The meltdown began just before 3pm. On the first Saturday in September, the visiting UVA football team was trailing South Carolina 10-7 when a Cavaliers fumble gave the Gamecocks the ball just a skip away from the end zone. The play, which sunk the Cavs, was the moment that launched a thousand quips into cyberspace.
On TheSabre.com, an independent Web site devoted to UVA sports, the football message board blistered with negativity. Dozens of fans who were watching the game at home logged on to type sarcastic praise of the Cavs’ coaches. Many of the faithful called for a quarterback change. “WORST TACKLING IN FB HISTORY,” one fan declared.
Whenever the Cavs cough one up on the field, irrationality runs wild online.
Nobody knows that better than Mike Ingalls, The Sabre’s creator and message-board moderator. Count Ingalls among the level-headed fans who applauded the players and pleaded for optimism even as other fans plunged into despair throughout the night. “Not sure why people have to sling insults and curse words after a loss,” he wrote.
Around midnight, some fans gradually turned their attention to college football’s eternal consolation: next Saturday. Yet others continued to seethe. One worried poster surmised, at 5:03 Sunday morning, that the loss would “cost us between three to six top recruits.” The players may compete for only 60 minutes a week, but on The Sabre, fans can obsess online 24 hours a day.
That the locally grown site has hooked legions of Virginia fans still surprises Ingalls, a self-taught Web designer with an orange-and-blue heart. Since the Charlottesville native turned his part-time hobby into a full-time business, the site has risen from obscurity to become the hub for Cavs fans to read about their teams and to discuss wins and losses (and everything else). The Sabre’s traffic has increased 50 percent in each of the last four years, Ingalls says, and the site now receives more than 100,000 different visitors each month.
Now, Ingalls, 37, is trying to put the company in the black for the first time. The Sabre is supported by local advertising, the sale of online merchandise and a growing number of paying subscribers to the site’s premium content, but funding from a Virginia alumni has helped float the company thus far. The plan is for the site to become a self-sustaining business in the next year, yet Ingalls is wary of discussing the specifics of the small company he runs out of his home off Rio Road. The Sabre, he says, is in competition with two wealthier Web companies—rivals.com and theinsiders.com —that court the same fan base with their own UVA sites.
“There are bigger fish out there that might like to see us fail,” Ingalls says. “We’re trying to grow under one man’s wing.”
Ingalls grew up in Charlottesville and graduated from Albemarle High School in 1984. He spent six years in active duty with the U.S. Air Force, serving as a security policeman. He was stationed in Texas and Belgium, among other places, which made keeping up with UVA sports nearly impossible. He returned to Charlottesville in 1990, the same year Virginia’s football team climbed to the top of the national rankings for the first time.
In 1996, Ingalls earned an associate’s degree in police science from Piedmont Valley Community College, but switched gears to enroll in computer-science classes at the college. One day, he bought a book on Web design to learn the basics of HTML.
The University did not have an official athletics site at the time, so Ingalls, on a whim, created a five-page site devoted to his passion, UVA football, specifically to Tiki Barber’s Heisman campaign. Ingalls wrote his first article following the team’s victory over Texas that season. Later, he composed a more critical piece about the Cavs’ receivers, who dropped crucial passes in a loss to Georgia Tech. Ingalls found sports journalism cathartic, though he figured hardly anyone was reading his work.
He was wrong. Rabid fans, who had learned of his site through word-of-mouth, were hooked. After shutting down the site before the end of the season, in an attempt to concentrate on his studies and make some money, Ingalls received a flood of e-mails from fans, all clamoring for more.
Ingalls finally decided to humor them. In the spring of 1997, he cut back his classes and worked only part-time jobs. The rest of his time he devoted to beefing up the content of his site, which he re-launched as virginiafootball.com.
Still, it was only a hobby, and Ingalls figured he would find his career after transferring into UVA’s engineering school at some point. But those plans changed the night of June 2, 1997. He was at the Yuan Ho restaurant, where he worked as a delivery driver, when a man walked in, pulled out a gun, and demanded money.
Ingalls, an expert marksman, noticed that the man before him was holding a starter’s pistol. The owner of the restaurant had opened the cash register, but Ingalls slammed it shut. “Get the hell out of here,” Ingalls yelled, then chased the man out the door.
When Ingalls stepped into the parking lot, a second man popped up from behind a car. He had a real gun, which he fired seven times, hitting Ingalls once. The bullet tore through his left bicep, punctured his lung and lodged in his back, about a half-inch from his spine—where it remains.
Ingalls spent six days at UVA Hospital. During the stay, he received 50 e-mail messages from fans of his site and a get-well card from the University’s football coaching staff.
