the injury - news of it was posted on the Storm fan site Stormfans.org.
"Unbelievable is the word," says Donovan. "That word is too commonly used, but it was incredulous to me that we could find out that way and not through her or her agent across the waters.
"When I called her agent, her agent was floored that we'd found out. It had happened within a matter of six hours, and she was waiting until the appropriate time in the morning to call me and she got scooped. The power of the Internet. It's a beautiful thing, and it's a frustrating thing as well."
The Bibby news hit close to home for the Storm and its fans, but it was just one example of how the increasing number of WNBA fans taking to the Internet to discuss the league has changed the dynamic for teams.
Still more examples were provided recently, before the WNBA's trade deadline. Word that Katie Smith would be dealt to Detroit and that Dawn Staley was headed to Houston first hit the two most popular WNBA message boards, one on ESPN.com and one hosted independently, several hours before the deals were officially announced by the teams involved.
In a league without more traditional "rumor mills" in the media, like NBA columnist Peter Vecsey or baseball's Peter Gammons, these message boards have stepped in to satiate fans' hunger for the latest conjecture around the league. Opinions are mixed on the quality of those rumors.
"Some of it is amazingly accurate, and some of it is just total conjecture," says Donovan. "That's why, for me, it's not important to get on there. I've got people around me that do that and give me the scoop and then it's up to me to research it and figure out what's real or what's not."
"I just looked to say what people were saying, what was going on," says Detroit Coach Bill Laimbeer, who has posted on both message boards under the names 'shockfrontoffice' and 'SFO'. "There was a lot of misinformation out there, so I tried to set the record straight sometimes."
When he and his wife Angie started StormFans.org early in the 2001 season, Scott Engelhardt never expected the site's message board to become as important as it has. In fact, they considered it something of an afterthought.
"We've got 560+ registered members, including people from all over the US and the world," says Engelhardt. "We've met people through the Forum who we will be friends with for life, Storm or not. We know of at least one couple who met through our Forum who are going to be married soon. That's pretty mind-blowing since we almost didn't add a forum/bulletin board, thinking it would be a waste of time. I've had young people write to me or come up to me at games and tell me that being able to get on our Forum and talk basketball has helped them overcome personal obstacles and push on with their own basketball aspirations. It truly has developed into a community."
Because of StormFans.org's popularity, members of the Storm staff - including Web site writers, natch - have been known to use the site for feedback from die-hard Storm fans. As a central home for Storm fans, the site has also proven useful for promoting events.
"It's a great indicator of the passion amongst Storm fans," says COO Karen Bryant. "By reading it, we've received some insight into fans' opinions on various topics and also enjoyed a few chuckles."
(Donovan herself is not a reader, noting, "I'm the old-school kind of a girl. I'm not a computer whiz." Word of the Bibby story, however, quickly reached her.)
Roger Griffith, Bryant's counterpart in Minnesota, has taken that process a step further by jumping in to post with Lynx fans at fan site Lynx Lane. Under the name 'lynxfrontoffice,' Griffith has been able to give the background on several of the team's moves.
"It is helpful to have an easy way to communicate with a group of fans who are looking for information and want to communicate," says Griffith. "Plus, you reach more fans as opposed to when you e-mail one fan at a time."
"Having him online does give me more of a sense that there's a real person there, someone who cares a lot about the team and the fans and who is really trying to make this work," says Lynx fan Ted Jones, who with wife Sara runs the popular " Women's Hoops Blog."
"It's great," adds Women's Hoops guest-blogger Steve Burt. "It makes fans feel listened to, and it shows anyone who had any doubt that Griffith really loves his job."
Presumably, the misleading rumors and inevitable criticisms can be frustrating for teams at times, but the passion that is behind those things remains a good sign.
"It is an avenue to be able to talk about what the fans want to talk about," says Griffith. "These sites are great ways for fans to share thoughts and opinions about the teams and the league. They really supplement the traditional media coverage that sports teams receive either in the newspaper or on television."
"Fans always have opinions and are always looking to share them - which is great. As a sports franchise, you want passionate fans."
Engelhardt's passion for the Storm is evident behind the team's bench at home games, as well as occasional road games. It's turned from a site that started with the mentality "If not us, then who?" into the premier team fan site on the Internet and a time-consuming labor of love.
"Depending on how many home games we have in a given week, it can be anywhere from 10 to 25 hours a week," says Engelhardt. "It is no exaggeration to say that our site has evolved into something we never envisioned and is getting to the point where it is almost too much for the two of us to handle on a timely basis."
That said, don’t expect Engelhardt - or any of the other WNBA fans on the Internet - to slow down any time soon.
"The birth and growth of the WNBA has been helped by the Internet and I think the league's future is inexorably tied to the Internet," he says. "The online fan presence is also evolving - more and more people from the various sites are meeting up and coming together in a way that I don't see with fan bases for other pro sports. I hope the WNBA sees that and fosters it."
This is part one of a two-part series on how the Internet has affected the WNBA. Part two will explore the news capabilities of the Internet, as well as how the league itself has used the web.