Forget about using the Internet as a way of generating business for a minute. Football, a sport that commands legions of fans across the globe could have been conceived with the Web in mind. The supporters that make the weekly journey to their clubs in all kinds of weather are ready-made examples of the ardent micro-communities so desired by Internet service providers (ISPs) like AOL and CompuServe: put the supporters on the Web and you're laughing.
These people are passionate about something they love (their team, be it Barnsley or Barcelona) and there are lots of them, all with different allegiances, all waiting to gobble up whatever football-related information they can stomach, including the occasional bit of nonsense.
The trouble is that these communities have, until now, been concentrated at the ground itself or in front of Match of the Day, sharing weekly ups and downs face-to-face rather than online or on-air.
Things are changing though. The growing popularity in the past two years of live fan forums like BBC Radio 5 Live's Six-o-Six has been mirrored on the Internet with unofficial as well as club sanctioned chat forums.
The popularity of certified Premiership sites such as Sky TV's Sky Sports Centre (www.sky.co.uk/sports/ football/index.htm) and the FA Carling Premiership approved site (www.fa-carling.com) is also growing, and joining them are football news services such as Teamtalk (www.teamtalk.com) and Soccernet (www.soccernet.com), offering even more choice for the information-hungry fan.
"The fallout from the World Cup saw a galaxy of stars land on Planet Premiership"
More choice is great, but can a single organisation, especially one as vast as BSkyB, do justice to the needs of a football club and its many thousand supporters? As well as producing sites for each club in the Premiership and Nationwide Division One, Sky Internet is now maintaining the new official Manchester United site.
The man in charge of Sky Internet, Simon Howson-Green, denies that the outsourcing of official club sites means a toning down of content related to the club concerned, pointing out that Sky's journalists can update club news daily as opposed to the weekly updates of some other official club sites.
Sky's ruthless capture of the rights to screening Premiership games has really boosted its number of subscribers, and its Web site plans are similarly ambitious. Sky Internet is undertaking a redesign and restructuring the way its 3,500 pages of news and sports content is managed, with the introduction of a database-based rather than server-based publishing system.
Visitors to the Sky site will request a standard template, with the composite parts of the page being sent down the line by the server. "Over time, we will fill in the blanks in the database and build a user profile. The advertisers love it because we'll be collecting demographics about each user," says Mark Harvi-Watt, creative director of Sky Internet.
The most interesting aspect of the Sky relaunch is the redesign of the Manchester United site. Is Sky Internet considering managing and designing other official club sites? "We'd love to take on other clubs," admits Harvi-Watt. "We're also negotiating with video rights. We intend to be able to broadcast (on the Web) the best goals of each week."
While Sky has the rights to the Premiership in the UK, the question of broadcasting games live on the Net opens up the thorny issue of those rights being contravened if fans can watch in other countries. Harvi-Watt is sceptical about whether broadcasting football on the Web will ever happen. "No one is really going to sit and watch (live) football on a computer," he says.
There is no doubt that Sky Internet will attract more visitors to its site if it succeeds in managing other official club sites and offering unique features like 3D. "I wouldn't be surprised if Manchester United was paid to be there, to drive traffic to the Sky site," says Mike Crossman, managing director of Bates Interactive.
Bates makes the point that Sky is trying to build its Internet activity in the same way it built its broadcasting business - by making the company name synonymous with sporting events. "Sky wants football to equal Sky," he says. "It wants to be one of the big players like MSN or CNN as a site you go to because of the content it carries - and sport is the content."
Some clubs like Arsenal have found there is potential in establishing an independent presence on the Web. The north London club has launched an extensive new site, joining an array of unofficial sites (sample name: Arseweb), as well as introducing Arsenal-branded Internet service provision.
For DesignerCity, the company that designed (www.arsenal.co.uk), a passion and club loyalty is essential to the site's immediacy. "Sky TV has been actively trying to tie up all the football clubs on the Internet. But each site has to have soul. You can only get that with sites run by people who really know each club," says DesignerCity's Jeremy Kerner.
DesignerCity had the bonus of being assisted in the Arsenal launch by public relations supremo Lynn Franks, an indication of how important Web presence is becoming to football clubs. It came up against some stiff competition for the Arsenal contract, but Kerner says the fact that six of the 12-person development team were lifelong Arsenal supporters was decisive: "It helped that we are mad Gooner fans."
So is Arsenal's enthusiasm down to it realising the Internet's market potential? With an array of Gooners-related merchandise available and the launch of an ISP arm, the first football club to launch such a service, Arsenal is banking on a return of its investment. For #13 a month, users will get Internet access and an Arsenal-based email address offering the worrying possibility of thousands of Arsenal fans getting email names like ([email protected]). "We believe that in time, branded email will become a part of everyday life, like personalised number plates," says Kerner.
