Ian Plenderleith takes a look at Rivals.net, a new site that brings unofficial online fanzines to one site, and Impnet, the Lincoln City fanzine that has signed up to the Rivals venture
Rivals.net is a new umbrella website for unofficial online fanzines. It is a joint venture between US-based online sports network Rivals.com and media giant Chrysalis Group plc which says it is providing “a powerful online soapbox that sees the future of sports media publishing placed in the hands of the fans”.
From one point of view this is not a bad idea. If you look at the site, you will see that many of the better respected fanzines have jumped on board, and that users have at their fingertips a list of independent websites representing all English League clubs, plus many Scottish and non-league ones too.
By providing the server and technological back-up to these sites, Rivals.net says it is taking away the stress faced by many webzine editors who are running the sites in their spare time, and that it leaves them to concentrate on the content. In return, it seems the editors are obliged to keep their sites more up to date than is the norm on unofficial sites, but that they will remain independent or, as the company describes (as if writing the jacket blurb for a Tom Sharpe novel), they will stay “irreverent… opinionated… cheeky… downright funny”.
Well, that’s all very nice, but what’s in it for the parent company? It supplies the technology, but it also has hundreds of fans-cum-journalists providing the content for nothing (it also harbours cricket, rugby and cycling sites, among others), although the sites are offered an unquantified “ownership in the network”.
But despite its noble statements about “providing sports fans with the in-depth sports information they want but can’t get from official sites”, it’s clear that the chief motivation is to attract advertisers to a site guaranteed thousands of visitors by harnessing web magazines with established readerships.
This is not to criticise the websites that have signed up in order to guarantee their survival and to do away with some of the hassle of running a website single-handedly on a voluntary basis. However, there is an undeniable downside in that all the sites now have exactly the same layout, spoiling the surprise factor, quashing artistic creativity and suggesting that in the end they may all become branches of the same tree. It’s as though all print fanzines had been taken over by Harper Collins and were designed by the same in-house layout artist.
The Lincoln City fanzine on Rivals.net, Impnet, raises its own concerns at having jumped aboard. It acknowledges the fear that Rivals.net is attempting to monopolise the market of independent fan sites, especially as one of its initial stipulations was the banning of links to other sites.
Impnet says it has been assured that this ban will be lifted, but that during its early days the site should “not encourage anybody to leave”. Rivals.net promises linking will return. Sceptics might argue that the only return they will be watching out for will be in the quarterly figures.
At a time when the Football League has warned websites they will be breaching copyright if they publish its fixture lists without a licence (baffling as it is to ponder how the mere words “Scunthorpe United v Cardiff City” can belong to an institution, even one as decrepit as the FL), it is perhaps inevitable that the internet is already moving in the direction whereby over 100 independent websites have, overnight, become not-quite-so-independent.
It will be interesting to see how the relationship between the sites and the umbrella company develops when “cheeky and opinionated” journalism is deemed offensive and possibly alienating to advertisers.
From WSC 165 November 2000. What was happening this month