I Meet ZoneAdmin and ZoneManager
Sure, the ESPNZone was crawling with semi- and three-quarter and nearly-almost-full-fledged celebrities today, from Jim Larranaga to Smokin' Al Koken to WTOP's dulcet-throated Byron Kerr. Plus, John Feinstein. But to me, the clear highlight was meeting the men known as ZoneAdmin and ZoneManager, the co-founders of what was once known as MasonHoops.com.
The people who run these sometimes-obscure fan boards for far-out-of-the mainstream teams are their own breed, for sure. I've gotten to know the unstoppable "Herve" from GWHoops.com, which is the undisputed gathering spot of Colonials basketball fans, but I'm only now wading into the world of people-who-avoid-doing-work-by-reading-and-writing-about-CAA-sports. And ZoneAdmin (Chris Metsala) and ZoneManager (David Pierpont) are chief among them.
(Plus, they have good t-shirts. "There's no NCAA without the CAA!" the t-shirts say." Of course, there's also no NCAA without AA, but that's probably not as good on a t-shirt.)
So anyhow, the long-suffering Mason folks are probably familiar with the beginnings of this story, but I wasn't until today. Chris and Dave started MasonHoops.com back in the late '90s, with perhaps 15-20 hardcore Mason fans joining up. The MasonHoopers spent much of the early years complaining about the media and sending blast e-mails to local television stations, asking if perhaps they could include the GMU scores in their nightly rundowns. Not highlights; scores. They also were out front of some Internet trends; by 2002 or so, they were covering games and posting full audio transcripts of post-game press conferences on their site.
And the community grew, eventually including fans of other CAA teams. So, naturally, expansion came next. ZM and ZA thought they'd try to encompass all the D.C. teams, and so sometime around 2001 they launched DCMetroHoops.com, trying to appeal to GW and Georgetown and Maryland people. (Interestingly, no one mentions American in this context, or in any context, really. And, as an aside, the Eagles should be good this year. Plus, at least one person close to the program is a regular reader of this blog. Are there any other American fans out there? Anyone?)
Anyhow, the DCMetroHoops thing didn't really take off, and with their pre-existing ties to other online CAA folks, ZM and ZA decided to try the league-wide approach, under the name CAAZone.com. Eventually they merged with the JMU fan site, DukesDomain.com, and also with the VCU site, RamFanZone.com. (Any readers who'd like to correct my chronology, feel free.) And everything kept growing steadily, until last March, when things stopped growing steadily and began growing somewhat more quickly.
"Our hits went through the roof," ZA said.
"We thought we were gonna blow our servers up," ZM said. "The hosting company in California made us move to a different dedicated server."
Before Mason's Final Four run, the Zone was getting something like 40,000 unique visitors a month. Now, it's nearly 60,000. In March, they had something like 4 million unique page views. The site now has more than 5,000 registered members, and this June, a month when the Zone used to be almost entirely silent, they had 2.5 million unique page views.
These numbers are still extremely modest compared to the big boys. This site encompasses an entire 12-team league, and yet a large ACC school's fan board will do better numbers by itself. And many of the big boys have multiple sites; Maryland, obviously, has both TerrapinTimes (a Rivals site) and TerpTown (a Scout site). But the Zone folks have big plans for a new interface and better ways to distribute news. And while most Division I administrators seem to have feelings of somewhere between burning rage and seething hate toward "the chat rooms," as they call them, the CAA is sort of friendly-ish toward the Zone, at least in public. At league staff meetings, officials even suggest that various CAA news items should be posted onto the fan site.
"Are these the Zone guys?" asked a smiling Ron Bertovich, the CAA's deputy commissioner for basketball, as he approached us this morning.
"I have to say, he gets it, he understands the Internet is here to stay," ZM said of Bertovich.
"I don't know how to turn on a computer, but I know the Internet's important," Bertovich said. "And if we don't like what they write, we'll pull their credentials."
(He was joking.)
(In a final note, happy CAA officials note that this was, by far, the best-attended CAA media day in league history, complete with a combined seven reporters from the Wash Post and USA Today. Either the CAA is on the rise, today was a really slow news day, or Wash Post and USA Today reporters don't like to travel.)
(In another final note, JMU women's coach Kenny Brooks gave an address in which he talked about how much Mason's run helped his recruiting and his team's name recognition. For women's basketball at James Madison. Bizarre.)
(In the last final note, the Colonial is on-board with the lobbying-for-respect-and-postseason-bids campaign that every college hoops league is apparently embracing this month. The place mats at media day boast of the league's 75 televised games, and list each one individually. And several coaches are extremely well-versed in last year's RPI numbers, including Larranaga, who gave the final address of the day and again stressed that the CAA last year had six teams in the RPI's top 88.
"Last year was just the beginning," he said. Which I guess means multiple CAA teams will be in the Final Four this year, or maybe six CAA teams will be in the top 87 of RPI.)
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