Does Arsenal's approach mean that other clubs will follow suit in providing an ISP arm? "Internet service provision is basically a zero margin business," says James Eibisch, senior analyst at Input. "The only way clubs are going to make money from having a Net presence is by merchandising."
Mike Crossman of Bates Interactive disagrees. "Football supporters are an ideal target group for advertisers," he says. "The demography of football supporters make football sites an ideal place to advertise."
The big news services are finding it easier to make money: Soccernet, is an example. "The revenue we were getting in (from banner ads) meant we were making a profit," says Daily Mail managing director Guy Zitter.
"They didn't change positions, they just moved the players around"
Soccernet's success is down to a sharing of resources. "I have one of the best sports desks running. Soccer-net plugs into the sports desks at the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday. An independent operator would never be able to provide that sort of depth with credibility," says Zitter.
How does he feel about competition from other news sites? "None of them are even close. As a football site this has got the rest of the world beaten hands down. Carling is having to produce something pretty expensive. For them there's a cost implication and a quality implication," he says.
While the popularity of news sites like Soccernet means that profit is not impossible, independent club sites are somewhat limited by the size of their fan base. Jeremy Kerner from DesignerCity suggests one possibility: the majority of the Arsenal site would be free while users would pay for access to certain premium areas.
One club that is succeeding in making money from its Web site is Newcastle United, using the Internet to sell a variety of Toon Army products. Designed by Art Creative and produced by Edinburgh-based Communicata, the site receives around half a million hits a month. The site is run from a Unix server, with catalogue orders stored on an Oracle database, while Communicata uses Netscape Secure Server to ensure that credit card numbers can be submitted safely.
Mark Lewis of Communicata says that so far the online merchandising catalogue has proved successful, with orders for wallpaper and curtains coming in from as far afield as Norway and Brazil. "We put the merchandise up right after Barclay Square when no one thought it could work on the Web. Now we're selling to around 80 countries," he says.
Another possible source of online revenue is the much mooted prospect of selling match tickets over the Web, something Lewis immediately dismisses for Newcastle. "There's no need for them to do it. You can't get tickets up there for love or money." Kerner of DesignerCity agrees that it's an impractical idea, at least as far as Arsenal is concerned: "There really isn't any point because Arsenal is sold out every game."
The Arsenal site also supports the online sale of merchandise, most of which is expected to be bought by overseas fans. But it is extra features that make the relatively new Arsenal site special, with the addition of a 10,000 record database containing a wealth of information from the club's 104-year history. This presents the prospect of watching the team you support via real-time video over the Web, while an interactive database scrolls down the side of the screen containing statistics, clips and team information which can be accessed during the match itself.
Some sites are going to be more successful than others, and if the views of fans are anything to go by it's the sites that are easy to navigate, rich in content and regularly updated that will make visitors come back. Despite the limited profit margins of ISP provision, club branding will benefit from fans wanting to get closer to their clubs. And revenue from online merchandise and banner advertising can only increase if official club and news sites can prove to advertisers they are regularly attracting the crucial young and affluent male market.
"We deserved to win this game after hammering them 0-0 in the first half"
In these heady days of foreign stars with inflated wages and inflated egos, together with the never changing foot-in-mouth soundbites from the nation's pundits, managers and players, the move to establish a satisfactory online presence is as natural a progression as could be expected. And at the end of the day (Brian), that seems to be the way things are going to stay.
THE OFFICIAL SITE
Manchester-based Web design company Hercules Communications controls the day-to-day running of the FA Carling Premiership official site. The Press Association provides news and information for content, especially match reports during the season itself. Naturally, a site that covers the behind the scenes events of 20 teams is going to cost a lot to construct and maintain. "It's a considerably large amount of money, and was into the hundreds of thousands for the build," says Hercules Communications consultant Stephen Frater.
First launched in 1995, the Carling site started off quite small. "We got over a million hits a week and were over two million a week by the end of the season," says Frater. Audience figures continued to grow throughout last year, a trend which looks set to continue in the 1997/98 season. "We've had to expand the hardware to cope with demand. If we're not showing eight million hits a week, I'll be very surprised," he says.
Frater denies that the Carling site offers competition to clubs trying to establish an independent voice on the Net, pointing to its strong emphasis on news. He maintains that the Premiership as a brand is strong enough to be differentiated from official club sites on the Internet. "We're not here to provide an Internet presence for Manchester United. We're here to provide the Premiership with an Internet presence," he says.
And what does he think of the golden goose of direct online ticket sales? "It will definitely happen, no doubt about it. I know Chelsea is looking to go online. We'll embrace it if the relevant club wants us to."