“That really got me motivated,” Ingalls says. “When you’ve got people you don’t even know who are concerned, sending you messages, you start to realize you’ve got people counting on you.”
As he recovered from his wounds, Ingalls continued to add to the football site. That fall, responding to popular demand, he created a second Web outlet, virginiabasketball.com. By the spring of 1998, fan traffic was so heavy that Ingalls had to find a new server for the sites. To keep costs down, he asked for donations online. More than 50 fans sent checks, but none was bigger than the $2,000 that came from Mark Massey, an alum who lives in Boston.
The two soon worked out a deal that made Massey primary owner and principal investor in the company now known as TheSabre, LLC. The arrangement made Ingalls the general manager and editor of the site, allowing him to turn his hobby into a full-time job.
Since merging the two sites into The Sabre, a nod to Virginia’s crossed-sabres logo, in 1999, Ingalls has expanded the Cavalier content, contracting with writers who provide regular articles and columns about the teams. The main part of the site is free, but a premium “Edge” subscription—which includes access to recruiting information, articles and photos—runs $34.95 per year. Ingalls will not say exactly how many fans have signed up, only that there are more than 1,000.
Matt Welsh, son of former UVA football coach George Welsh and the president of The Sabre, helped start the site’s online store, The Sabre Shop. A sportswear company in Lynchburg ships all The Sabre’s merchandise—more than 300 different items—five days a week. Fans can order virtually anything Wahoo, including UVA shirts, pennants, hats, jackets, umbrellas, even a V-Sabres dog collar.
The site also features advertisements for local businesses, such as Crown Automotive, Andrew Minton Jewelers and Crutchfield. Sabre sponsors also include Advance Auto Parts, Budweiser and Geico. Some companies have offered perks to Sabre readers, including the Charlottesville-based MoneyWise Payroll, which is currently offering to make a $100 donation to the Virginia Athletics Foundation in the name of each customer who signs up.
“Part of our advertising pitch is to say, ‘Hey, we are very in tune with our user base—we will help encourage them to look at you first,'” Ingalls says. “We get a lot of feedback from users, so the advertisers can feel like they’re being a little bit more taken care of.”
While those revenue streams keep the company on its feet, the heart-beats of The Sabre are its message boards, which distinguish the site from UVA’s official athletics Web site, virginiasports.com. The latter is a rather bland public-relations vehicle that provides schedules, team rosters and video highlights, but no post-game analysis or inside information from fans in the know. On the University’s official site, a visitor can read a press release revealing that a player was suspended from the basketball team, but he would turn to The Sabre’s message boards to learn why and what the implications were. Sometimes the rumors there are true, and sometimes not.
The Sabre has separate discussion forums for football, basketball and other sports, as well as for recruiting. On the site, everyone can strategize, speculate and savor the tidbits of information posted by “gurus” with connections to the teams.
Regulars on the site include students, graduates and retirees. Many are UVA graduates, but some are not. Some of the enthusiasts admit they have become addicted to the site, a community unto itself that’s as intense as the sports world that spawned it.
Dan Heuchert, editor for UVA’s News Services, has been posting a couple of times a day for about seven or eight years.
“It’s a great place to see which way the wind is blowing among UVA fans and alumni on both sports and sports-related topics,” Heuchert says. “Like any community, it has idiots, jerks and blowhards, but you learn to avoid them. It is definitely an outlet for blowing off steam, which is good and bad. I do worry that people who aren’t familiar with the format will get a skewed picture of UVA and its fans.”
A good post, Heuchert says, is one that contains an original thought, a well-argued opinion, a nice touch of humor, a fresh scoop, or a request for information. Poor posts, he says, include “mindless rants, malicious attacks, ill-formed speculation, instant overreactions and needless repetition.
“The one thing I’ve learned is that Internet sports bulletin boards are manic-depressive, and that effect is exacerbated by herd psychology,” Heuchert says. “Once the tide turns in one direction, there is a lot of peer pressure to follow the momentum until there is some new event to reverse or divert it.”
Ingalls, who monitors the boards constantly, is well aware of his the need for civility on the site. In his own posts, he prefers to accentuate the positive. The Sabre’s terms of service bar personal attacks or insults on all parties, including athletes, sportswriters and fellow posters. Slander, obscene language and racially offensive material are also verboten. Posts that are written to anger others, known as “flames,” are often quickly removed.
“Anybody that comes in there is like a guest in my home,” Ingalls says. “If you start causing problems with anyone at the party, you’re gonna have to leave.”
