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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Inside the Big East’s Bizarre Online Subculture

  • The majority of the accounts driving the national conversation around the Big East don’t work in media or college sports.
  • ‘It’s a phenomenally weird environment of people who hate each other, but in a loving way—and who loathe everyone else,’ says journalist Russell Steinberg.
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When the NCAA selection committee revealed the men’s field of 68, a narrative began to form around the conference that had suffered the biggest snub. But it didn’t come from the experts.

Hundreds of anonymous accounts, fan blogs, and full-time s***posters, as they’re vulgarly known on social media, started a chain reaction against the committee for awarding bids to only three Big East teams. They began indiscriminately firing off tweets, building off one another’s anger. They joined forces with coaches, regardless of interconference rivalry, cheering on Providence’s Kim English, the first Big East coach to call b.s. St. John’s coach Rick Pitino and Seton Hall’s Shaheen Holloway followed suit within a couple of hours. (Eventually, even the Big East Conference office, known for its silence, released a statement expressing its “disappointment.”) U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) weighed in with a string of angry tweets of his own. One of those: a quote-tweet from a Big East burner account.

By the time Virginia delivered its abysmal First Four performance Wednesday night, the NCAA’s most interesting and deranged subculture had taken control of the national conversation. The Big East online community views the conference as perfectly imperfect: a perennial underdog that often wins championships fraught with decades of bad blood and cartoonish coaching characters. They see it as the antithesis of the corporatization of college sports, even though its home is in the finance capital of the nation and many of its devoted fans wear button-downs and Patagonia vests.

“The personality that the Big East was founded on is alive in spirit, on [Big East Twitter],” says Blue Demon Degenerate, an anonymous DePaul burner who declined to reveal his true identity. “Rollie Massimino, Big John Thompson, Pitino, those guys were/are basketball psychos and they talked s***. That’s what this conference is for.” 

The Big East online ecosystem is not new. But it has grown into a constant, obsessive, meme-generating corner of the internet that involves hundreds of fans from defending champion UConn to perennial losers DePaul and Georgetown. This year, that culture was embodied by a March Madness–style bracket to determine the most viral moment. And the participants of the ecosystem aren’t the only ones who follow it: Coaches, players, athletic departments, and conference administrators all follow the personalities whether they admit it—and sometimes even chime in. 

In the era of realignment when super conferences are becoming the norm and regional identities are being lost, the Big East has remained one of the few conferences embodying the characteristics that big-time college sports has mostly lost. 

“You take a bunch of rabid basketball fan bases who have been told by the rest of the country that they don’t matter because they don’t have high-major football, then you give them all access to a website where they can post their unfiltered thoughts, talk to each other, and attack outside groups, and you get exactly this,” says journalist and part-time UConn fan account Russell Steinberg

“It’s a phenomenally weird environment of people who hate each other, but in a loving way—and who loathe everyone else.”

For decades, the Big East reigned supreme in men’s college basketball. In 2013, it was picked apart by football-driven realignment and was forced to rebuild. Several account operators tell Front Office Sports the online ecosystem didn’t gather momentum until several years later, somewhere between ’19 and ’21, after UConn announced its return to the Big East after a short stay in the richer, personality-devoid AAC. “That kind of ‘Daddy’s home’ mentality that they bring—it rubs a lot of people the wrong way, but it’s great for the conference,” says Tommy Godin Jr., the cofounder of the Big East blog “Road 2 The Garden” (an offshoot of the former SB Nation blog “Big East Coast Bias”). Then the pandemic pushed sports fans completely online, helping many accounts discover their counterparts from rival fan bases.

In many ways, the makeup of this bizarre online ecosystem is akin to a high school social hierarchy. Think the cafeteria in Mean Girls: You have your nameless and shameless burner accounts (some are alums; others are current students, like from the Providence College Burner Community, or “PCBC”), your slightly less unhinged podcast hosts and team bloggers, your student journalists, and a few more serious media members. And then there’s John Fanta, the universally beloved Fox Sports reporter and broadcaster, the equivalent of “the greatest person you’ll ever meet.”

The majority of account owners don’t work in media or college sports, though several—including X Spaces organizers and podcast hosts—have begun earning sponsorship income. But all of them said they’re not in it for the money.

Mister Hot Balls, an anonymous UConn account, explains his rise to fame as a combination of viral trash-talking, hosting popular X Spaces, and breaking recruiting news that Steinberg legitimized. He calls the Big East “the last real college sports conference where you have regional rivalries and decades of history and stupidity behind them,” noting that the fans’ love of that phenomenon is “the thing that the ‘corpo heads’ don’t understand.”

Chris Bellotti and a few friends decided to create The Full 40 Villanova podcast over burgers and beers after watching a game one day. “We kind of dared each other into it,” he said from the concourse at Madison Square Garden during the Providence-Creighton quarterfinal matchup. 

John Maniatis, who runs a DePaul fan account and supplementary podcast called The DePaud, earned his stripes one night after regaling stories on a Spaces of wardrobe malfunctions during his time as the DePaul Blue Demon mascot.

