Neil Andrews explores the world of fantasy football while looking back at its roots

Years ago, fantasy football used to be such a simple thing. All you needed was a Subbuteo set and a group of friends who were willing to compete in some kind of championship. In fact, Subbuteo used to encourage the formation of independent leagues, as it was a good way of selling more sets. Of course, things used to be much simpler in the old days.

In today’s Premiership world, fantasy foot­ball is big business, with every major newspaper and sporting website running their own versions of the game that made Frank Skinner famous. One of the most popular is the Sun’s Dream Team.

Its popularity is largely due to its simplicity – points are awards for clean sheets and goals with additional points awarded for a player’s performance – making it an ideal source for an office mini-league. A quick search on the internet will quickly tell you just how many of these mini-leagues are in operation, but News International have decided that enough is enough and are now clamping down on these hobby sites.

Five years ago, a group of friends and I decided to set up our own mini-league. At the time, the Sun didn’t provide such a service and, seeing as we were all entering anyway, we thought it would be a good laugh to see how well we did against each other in addition to the rest of the country. This simple concept proved so popular that our little league increased in size the following year and, with so many players taking part, we thought it would be a good idea to set up a website. We weren’t doing anyone any harm and we made no secret of the fact that this was the Sun’s competition. We were merely keeping track of everyone’s scores and making sure that everyone knew the rules. Unfortunately, the Sun saw things differently.

On September 5, I received an email out of the blue from News International, threatening legal action unless I closed down the site. They also demanded certain undertakings which were later described as “over the top” by a corporate lawyer who just happened to be taking part in this year’s competition. When I contacted News International, pointing out that my site was merely a “fan site” for the benefit of 23 friends who were taking part in their competition, I was put in touch with Helen Brady of their Intellectual Property Department.

“Running a fantasy football game called ‘Dream Team’ is a breach of our property rights, including unlawful use of our trade marks and copyright material,” she explained. “In using this name, you could be seen to be implying an association with the Sun’s Dream Team, or, indeed, trading off our substantial reputation. We do not wish to stop your operation of a fantasy league, but cannot permit the use of our rules and regulations. Yours is not the only site we have contacted so far, nor will it be the last.”

On first glance, you could argue that they have a point. After all, it is their game. But I can’t help but feel that they are cutting their noses off to spite their faces. Such bullying tactics are not unheard of when it comes to forcing websites off of the internet, but it seems a bit churlish on the part of News International to take such action against what are essentially their customers.

Furthermore, apart from completely mis­sing the point of these sites, I have been advised that the trademark issue was a smoke screen designed to frighten those who received their original mail into acting swiftly. Granted, they do have registration, but my use was not in the course of trade so I wasn’t doing anything unlawful. I had not claimed copy­right for any of the rules or regulations and even linked to the Sun’s official Dream Team website. However, I do not have the funds or inclination to argue with News International. What I do have are 23 unhappy people whose simple enjoyment of the game has been ruined by corporate greed. And they are not alone. Several other sites – all of which were run for an office league or some such format – have also been shut down.

What News International hoped to achieve is anyone’s guess, but when the dust has settled they will be left with little more than a significant number of disgruntled customers who will happily go elsewhere next season. In the words of one of their less-esteemed col­­umnists, you couldn’t make it up.

From WSC 201 November 2003. What was happening this month

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