Sometimes, the boards have soft sides. Fans ask for prayers for ailing family members and announce the arrivals of little ‘Hoos. Humor and wit are the coin of the realm. Pop cultural allusions are constant. Some posters have imaginative handles, like “zarathustra.” Other fans go so far as to rewrite passages from Shakespeare, turning them into pregame poetry.
While Ingalls may be a gentleman of the boards, he is no blind cheerleader. He welcomes and allows for criticism of the home team. This is sports, after all, so there must be room for heated, passionate—and occasionally pedantic—debates to continue for days.
The message boards are not intended for the faint-hearted. On a given day, there might be a post asking if Groh’s an idiot, or how much money it would take to buy out the contract of men’s basketball coach Pete Gillen, or why fans of other colleges have inferiority complexes about UVA. Following losses, the site becomes a venue for venting, an electronic therapy couch. For some ‘Hoo diehards who post regularly on The Sabre, as well as those who “lurk” there only to read, the grousing is a sport in its own right.
UVA officials were first reluctant to give the site press credentials. “There were concerns [about The Sabre] from a professionalism standpoint, from an accountability standpoint,” says Rich Murray, the athletic department’s director of media relations.
After discussions with Ingalls, though, the athletic department eventually granted The Sabre the access it wanted, allowing members full access to players and coaches enjoyed by other media outlets. That has let Ingalls take thousands of game-day photographs to give the site its visual oomph, while giving Sabre writers credibility.
Murray says The Sabre has followed the University’s guidelines, and he and Ingalls agree that the two parties now enjoy good communication. Murray does not say much about whether the message boards in particular are a concern for the athletic department, saying only that one can draw parallels between fan sites and talk radio in the sense that on radio folks can call in and express their opinions, and on a Web site, folks write in,” he says. “There’s an opportunity for an individual to express his or her thoughts” on The Sabre.
Since online anonymity can be freeing, Ingalls requires fans to create a password-protected account to post on The Sabre. To get a handle, they must submit their e-mail address to the system. That way, repeat offenders can be booted off the site permanently. But since fans still post under handles of their choosing, there’s no guarantee that they will do unto others with courtesy.
Some UVA athletes read the sites, as do their parents.
Dan Ellis, a former starting quarterback for the Cavs, says his teammates often read the message boards for mere amusement. But others, he says, seemed to think the site was a place where they could measure their performance. Ellis says he stopped reading The Sabre after his freshman year because he did not want praise from fans “to go to my head.”
But he could not always tune out the negative chatter. In 1999, Ellis suffered a concussion during a game. Because he missed a week of practices, the coaches kept him out of the following week’s contest. That night, his brother-in-law and some friends took Ellis out on the Corner to celebrate his 21st birthday. The next morning, Ellis was shocked that his evening was big news on The Sabre. Ellis says some posts, apparently from students who had seen him in bars, alleged that he had been drunk, while others questioned his commitment to the team.
“There were people on there saying that I didn’t want to play, which was absurd,” says Ellis. “I wanted to play so bad that game.” The quarterback’s uncle was so angry about the innuendo that he logged on to The Sabre to defend his nephew, asking who among the fans would want details of their 21st birthday publicized on the Internet?
On The Sabre, Ellis says, “You have complete immunity—you can bash anybody.” But the former quarterback, now a high-school teacher and football coach in Pennsylvania, once again counts himself among the Web site’s readers.
“When I want to find out something about who Virginia’s recruiting, I’ll go there for that,” Ellis says. “It’s convenient.”
Mike Benzian, a UVA alum, says The Sabre contains more “blather,” less “etiquette” than when he started reading. Benzian recently criticized some fellow posters for carping on the men’s basketball team, following yet another disappointing season. He likens the change to what happened after Charlottesville lost Dave Matthews Band to the rest of the world.
“You’d go down to Trax to see them with the guys, now you go see them in the Oakland Coliseum with 50,000 of your closest friends,” says Benzian, who lives in San Francisco. “When the secret gets out, there seems to be a loss of community.”
Nonetheless, Benzian, like many Sabre fanatics, keeps coming back for the content he can’t get anywhere else.
“It’s an important part of my day,” he says.
Most Sabre faithful are men, but not all of them. Lisa McAvoy, a 1981 UVA graduate who lives in Arlington, reads the site religiously. On a recent trip to Oakland, she excused herself from a family gathering to log on to The Sabre for a half-hour.
“It’s great because there’s this whole collection of people out there who are like me, so I can plug into a passion without being [in] Charlottesville,” McAvoy says. “You’ll see someone post ‘I’m on vacation in Italy.’ That’s the power of the Internet—connecting disparate people.”
