Athletes' dating lives are big business

Instead of waiting for stars to reveal themselves, fans mine the dirt that collects online. Mark Matcho for ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 11 College Basketball Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

"IS J.J. WATT SINGLE?" "Who is Derrick Rose dating?" "Does Jonathan Toews have a girlfriend?"

Type any of these questions into a search engine and the same website pops up: Talk-Sports.net. Click through and you'll tumble down a rabbit hole of old-school message boards called Girlfriend Forums, in which anonymous commenters speculate on the love lives of professional athletes. Talk-Sports' design -- Times font, bolded hyperlinks, pallid blue background -- feels anachronistic, like an Angelfire page that was never snuffed out. Yet this weird little corner of the Internet has thrived for nearly a decade. Talk-Sports' creator, a Canadian programmer named Randy Charles Morin, says the site has thousands of active users, who he claims have scooped reporters on news involving athletes such as Tiger Woods and Adrian Peterson. "I've been threatened to be sued, probably several hundred times," he says, laughing.

Spend enough time on Talk-Sports or Reddit and it becomes clear why athletes are working to reclaim their own narratives, whether it's LeBron James explaining his decision to return to Cleveland in a letter, Derek Jeter becoming a publisher or the countless players who pour their hearts out on Twitter after games. Yet their stories are already being written, typically by people they have never met. Instead of waiting for stars to reveal themselves, fans mine the dirt that collects online, destroying and rebuilding imperfect monuments to their heroes. Consent is irrelevant. "I think a lot of people are interested in drama," Morin says.

The media have long chronicled the romantic exploits of sports heroes, of course: In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio appeared twice on the cover of the New York Daily News. But our obsession with athletes' wives and girlfriends, or WAGs, has only intensified as players reach new heights of celebrity. Todd Hinds hatched PlayerWives.com five years ago with some friends, after a heated barroom debate about which Red Sox player had the hottest wife. Player Wives was initially devoted to picking the most attractive WAGs, but Hinds and his crew soon saw that people were more interested in actually learning about the women (shocking, I know). So they started crafting short profiles of athletes' significant others, hedging if a relationship was unconfirmed. They learned that the more obscure the player, the better. "We noticed that posts on backup linebackers were getting traffic," says Hinds, 33.

If Player Wives is the high school yearbook of the WAG world, Talk-Sports is the bathroom wall on which anyone can scrawl a rumor. Commenting is free and anonymous (paid accounts offer premium features). Fans of the site's most popular athletes, including the notoriously private Watt, scour the Internet for clues about their romantic status, deconstructing tweets, airplane flights and blurry photographs pulled from social media. They even write in a common lingo: "Sydney" refers to Sydney Leroux, the soccer star reported to have once dated Watt; "DCC" means Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.

Morin, 45, stumbled into the gossip business. After launching several websites, he decided in 2005 to start a sports blog. It didn't attract much attention -- until a commenter on a Sidney Crosby post asked whether the hockey star had a girlfriend. "Then the website started getting 10,000 hits a day," he says. "And I realized -- ohhh." So he created a site with a message board for Crosby, who is still Talk-Sports' most discussed athlete. Clay Matthews, Kevin Durant and Tim Lincecum also have rabid followings.

Though he's unwilling to name names, Morin says he's been contacted by many of the women mentioned on Talk-Sports. He has given hundreds of athletes free memberships that let them delete comments. He doesn't condone nudity; when naked photos of Kate Upton and Justin Verlander appeared on his site (he says they were posted on Talk-Sports.net before going viral during the recent celebrity hacking scandal), he deleted them. Rank speculation, on the other hand, is totally fine. "Half of it's true, half of it's fiction," Morin says. "You're allowed to spread rumors." Online, everyone's a player; guessing what's real is just part of the game.