By RICHARD SANDOMIR
Published: July 3, 2009
Douglas Warshaw has a theory: sports fans cannot read enough of athletes’ Twitter posts, blog entries and Facebook messages, but they need a simple, centralized way to keep in touch with the expanding digital load.
So he has built a Web site — Jockipedia.com — to prove that he is right.
“The Tower of Babel is getting bigger,” Warshaw, a lean, loquacious former network news and sports producer, said this week in his downtown office. “The desire to find people will just get bigger. It just is. It’s like gravity. Every day, more and more athletes, not just the professionals, are doing this online.”
In the rapidly evolving universe that Warshaw wants to tame, athletes are talking past the mainstream news media to fans (and peers) in slangy, informative, amusing, contentious ways that can be as vivid as they are banal.And teenage (or younger) athletes are digitally updating the world at an astonishing pace.
The shift in the way that athletes communicate was succinctly expressed last month by Shaquille O’Neal. “I’m da reporter now,” he said in a Twitter message in response to news media criticism of his tweeted barbs at Dwight Howard.
“This is a seismic change,” Warshaw said, “not just in the obvious way that athletes market themselves, but of relating to other athletes.”
Jockipedia is, essentially, Warshaw’s way of capitalizing on the growth of O’Neal’s brand of journalism. It aggregates thousands of links to professional, college and high school athletes’ Twitter and Flickr feeds, blogs, personal Web sites, Facebook and MySpace pages, YouTube video channels and charity sites.
He said that Jockipedia could mine players’ various sites, which are dispersed around the Internet, in a faster, more devoted fashion than Google or other search engines could. The site operates on a Wikipedia-like format and invites users to create pages for athletes not listed and add missing links (or correct bad ones) on existing pages.
Warshaw likens it to an “interactive phone book that gives you the best of all conversations.” Right now, the book is modest, with nearly 3,600 athletes, and others like Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks’ owner, and Pete Carroll, the Southern California football coach. About 40 percent of the entries have at least one link; increasingly, it is Twitter.
Warshaw’s goal is immodest and possibly outrageous.
“We’re going to have every athlete in the world,” he said.
That will take a lot of users’ Wiki-like assistance.
“Its success may depend on whether fans feel an identity, like it’s their turf,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law professor and the author of “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” He added: “It’s whether they feel no separation from the people who run the site.”
Jockipedia is not the first to aggregate athletes’ social media sites. The year-old SportsFanLive.com started its AthleteTweets sub-site, which now links to 260 players. David Katz, who created and runs the site, stuck to Twitter messages because they are more likely to be written by the athlete than a blog or a Web site post.
“The minute you think someone’s agent or P.R. person is doing it, it can hurt the athlete’s relationship with fans,” Katz said. “It’s nice to navigate to a Facebook or MySpace page. But the compelling, real-time experience is on Twitter.”
In his race to stay ahead of anyone who would copy his idea, Warshaw knows he must find ways to keep fans returning. He has to find ways to target advertisers and perhaps lure licensees of parts of the site.
And he has to ascertain that everything linked to Jockipedia is authenticated to fend off imposter or profanity-filled feeds. He said he was not worried, as the brand identity expert Dean Crutchfield jokingly suggested, that the authenticating a huge tide of feeds would require his staff to be “on crystal meth 24 hours a day.”
Shannon Terry, the co-founder of Rivals.com, a network of hundreds of college Web sites that is owned by Yahoo, gave Jockipedia an “A-plus” for originality with an immediate “wow factor.” But he wondered if it would sustain fan loyalty and interest if it was not more than a virtual search engine with a Wikipedia spin.
“My belief is that experts rule media, so if you build a social networking into a business without experts, it’s a shot in the dark,” he said. “At Rivals, we had some incredible communities, but we built them around experts in their fields.”
Jockipedia offers a form of expertise, or at least editorial guidance, on a companion site, The Jockosphere.
On it, the best and wittiest blog posts — from athletes as diverse as the skateboarder Tony Hawk and the lacrosse player Kyle Harrison, described as the “William Burroughs of the Jockosphere” — are distilled and discussed by staff writers.
But Warshaw said he had no plans to make Jockipedia into a site for fans, as opposed to one that served fans’ desires to stay in touch with athletes. So the sort of commentary normally found on common social media sites is prohibited.
“I want this to be about information directly from the athletes,” Warshaw said. The only fan input he wants would be reviews of the athletes’ sites, like book reviews on Amazon.com. “If it turns into a bunch of discussions about the athletes’ on-field performance, it will come down,” he said. “People can already do that on 1,006 sports sites.”
But he left open the possibility that as the site grows, “we might find out that our users want and are able to use our platform to connect with one another in ways we haven’t fully thought through.”