The quintessential origin story is Blue Demon Degenerate—the hero the Big East community didn’t know it needed. “Nobody was s***posting about DePaul at a high enough level, and I had to step in,” he says. “If you post dumb enough tweets at a high enough volume, a card-carrying member of Big East Twitter reaches out and you’re in. I’ve been hopelessly addicted ever since. Help.”

Blue Demon Degenerate solidified his legacy this season when he published a homemade film about Ed Cooley’s move from Providence to Georgetown called Divine Providence. The video, which filled a vacuum of long-form content about Big East teams, went somewhat viral within the conference community immediately. But it really blew up a week later, when Blue Demon posted screenshots of DMs he had gotten from The Field of 68 college basketball analyst Jeff Goodman, who criticized the documentary and suggested that Blue Demon could be arrested for his content. He wrote a question that would become a Big East meme for the rest of the season: “How do you look in orange?”

The entire community came to Blue Demon’s defense. Tim Best, aka “Timmy Ice,” who runs a Big East podcast, calls it “a galvanizing moment.”

A “free Blue Demon Degen” sign and a “hope you look good in orange” sign showed up on national broadcasts. Later, at the Big East tournament, a fan wearing an orange “Divine Providence” shirt sat calmly with his family enjoying a Thursday afternoon quarterfinal slate. Reporters in attendance jokingly asked one another whether they looked good in orange.

The Divine Providence saga might be the biggest Big East–manufactured story line this year, but it isn’t the only one. The ecosystem has proven its power and reach time and again over the past several seasons.

Sometimes the community uses its powers for good. In 2021, a fan named Bryan Jackson, who runs the UConn account known as Penfield, promised to chug a bottle of hot sauce if the Huskies came back to beat Marquette during a ’21 game. The X community turned it into a challenge akin to the ALS Ice Bucket fundraising campaign to earn money for The Husky Ticket Project, which donates UConn athletics tickets to local area children. Everyone from coaches Geno Auriemma and Dan Hurley to ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky and U.S. Rep Joe Courtney participated, according to UConn’s university website—which named and credited Penfield, Mister Hot Balls, and an account called Calhoun Colonel in an official release. “They ended up raising well over $100,000 for this thing within days,” says Mister Hot Balls, who declined to reveal his true identity. “It just went nuts.”

Part of that power comes from real-life relationships. Many account operators have met in person, and even become friends, gathering at games or local bars before the Big East tournament. “Everybody knows each other now,” says Mister Hot Balls. “This isn’t keyboard warrior s***.” 

They exchange life updates, from illnesses to the birth of their children. Maniatis, who ultimately wasn’t able to make it to the tournament this year, tells FOS: “I was supposed to be staying with a St John’s fan at his house. … My wife was like, ‘What?’” Max Williams, who runs the Providence fan account Divine Friars, says he has connected both online and in person with multiple current student burner accounts, and he has offered to provide them with career advice. (He explained this dynamic from a suite at MSG during the Providence-Creighton quarterfinal that he was sharing with Creighton fans.)

But among all the camaraderie and harmless jokes, the community can become crass, if not ugly, at times. 

In December, a PCBC member claimed that Marquette star and reigning Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek was illiterate. Kolek himself took the joke in stride, responding on X with a copy of his transcript and the caption, “I just learned how to read.” (His GPA, according to the document, was 3.9.) But the lie festered so much that at the end of February, a sports journalism parody account falsely claimed that Kolek had been suspended after failing multiple midterms because he couldn’t read. The post gained so much steam that a Marquette compliance officer felt the need to weigh in. “This is neither funny, nor appropriate,” she clapped back. “Kick rocks.”

Even the Divine Providence saga wasn’t all fun and games. Part of the controversy was the elevation of rumors about Cooley’s personal life—part of the reason Goodman DMed Blue Demon Degenerate in the first place. In return, Goodman received plenty of vicious, over-the-top posts as the subject of the community’s ire.

Whether using their powers for good or evil, one thing is clear: The Big East online subculture has power unmatched by any other major conference fan base. 

And that’s a positive for the Big East’s business. The conference just sold out all five sessions of its men’s tournament, with more than 19,000 people showing up Wednesday night to watch the decrepit DePaul and Georgetown programs. Among the viewership records: The championship between UConn and Marquette garnered more than 1.6 million viewers, according to Fox Sports. The conference is on its way to inking a new media deal, just extended its men’s tournament relationship with MSG, and has the odds-on favorite in UConn to earn its fourth men’s basketball championship since 2016.

Despite the list of accomplishments, members of the Big East online community expect to be disrespected. And they’re ready to turn their attention from their daily conference rivalries to the outside world, armed with their virtual flamethrowers, when they are. “The reason why Big East Twitter is so elite is because of that sense of … it’s all unity,” says Best. “Ninety percent of the time, I would say, whatever rivalries we have, they don’t supersede the love for the conference.”

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