Perfect 10: The Gymternet is real — and so is college gymnastics' growing fanbase
Lindsey Morrison knew what to do with the big news on social media — go all caps.
IT’S BRENNA DOWELL ON BEAM TIME.
Morrison does PR for the Oklahoma women’s gymnastics team. That includes managing the team’s Twitter account. She sees what gets attention. She understands what makes waves. And when the Sooners had a last-minute scratch on the balance beam and went with Dowell, a fan favorite who had never competed beam in college, Morrison realized the announcement would be like throwing a virtual boulder into the online ocean.
“And it blew up,” Morrison remembered. “The Gymternet is a strange place, honestly.”
You read right.
On the day college gymnastics comes to Oklahoma City — the Perfect 10 Challenge brings top-ranked OU and others to the Cox Convention Center — there will be plenty of eyes on the proceedings. Some will be in the building. Others will be watching via the internet, part of an online fanbase that has become known colloquially as the Gymternet.
“I’d probably describe it as this online community of people who really love talking about gymnastics and following it in different ways,” said Kristen Watkins, who created a fantasy league for women’s college gymnastics.
You read that right, too. Just like fantasy football or fantasy baseball, there is a fantasy league for gymnastics.
Watkins spent 15 years in the sport, competing collegiately at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and soon after she finished in 2012, Watkins went online looking for ways to stay connected with the sport she loves. She stumbled into a Twitter conversation about starting a fantasy league.
Watkins had a taken some programming classes at MIT, so she offered to build a website to host the fantasy league.
CollegeFantasyGymnastics.com was born.
During its first season in 2013, about 150 people participated.
This year: 1,834.
“It’s been exciting for people to have a new way to follow (college gymnastics),” Watkins said via phone from her home in Boston. “Hopefully, it’s helped a lot more people get a peek into the college gymnastics world. I think before it was a little less accessible.”
There is more access to women’s college gymnastics than ever before. Television coverage has skyrocketed; three duals will be shown on the ESPN family of networks alone next week. Broadcasts also include technical breakdowns explaining scoring, which can be one of the biggest barriers to drawing new fans.
The Gymternet has connected fans to the sport and to each other even more.
The websites aren’t abundant — the legit ones can be counted on two hands — but they are robust. There are podcasts and rankings and analysis and features, and most of the content is produced through a grassroots effort. No big media conglomerates. No high-gloss productions.
Just people who love gymnastics and want to share that love.
Lots of times that love is most evident on Twitter. That’s where the Gymternet gathers during competitions, and like fans of any sport, they’ll debate who’s competing, what they’re doing and how they’re scoring.
Which brings us back to that night Brenna Dowell did beam.
A former elite gymnast who has a unique style, she is a favorite among lots of fans. But she has long been a three-event gymnast. Vault. Bars. Floors. Last season, she scored a 9.95 or better on all three apparatus.
“Oh, man,” the Gymternet often mused, “if only she could do beam.”
At OU’s intersquad meet before the season, Dowell exhibitioned on balance beam and the Gymternet went cuckoo. Morrison, the Sooners’ PR person, saw the buzz and knew if Dowell ever did beam in a meet, it would be a big deal.
That was the case in the Sooners’ season opener when she competed in the beam and nearly broke the Gymternet.
“People still get excited every time Brenna is in the beam lineup,” Morrison said. “It’s pretty entertaining.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.
PERFECT 10 CHALLENGE
What: Perfect 10 Challenge
Teams: No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 18 Washington, No. 19 Arizona State, George Washington
Where: Cox Center, Oklahoma City
When: 6:45 p.m. Friday
Tickets: $15, available at Cox Center box office and Ticketmaster
Want to dip your toe in the Gymternet waters? Here are a couple websites to get you started:
BalanceBeamSituation.com: One of the most popular blogs on the Gymternet. Offers analysis with a steady dose of humor.
CollegeFantasyGymnastics.com: This is the spot for fantasy college gymnastics. But if you don’t already have a team, you’ll have to wait till next season.
GymCastic.com: The biggest podcast on the Gymternet. Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney actually announced her retirement from the sport on the site.
TheGymter.net: A clearinghouse for all things gymnastics. It spans the globe with news, results and analysis as well as stats and historical information.
TheRoutinePodcast.com: A podcast focused on college gymnastics, powered by a former college gymnast and her mom.