THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Anyone making rash predictions about the internet risks looking silly. So to avoid that possibility we asked four people invovled in football websites to do it for us

1. What has been good about football on the web so far?
AP: The original philosophy behind the internet was to open up a brave new world of communication. It’s fallen short of that, but in the case of football, there has at least been an extension of the supporter’s voice and the principle that first inspired fanzines.
PC: It has got the readers so much more involved than they have been before, outside fanzines – but web­sites reach far more people, far more often. We publish as much as 3,000 words of letters a day. You can look at the readership figures for different sec­tions, too, and assess what works and what doesn’t in an objective way rather than on a hunch. Statistics are a lot faster and more user friendly. Oh, and it’s great to buy match tickets, especially for games abroad.
UHL: The availability of information. Looking for simple but obscure things concerning foreign coun­tries was a major undertaking five years ago, but it often takes less than a minute today. And there really is such a thing as a, whisper the now-dreaded word, “community”. I have never been in touch with so many football fans from so many different places. And there really are communities that are not being spoon-fed and/or directed by the clubs.
BL: Fans can get news on teams they follow without needing to live in that country or learn another lan­guage; and those who travel to games can find out how to get tickets and where to stay. Football is global and the web allows the insularity of the main­stream Eng­lish media to be ignored.

2. What have been the worst things?
AP: The clubs and the governing bodies have finally cottoned on to the potential of the internet, but, typ­ically, they want it to serve only their financial ends, squeezing out any kind of dissent. It also has to be said that more doesn’t nec­essarily mean bet­ter: there’s a lot of rubbish out there, with the same old news on any number of sites.
PC: The mass of me-too sites which jumped on the bandwagon 18 months ago brought little editorial innovation. Their fail­ures, along with all the other dotcom collapses, taint the whole market. Editorially, the wat­ers have been muddied by rumour inflation, too many people chasing too few stories. Some ideas look fantastic, but take five min­utes to ap­pear if you’re using a phone line. Or, in the case of live audio commentary, often don’t work even if you’ve paid for them.
UHL: Everything grandiose. Any con­cept that centred around gimmicky non­sense has a) driven me mad and b) folded quickly. Most users just don’t have the sort of connection that technicians and designers suppose they have.
BL: Too many sites copy others and publish the same news. The focus on big teams distorts news pri­orities (better to have a great story on a small club than a poor story on a big club) though that does not stop national newspapers across the continent running exclusives from elsewhere as their own.

3. What innovations do you expect in the next years?
AP: The buzzword you keep hearing at the moment is “convergence”, in which the PC, digital TV and mob­ile phone platforms are integrated to offer the com­plete football “product”. You’ll see clubs offering foot­- age of games, exclusive access to player inter­views, betting, video on demand and the like via the net, dig­ital TV etc, on a pay-per-view or subscription basis.
PC: A lot depends on the roll-out of broadband tech­nology and on people’s willingness to pay for material. In the long run, any programme that appears on TV should be online – fantastic if you are abroad.
UHL: In Ger­many there are ifs and buts to do with the muddled issue of copyright and German Tel­e­com’s technical and administrative problems. But if mass-scale broadband becomes a reality, and if the question of who owns which rights is solved (in 2003, maybe), then any­thing  is possible. And then premium content will no longer be free.
BL: Push technology will become the norm – in­stead of fans choosing where to select their information, digital platforms will target the fans first and push tailored news their way.

4. If clubs find a paying audience for live matches on the net, what will be the effects on other types of site?
AP: The key is to have unique content. Once the existing TV contract is finished the clubs can pretty much do what they want with the “product”. This could be a real problem for the mainstream media – what’s the point of newspapers, for example, reporting the post-match press conference on a Monday, when clubs will be streaming it live over the net and digital TV on the Saturday? The corporate websites that simply re­hash copy generated via the press agencies have a prob­lem because the club sites have stolen their clothes. It’s hard to see what they can offer.
PC: Clubs struggle to deal with any level of criticism. But fans are unhappy to some degree at upwards of 90 per cent of clubs; other sites provide an outlet for both free opinion and unbiased news. Tottenham used their site to rubbish officially transfer rumours. But then along came an inconvenient rumour that was true... so David Pleat rubbished it anyway. Independent sites will always have a market. You might watch a shocking defeat on a club website, but you’ll have to go elsewhere to read a fair assessment of it or call for the manager’s head.
UHL: Again, at the moment no one is sure how the legal situation will evolve. Also, Germans even refuse to embrace the Stone Age concept of subscrip­tion/ pay/pay-per-view television. But if the clubs are allow­ed to organise their own coverage and if people do in­deed pay for that, the effects on other sites will be... close to nil (see question five).
BL: Some clubs are already up and running and fans from outside the UK use these services. One of the biggest obstacles to turning a profit is the fact that people have accepted unlimited access without paying a penny – so in theory, it should benefit websites that have free access. But in practice, the long-term effect is more likely to be that the portals will struggle, as we have seen, and collapse.

5. What kind of websites do you expect to survive for the next five years?
AP: Fans are likely to use official club sites, but there will always be room for an alternative opinion. Those that can pro­duce something a bit different will find a loyal and sizeable audience. Fromtheterrace’s traffic seems to bear that out. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?
PC: Those that have built up an audience worth selling to, and that can diversify into supplying content to those technologies people will pay for – phones, for instance. The web establishes your name and reputation, and enables you to make money from advertising and sponsorship. And you also use other platforms to make money directly from your user. In time the best sites will become part of the established scene. When we began it was hard to get a foot in the door with spon­sors, clubs, TV and radio. Now we get interview access, are quoted fairly often, and even have a week­ly column in the Mirror.
UHL: For small, independent sites: those who are truly independent and avoid takeovers. For big sites: those with  tie-ins with other media (newspapers, television, radio).
BL: Sites that value strong editorial content. Also, official club sites and those owned by major corporations, and any site with access to broadcast rights. And porn and gambling sites, obviously. 

Adam Powley
Editor, fromtheterrace.co.uk
Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger
Former co-ordinator of rivals.net for Germany
Philip Cornwall
football365.com
Ben Lyttleton
Editor, onefootball.com

From WSC 176 October 2001. What was happening this month

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