She feels ambivalent about her “addiction,” though.
“The intellectual snob part of me is embarrassed that I’m doing this,” she says. “There are moments when I step back and realize that I spend $35 a year [for access to recruiting news on The Sabre] to follow the whims and fancies of high-school students.”
It seems that the site itself is no better or worse than any other component of big-time sports, but it does lay bare the light and dark sides of fandom like nothing else can.
Doug Doughty, who covers UVA sports for the Roanoke Times, says The Sabre simply reveals a true cross-section of fans, from the “knee-jerk reactions to the thick-and-thin” supporters. Doughty, a frequent target of criticism on the message boards, says he routinely receives angry e-mails from UVA fans, many more so then when fans had to sit down and compose a letter.
“It’s a product of the whole Net generation,” Doughty says. “A lot of times, when I type a sensible reply, I’ll get a response from someone saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t really mean that.'”
As Ingalls sees it, The Sabre, whatever its faults, has brought the fan base closer together. And that has happened at a crucial time for UVA athletics. The University is trying to grow into an expanded stadium and a new basketball arena is under construction. That requires enthusiastic fans. And millions of dollars.
When it comes to his own business, though, Ingalls is wont to discuss the finances, for fear of tipping off rival companies. He will not say how many people work for the site at the moment, though there is at least a handful of full-time staffers—a content editor, an advertising director, a store manager and a recruiting guru, in addition to part-time freelance writers.
Ingalls hopes that The Sabre can become successful enough for him to retire on. For now, there are other perks. Though Ingalls often spends between eight to 14 hours at a desk in the corner of his bedroom—his “office”—there are days when he gets to go on the field, just like the players, as part of his job. Once he was an unknown guy in a baseball cap. Now, he cannot walk into Scott Stadium or University Hall without someone recognizing him or complimenting his site.
“When I hear Coach Groh say, ‘Hey Mike, how ya doing?’ it’s like—woah. You feel respected in terms of being a media representative, in passing along information to the public,” Ingalls says. “Even though I didn’t graduate from UVA, I can still put my heart and soul into it.”
A snap-shot from The Sabre’s football message board,Friday, September 12.
Poll—What was the worst moment for this board?
—Hoo98, Fri Sep 12 2003 2:20:07pm.
Duke loss, Curry committing to UNC, VT in 2001.
—BoardHost, Fri Sep 12 2003 3:48:03pm.
Learning Casteen sold out for political gain.
—TonyClifton, Fri Sep 12 2003 3:29:32pm.
Fred’s expansion commentary. Sorry, Fred. 😉
—26.2Hoo, Fri Sep 12 2003 3:13:23pm.
Hey now…I resemble that remark.
—Fred F., Fri Sep 12 2003 3:20:29pm.
I had to give you your due.
—26.2Hoo, Fri Sep 12 2003 3:39:09pm.
Coach Beamer shaking hands w/UNC’s Dick Baddour…oh wait, wrong board.
—Mad Bowl, Fri Sep 12 2003 3:11:08pm.
All good ones below—how about “keep Danny Wilmer” after Groh was hired.
—gfhoo, Fri Sep 12 2003 3:09:45pm.
1998 GT AND UGA. Two blown 21 point leads
—Salems#1HOO, Fri Sep 12 2003 3:01:23pm.
When the board was pansy blue
because Boardhost lost a bet to
—Karl Hess, Fri Sep 12 2003 2:58:36pm.
LOL! I can’t believe you still remember that.
—BoardHost, Fri Sep 12 2003 3:41:30pm.
How bad was it after the Duke (97) and
WFU (01) losses? I was at the games.
—Hoo98, Fri Sep 12 2003 2:57:18pm.
Learning Tek [sic] would be included in expansion.…
—hoo75, Fri Sep 12 2003 2:55:58pm.
Or realizing I was truly an armchair genius.…
—hoo7, Fri Sep 12 2003 3:03:52pm
Ellis v. Rivers debate.
—zeropointzero, Fri Sep 12 2003 2:51:38pm.
BYU 2000 fallout was real ugly.
—game time, Fri Sep 12 2003 2:39:19pm.
But Duke at home was the worst.
—JoeHoo, Fri Sep 12 2003 2:40:57pm.
This board has never come close to the negativity on the Hoops board.
—MrHoo, Fri Sep 12 2003 2:36:52pm.
For the last three years of Welsh’s regime, the hoops board was a bastion of sanity.
—hooba, Fri Sep 12 2003 2:53:12pm.
I wonder why that is.
—JoeHoo, Fri Sep 12 2003 2:42:32pm.
After Ronald Curry signed with UNC.
