Despite its excellent content, onefootball.com has gone the way of so many other optimistic projects. Yet again the figures did not add up, as Ian Plenderleith explains
The difficulties facing any company intent on running a quality football website for profit were brought home by the liquidation of onefootball.com in July, which, despite its popularity and plaudits, collapsed while reportedly losing around £40,000 a month.
Onefootball.com ran approximately 100 stories a day from around the world, using its own team of 11 full-time journalists in London and several dozen correspondents. It boasted features and analysis, a live results service from every European league and, if you were travelling to a UEFA Cup fixture in Lyon and wanted to know about the city’s nightlife, this was the place to get the lowdown on half a dozen dance venues.
The website’s financial history makes for less positive reading. Founded in April 2000, onefootball.com was a subsidiary of One Sport Limited, which was owned originally by Digital Sport plc. By the time One Sport was offloaded by Digital Sport to Sportsio in July 2001 for a nominal fee, thought to be £1, it had accumulated more than £4 million worth of debt. The debts were left behind, but in its half-yearly financial statement shortly afterwards Digital noted with some relief the elimination of what it termed “a negative cash drain”.
The new owner, Sportsio, still describes itself on its own website as a specialist in “the creation, management and population of football websites all around the world”. It was presumably intent on using this expertise to staunch the site’s mammoth losses, yet according to sources close to the company, there was no clear long term plan on how to make onefootball.com profitable. It took Sportsio six months to appoint someone in charge of content syndication – far too late to seal any World Cup deals – while all the contracts to sell content to outlets such as the Observer and ITV Online were made by the journalists themselves. But by the time these deals had been made the liquidators were already reaching under the desks to unplug the modems.
Sportsio, who declined to comment, have had no more luck with their other football sites. On the same day onefootball closed they also shut down umbro.com , which had been managed under a profit-sharing agreement with the kit manufacturer, while todofutbol.com (aimed at the Latin American market) and uslsoccer.com (an umbrella site for various US leagues) shut in June because they were losing money and receiving few visitors.
Onefootball.com was at least not short of the latter, boasting around 50,000 unique users a day. The sources close to Sportsio claimed that if the number of staff and the number of stories had been cut earlier, the website could have bought itself more time to establish an already burgeoning reputation, while at the same time curbing its losses. In a year or two, they said, the site could have been made subscription-only.
However, popularity with internet users, as many sunken web entrepreneurs have found out, does not necessarily translate into revenue and the demise of onefootball.com reflects continued hard times for football sites as commercially viable entities, regardless of how well they are run. Rivals.net merged with the 365 website group. Sports.com went down just as the World Cup began. And in an uncanny echo of their television rights disaster with ITV Digital, all Football League clubs have recently been approached by Premium TV, the NTL-owned internet partner they collectively jumped into bed with last year, to renegotiate the original deal and pass up £35 million in internet rights fees in exchange for a greater share of future profit.
Ah yes, future profit, the promise that launched a million dotcoms. If the League’s members ever seriously believed that’s what the internet would bring them, you can only hope they have the sense to transfer their optimism towards tangible, white-lined fields of grass in time for the new season.
From WSC 187 September 2002. What was happening this month