College football fans have found a new spot to gather for group therapy, debate

NCAAF

Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens walked into his house after a five-day, speed dating-like hiring process that began on Dec. 6 when football coach Mario Cristobal left for Miami.

It was Dec. 11 and Mullens had just announced the hire of Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning to be the Ducks’ replacement. Mullens was relieved but exhausted when he arrived home to find his teenage sons, Cooper and Tanner, huddled around a phone listening to Oregon fans celebrating the hire.

Mullens didn’t know what he was hearing, but he liked it. The positivity was flowing, and it was enough to make the 52-year-old hope he could offer his appreciation for their support and enthusiasm.

“I don’t have a single social media app on my phone,” Mullens said. “But I remember thinking that I wish there was a way to say thanks.”

Mullens and his family were listening to a live conversation on Twitter Spaces, an audio chat room feature that debuted as a beta test on the social media app in November 2020 for select users. It opened to everyone on Oct. 21, 2021 — just in time for one of the wildest college football coaching carousels ever — and the sport’s fans have become enthusiastic adopters of the ability to host and moderate their own discussions, debates or therapy sessions.

Mullens’ boys told him, of course, this was the perfect place for him to jump in and surprise Ducks fans. But on Spaces, he’s not in charge. Anyone can start their own room and this one was run by a rapper named Lunden, a Ducks fan who had been among a group of Oregon fans that had been holding a vigil for days on the app.

On his wife Jane’s unverified, avatar-less Twitter account (@jmull30, now up to 105 followers), Mullens got in the queue and used the raise-hand function to ask for his turn to speak, just like we all have on Zoom meetings over these past two years.

And that’s where Oregon fans (and reporters) heard the first public comments by Mullens about the new coach, in an audio chat on their phones with about 1,000 people in the room, two days before he was scheduled to meet with the media.

Mullens was put on the spot by Ducks fans over what he liked about Lanning (“he exudes energy”) and if he had a plan for who the defensive-minded Lanning might bring as offensive coordinator. There were beat reporters listening, parents of players thanking Mullens for the care he was taking and even players like safety Verone McKinley III dropped in to say what his early conversations with Lanning had been.

Twitter told ESPN that fans of more than 20 schools started Spaces about coaching searches in the past month. Two of those, devoted to Florida State after nationwide No. 2 overall recruit Travis Hunter flipped to Jackson State, ranked among the top 10 largest discussions on the app in the United States in the past 30 days.

“Every so often, we notice these trends on the platform and we get really excited about them,” said TJ Adeshola, head of U.S. sports for Twitter. “I would certainly say that the adoption of Spaces by the college football Twitter community has been one that, as a college football fan [he’s a Georgia grad], that I’m pumped about. This has obviously been a year filled with all kinds of amazing storylines and all types of fun drama. What we didn’t expect, however, was the manner in which the community would clamor to Spaces.”

It’s early in the life cycle of Spaces, and the novelty isn’t close to wearing off yet, because most of the population, like Mullens, has no idea that it exists. But it’s quickly gaining traction as a new form of sports talk radio combined with the grassroots feel of the always unpredictable world of college football message boards.

“It’s almost like the barbershop or a sports bar where people can come in, give their opinions and then go on about their way,” said George Wrighster, a former Oregon and NFL player who now hosts his own radio show on SiriusXM and does broadcast work for Fox. “It’s not just limited to the talking heads or the blue check marks or the famous people. It’s a place where every man or woman can come and express their opinion.”

One of those people: Jordan Lanning, the new coach’s brother, who joined the Oregon discussion before the deal was finalized and tried to sell the fans on why his brother was the right man for the job.

“So I didn’t know about that,” Dan Lanning said with a laugh at his introductory news conference. “In fact, we were talking right before I walked in this room and I was briefed on that. And if that got me the job, I owe him somehow.”

These interactions added up to a big moment in legitimizing the new platform. It became another place reporters had to be aware of potential stories breaking, and another headache for sports information directors entrusted with keeping tabs on players or coaches who could suddenly be making news in whole new ways.

At the end of November, shortly after Hawaii’s leading rusher and starting quarterback both announced they were entering the transfer portal, dozens of current and former Rainbow Warriors players alleged in a three-hour unfiltered session on Spaces that coach Todd Graham had fostered an unhealthy culture. According to sfgate.com, “players complained of rampant favoritism, incompetent coaching and a locker room environment that failed to build camaraderie between teammates.”

It also is a new home for group therapy for fans.

After Lincoln Riley stunned Oklahoma by bolting for USC, Sooners fans held nightly Spaces organized by Travis Davidson, a Tulsa businessman and restaurateur, including one that started at 9 p.m. and lasted until 5 a.m.

“It turned into a monster I never would have expected,” Davidson said. “I’ve been, for better for worse, tabbed as kind of the unofficial grief counselor of OU football.”

The Spaces sessions served as a type of coping mechanism for a Sooners fan base that hadn’t been through a real coaching search in 23 years, and hadn’t had a coach leave for another college job since 1947.

Legendary boxer George Foreman showed up, as did former players like Tommie Harris and Kenneth Murray. Davidson said even USC recruits were coming to listen to the discussions about Riley. When Bob Stoops was announced as interim coach, fans watched and discussed his introductory news conference in real time, gleefully celebrating the reassurance Stoops provided. Then, as news came out that Brent Venables would be the new coach, OU recruits dropped in to fill fans in on what they had discussed with the soon-to-be coach.

“It became all about a calming voice of, ‘Hey, these guys are really connected to the program. If they’re really calm, why should I be freaking out?'” Davidson said.