—SysHoo, Fri Sep 12 2003 2:35:31pm.
Yep—seemed like there were a million “My last Curry post” subject lines.
—gfhoo, Fri Sep 12 2003 4:01:31pm.
Bingo—a four-year hangover from that one!
—Wahoo Josh, Fri Sep 12 2003 3:42:10pm.
It has to be Curry. Nothing else is even close
—98Cav, Fri Sep 12 2003 3:33:41pm.
Where’s Wilk Hall?
TheSabre.com posters meet for buds, suds and the freshest tailgate parties in town
Free beer makes fast friends. It also helped turn an online community into an unlikely horde of Wahoo tailgaters. A typical wine-and-cheese contingent they are not.
The group started last year when Darren Yowell, a zealous Cavaliers fan, posted a message on The Sabre inviting other die-hards to join him for a tailgate prior to Virginia’s spring game. Yowell offered to provide the suds. About 60 people showed up. The fans, many of whom had previously only known one another only by their Sabre “handles,” could now shake hands, wolf down snacks together, and meet the wives.
Yowell, 34, extended another invitation for the season opener against Colorado State, and about 100 fans came. As the season wore on, the gatherings became more popular, perhaps drawing even heavier crowds at road games, since fans had fewer pre-game options outside of Charlottesville.
At first, the event lacked a name, but that changed when a poster who’d ordered football tickets asked an innocent question on the Sabre message board: Where was “Wilk Hall?” The UVA ticket office had told him he could pick up his tickets there, he explained. Only they’d said “will call,” of course. The Sabre collectively exploded in laughter and the tailgate found its moniker.
Unlike many pre-game gatherings, this one is socially diverse, drawing lawyers and laborers alike. “There’s an intermingling of guys that normally wouldn’t be giving each other the time of day,” says R.W. “Butch” Johnson, who works for Norfolk Southern Corporation, a railroad company, and treks to games from his home in Salem. “I’ve gotten close to a lot of people on the site that I never would’ve met in a 100 years. They’ve become part of an extended family.”
Yowell, who lives in Winchester and works for a beer distributor, recently purchased a 34-foot motor home, a gameday chariot that he loads with 15-20 cases of beer. A buddy cooks up fare appropriate for each opponent’s mascot.
While Wilk Hall is not a real place, it has become a state of mind.
“It’s all about the hardcore fans, just the fans who are committed—no bullshit,” says Yowell, who has established a Web site in honor of the gathering [www.wilkhall.com]. “It’s for the fans that are gonna go on the road, not the ones that say they’re doing all that.”
Yowell did not attend UVA, but he is a regular donor to the Virginia Athletics Foundation. He doesn’t take kindly to the idea that fans like him are diluting the traditional fan base, a view that has been espoused by some posters on the Sabre who lament the apparent decline in preppy spectators in the stands.
“I’ve got on a big orange ‘Hoo T-shirt, I’ve got a shaved head and look psycho,” Yowell says proudly.
That’s just fine with Al Groh, UVA’s football coach, who has praised the Wilk Hall crew at VAF events. As he tries to build the Cavs into a football powerhouse, Groh has been clear about what he wants to see in the stands: Maniacs.
And maniacs apparently should not look like they are going to a dinner party. That is why, at a press conference following the Duke game earlier this month, Groh congratulated the home fans for their noise, but also for their dress. “Looks like we’re in the process of trading in repp ties for body paint, and blue cotton Oxford button downs for T-shirts—orange ones at that,” Groh told reporters.
That shift Groh envisions is sartorial, but also psychological: If UVA fans look the part, they will play it better, louder, just like the fans down in Blacksburg, where there is no such thing as a semi-formal Hokie, or a subdued one.
Yowell says that UVA can fill up Scott Stadium and build more grassroots support for the team by reaching out to non-alumni like him, to “blue collar” Virginians.
“There is the image of UVA fan as being a stuffy bowtie-wearing snob—an elitist attitude that’s stuck,” Yowell says. “Joe Schmoe who’s an asphalt worker…doesn’t give a damn about that. He just wants to go see a good game and have fun.”
To be sure, UVA has started to court new fans by flexing its sports-marketing muscle like never before. The series of slick Cavalier football television and radio advertisements that aired recently in Central Virginia are part of a larger effort to attract football enthusiasts with no connection to the university, according to Andrew Rader, UVA’s associate athletic director of marketing, promotions and licensing.
“To have the support we want to have, to have the enthusiasm and energy in the stadium, we’re going to need those people…people who live in Madison County who have never been to a Virginia game before,” Rader says. “We’re trying to reach the whole demographic.”–E.H.