Ian Plenderleith looks over  Sky's decision to shut down the Rivals network

The age of the network webzine may be coming to a close. In July, Sky Sports shut down its Rivals family of club sites, sending all of its editors a curt notice of immediate termination, three months’ pay, and deleting the network’s entire content from the web. Few were surprised that Sky chose to brusquely cut off poorly recompensed part-time workers. Rivals had gone through a number of different owners with different ideas since its inception eight years ago, and each incarnation brought a new wave of defections from disillusioned editors, who either moved to or founded alternative networks. Indeed when Sky bought the company in late 2007, many suspected that its only goal was to close Rivals down, a theory that’s now hard to refute.

Sky did not respond to questions about their reasons for closing the site, and their termination letter to editors merely stated that the decision followed “a review”. They paid editors off with the three months’ wages required by contract (in most cases, just over £100 per month), and offered to mail them a disc containing the site’s content. Glen Wilson, editor of the Doncaster Rovers site on Rivals, Viva Rovers, says the letter was his first communication with Sky since the takeover, and that “what little communication there was” came through Sky subsidiary TeamTalk, whose workers were also apparently unaware of the impending closure.

For editors like Wilson, the money was irrelevant. “Being paid for it was nice,” he says, “but had the money stopped I would not have stopped the site. Sky seem unable to grasp that concept of doing something for enjoyment over pay.” Wilson says he was able to “build up a site with a decent cult following. It was the complimentary emails and replies to articles from fellow fans that made doing the site worthwhile, not the money.”

The annoying thing for many editors was the break in continuity – even if they elected to receive the disc full of archived content, it would take time to set up a new site and add the old articles. Without the courtesy of notice, editors were left without a portal from one day to the next, while users lost their message board contacts.

At the same time, it offers the opportunity of a new beginning, unburdened by the demands or whims of a corporate parent. Wilson quickly set up a new, but independent, Viva Rovers site, despite offers from other umbrella websites to join their networks. Mark O’Brien, who ran the Everton Rivals site, also rejected such overtures. “We’ve had all sorts of people in touch wanting us to join half-arsed phoney ‘networks’ that are offering nothing in return,” he says. “They see us as... mugs with a big site they can exploit for advertising revenue without putting any effort in – at least Rivals paid for access to Getty Images, which was an absolutely priceless resource.” He says that if someone offered to pay for their work, “then we might take them seriously”.

O’Brien argues that the Rivals experiment “started out superbly”, but as time wore on and the company changed hands several times, the onus on attracting message board traffic detracted from the quality of the product. The spirit of the original fanzines was lost, and the site became nothing more than a means to attract advertisers – though admittedly this has been a trend across internet journalism, not just football. “Eventually,” O’Brien says, “you ended up with a handful of good sites with interesting writing on them, but more and more were just generic ‘footy sites’. Why would you click on them to read a watered down version of the official club site? In the end, no one did, it seemed.”

Many fanzines originally joined networks like Rivals to avoid dealing with the time-consuming challenges of designing and maintaining a website. Now, thanks to sites like Wordpress and Typepad, anyone can start a site in minutes. So why would a conscientious webzine editor want to join forces with a generic network, which only holds out the vague promise of a share in ad revenue that will likely be negligible?

Despite several offers, Glen Wilson of Viva Rovers is also wary of joining a network again, and says that while he doesn’t doubt “that the intentions of these sites are much more honourable than those of Sky”, he has turned them down. His concern is that if he joined a new network, the same thing could happen again because “the shelf life of such sites may be limited. It’s going to be difficult to relocate and rebuild the site once, and so I’m wary... of being forced to do it again.”

Meanwhile, of the six networks reviewed in WSC early last year, only Vital Football seems to be thriving, with regular news updates and contributions from across the professional divisions. We forecast that three of the six would go under, and as well as the Rivals implosion, By The Fans has also disappeared without trace. Footy Mad, fansonline.net and clubfanzine.net are all suffering from a paucity of content and are advertising for new editors. These sites still largely make for very poor reading, and unless they can find some way to recruit willing workers and make their content stand out, their demise is inevitable.

The good news is that this should lead to a revival in the standard of fan journalism on the internet if editors like Wilson and O’Brien (who writes for the excellent Everton zine When Skies Are Grey that also produced the Rivals site) can continue to provide the kind of funny and lively analysis that was once the domain of football fanzines. The umbrella format is saturated, and there are more than enough forums for message board bellyaching. If the death of Rivals helps to spawn a revival in quality writing, then for once football may have a reason to send Sky a thank you note. Though don’t make it too polite.

Doncaster Rovers

WSAG

Vital Football

Footy Mad

Fansonline

Clubfanzine

From WSC 271 September 2009

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