Wrighster was part of a heated discussion with another former Ducks star, Akili Smith, in an Oregon Space before Lanning was hired about why Ducks coaches keep leaving. These moments are part of the voyeuristic allure for fans.

“It creates an immediacy that you can’t miss it,” Wrighster said. “Because if you leave, who’s gonna pop in next? I mean, is it unfathomable if you start a Space talking about the Charlotte [Hornets] that Michael Jordan wouldn’t hop in? That LaMelo Ball won’t?”

Much like when Twitter took flight and players and coaches could speak for themselves, these conversations truly could create a new era in accessibility and connectivity between players, fans and administrators.

But when fans steer the conversation, it can also be unpredictable. After Hunter flipped to Jackson State, Seminoles fan and podcaster Sam Moore took out his frustration by starting his own Space taking aim at the FSU coach called “FIRE MIKE NORVELL.”

It was a huge driver of discussions. Adeshola said Twitter’s research showed that there were more than 40 million impressions on Twitter in the 24 hours after Hunter signed with Jackson State. In the past year, overall interaction among the sport’s followers has increased: The company said college football “unique authors” or fans posting about the sport on Twitter had increased 35% over 2020, and college football fans had produced 48% more tweets this year than the year before. So there was a huge audience waiting for Moore, even if he didn’t know it.

“I couldn’t get off work to go do a podcast,” he said, opting to instead just go out to his car to chat on Twitter. “I don’t know what happened. It just escalated. I literally sat in my car for like three hours just listening to other people venting their frustrations.”

His room drew more than 6,000 people at one point, full of recruits, players, fans and reporters. He required speakers to begin with “Fire Mike Norvell” or he’d boot them back to the crowd.

His room, his rules.

Feeling charitable, he opted to let Al Blades Jr., the third member of the storied Blades family to play for rival Miami, take the mic. When Blades laughed and said he thought FSU should keep Norvell around a while, Moore hit the eject button.

“He really came up with some bulls—-,” Moore said. “Yo, go be great in Coral Gables. You’re not gonna be in my Space talking. I had to get his ass out of it. He definitely had to go.”

But the same rules didn’t apply to everyone. Seminoles tight end Camren McDonald stepped up to defend his coach and bring some perspective to the crowd and Moore deferred out of respect to the players.

By the end, Norvell was trending on Twitter and Moore was a bit rattled by how much attention his little impromptu session had gotten.

“I really thought like a couple of the guys that I follow, like my friends, would just jump in and we’d make a couple of jokes,” Moore said. “I felt a little bad about that. Because I mean, I wouldn’t want anybody at my job saying, ‘Sam needs to be fired.'”

Despite the negative title and rules, Moore feels like it was all in fun, pointing out that it also inspired a “KEEP MIKE NORVELL” Space.

“I don’t feel like I was over the top, like a crazy negative Alabama fan, go-burn-a-tree-down thing,” he said. “Nothing like that.”

Moore actually tried to maintain some civility. When fans got too heated, like one fan who went off on an expletive-laden tangent, Moore and his co-hosts squashed it, cutting him off and reminding him the sun was shining outside and the birds were chirping. Adeshola said that’s been a reassuring theme in the early days of this new platform.

“The thing that I’m most excited about is the responsibility that the hosts have taken upon themselves. More often than not, if somebody gets a little too rowdy, these hosts are pros and they’ll say, ‘You know what? Hey man, this isn’t the time or place for that. We’re gonna move you back to the crowd,'” he said. “One of the reasons why these rooms last for hours is because the dialogue is actually healthy.”

Davidson believes hearing an actual voice is a part of that, and what will eventually set Spaces apart from just posting tweets or venting on fan sites.

“It personalizes it,” he said, noting that the Twitter profile is attached to each person speaking to create a layer of accountability. While obviously people create burner accounts or anonymous profiles, there is still more incentive to filter responses to provide a fuller picture of participants.

“I know where he works. I know what he looks like, I know what his name is,” Davidson said. “I can address him by name and have a real conversation as opposed to, you know, Soonerlover55 on a message board talking crap about one of the players. Like there’s actual consequences to it because there’s something very personal about hearing somebody’s voice.”

The complication, of course, is that nobody is really making any money off this yet. Obviously, a good host can build a following, which might lead to other opportunities. But for giant programs where 100,000 fans show up at games, having 1,000 people participate in a discussion is still a very small percentage of the real world.

Spaces are quickly becoming a key part of the college football conversation, but it remains to be seen if they’ll continue to grow or if it’ll be another fad like Twitter’s Fleets, the feature that allowed users to post tweets that would disappear after 24 hours, which lasted only a year.

But Davidson, a service-industry veteran, believes Spaces can act as sort of a catch-up tool for casual fans. He puts in the work, scheduling nightly 9 p.m. Oklahoma Spaces sessions every day since Riley split. He lines up guests and invites reporters for discussions. And he claims they took this all to another level and that the Sooners deserve the credit for their ingenuity before Oregon or Florida State did it.

“I like to call it ‘winning the water cooler.’ We want people to be informed,” he said. “Not everybody pays for premium content. Not everybody knows where to find stuff. I have people that have said they downloaded Twitter simply to get on my Spaces because they’ve been recommended by somebody else. One guy messaged me and said, ‘Man, I’ve slept on my couch for almost two weeks now because the wife doesn’t want me talking, so I’ve been sleeping on the couch with the dog.’ It’s just so wild to me.”

Wrighster said the appeal for him is that it’s essentially the democratization of sports talk.

“Just because someone is a big name doesn’t mean that people are going to enjoy your Space,” Wrighster said. “It’s not just preaching to the choir.

“It’s a place where you can hear from the choir.”

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