A FAN SPEAKS OUT
Adam Giaquinto lives, breathes and sleeps football. An avid Chelsea fan, he uses the Net to keep him up to date on what's going on.
"Soccernet is the site I use for accurate news. because I can send the news by email to a friend who works abroad. I've done it with other news services but Soccernet is updated every day and is better set out. The Sky site looks pretty but the news is old and it doesn't update too well - it's also difficult to navigate.
"I was on holiday recently and I phoned home and got a friend to do the same thing for me. You do miss it. I use Soccernet because you get every club in one - you don't have to navigate down to find the one you want. You just go to the flashes and it updates throughout the day. Capital Radio does a similar sort of thing, but it's not as good.
"As far as individual clubs are concerned, although I am biased, you'll do well to beat the complexity of the Chelsea site. I use it for club news all the time - it's constantly being updated. A recent example is the FA Cup - I found out about ticket availability a couple of days before my friends did.
"When pictures are posted, like the new kit or the squad numbers, it's there on the site straight away. I'm better informed about Chelsea than anyone I know.
"You can get the goals relayed from the Capital Radio site and I did that after the Liverpool cup game (Chelsea came back from 2-0 down to win 4-2).
One guy I know sabotaged his friends' computer so when they turn them on they hear goals scored against their team the night before.
But it's news that I always look at first. Within half an hour of coming into the office I'll be looking at the news straight away. It so easy."
THE NEWS SITE
Leeds-based Interactive Media Services (IMS) owns and operates Teamtalk, the premium rate telephone service which provides football news and gossip. IMS's online service shares the Teamtalk name and carries daily bulletins, club statistics and news about players.
Sites like Teamtalk and Soccernet can carry news as and when it breaks, especially in the off season when unexpected transfer deals occur with alarming regularity. One such example is Newcastle's recent #4.5 million purchase of AC Milan's Alessandro Pistone: the item led the top of the Teamtalk's daily news roundup but was nowhere to be seen on the official club site.
IMS gathers its news via 15 people working in-house with a further 40 outside news gatherers. News is channelled into both the telephone and the online service simultaneously, but while a fan could pay up to 48p a minute to hear the news about Pistone on the telephone, the same news appears on the Web for free, something that IMS director of sport Ian Holding emphasises will not change in the future.
Teamtalk is wholly removed from the official line carried by the Premiership, meaning it can speculate about potential transfer deals without fear of recrimination. The service was initially ridiculed for insisting that Paul Ince would sign for the Merseyside club when it was announced he could be leaving Inter Milan. But the company's persistence was rewarded and Ince was unveiled by a smiling Roy Evans at Anfield a few weeks later.
TOP FOOTBALL WEB SITES
New site from the north London club.
Features celebrity interviews with famous Gooners like Dennis Pennis and Melvyn Bragg and a 10,000 record database on Arsenal's checkered history. Also the first club to provide ISP arm AFCi.
Sky Internet redesigned site. What next, Man United fans from Manchester?
With a 3D Old Trafford tour, player stats and a rich array of Red Devils merchandise, this should succeed in driving the club's huge global fanbase to the main Sky site.
The Geordies go online with a site as expansive as Kevin Keegan's transfer budget.
An array of merchandise - quilt covers, lamp shades, you name it - along with detailed past player profiles and an online version of the successful Black and White magazine.
Simply designed site that's rich in content.
Although not affiliated with the club, this site features regular news updates, clips of last season's goals and a guide to pre-match pubs. Also has a call to arms for justice for the families of Hillsborough victims.
Dream move for the Chelsea Webmaster. Designed the unofficial site, now he works next door to Ken Bates.
Regular news updates, team info and a chat forum featuring the swear-o-tron, a device that replaces obscenities with Cockney rhyming slang. Chelsea may also introduce online ticketing.
Shares the same interface as West Ham's official site - they're both designed by Planet Online.
An emphasis on fan feedback characterises this site. West Ham's (www.westhamunited.co.uk/) is equally good. Both feature live match commentary broadcasts and regularly updated news.
AND IN DANGER OF RELEGATION...
Tottenham (via Soccernet's link page)
Merchandise is the order of the day.
This site exists purely to make money from Spurs' extensive (and pretty awful) merchandising catalogue. Fans were not considered in this site, which is the way things are going at Tottenham these days.
Book your wedding reception at Ewood Park.
Although this site features club press releases the day they come out, there is no fan forum and no independent source of news - news is only updated from the Blackburn Rovers board's point of view.
The online home to Sheffield Wednesday is a homage to merchandise and nothing else.
While there are links to unofficial sites that provide information on your club, one wonders why the club's first concern is a merchandising catalogue when it could be providing a service to its fans?
Matthew Garrahan is Staff Writer for Internet World.
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