Network failure

Around the turn of the century, individual club webzines started to sign up to broader networks that in theory offered support, money and more users. But the results have not always been pretty and since Sky took over the Rivals group disaffection has grown. Ian Plenderleith analyses a splintered market

To the indifference of a cruel and doubtless unsuspecting world, a conflict has been brewing in the hard-boiled realm of the webzine, and things are about to get dirty. No fewer than six umbrella networks are now striving to claim the mantle of that timeworn marketing tool, “the voice of the fans”, and are fighting it out for a limited share of the readership and the revenue.

It’s more than seven years since the first such network, Rivals, brought several dozen online fanzines under one moniker and, with the backing of the Chrysalis media group, promised to provide “a powerful online soapbox that sees the future of sports media publishing placed in the hands of the fans”.

Time-pressed editors could forget site-design headaches and server costs, and enjoy technological back-up. They’d actually get paid for writing and in return would keep their sites updated regularly. Rivals assured its readers that the sites would remain independent, and indeed “irreverent, opinionated, cheeky, [and] downright funny” too.

Despite the noble proclamations, Rivals was, of course, created to harness the early spirit of the internet and turn it into cash. A large company was starting up a subsidiary on the back of cheap labour during the brief dotcom boom, in the expectation of a profit.

Since then, Rivals has had various owners and dozens of its editors have left to work for other fledgling networks, or to found ones of their own. This has led to the current playing field, with half-a-dozen groups fighting for a slice of the limited market. If you multiply six by 132 (the number of English and Scottish League clubs), you’re left with a potential 792 sites scrambling to provide low-cost content and attract both readers and advertisers.

A scan of the six parent sites reveals that the editorial content is thinly spread and that the demands placed on mostly amateur writers to produce regular, readable content are way too high. There’s a huge overall reliance on managers’ post-match reactions, local paper stories and official club statements, while the uninspiring preview/match report/transfer rumour cycle succeeds in actually making the official team homepage look the more preferable option. So how do the current competitors compare?

Rivals was most recently taken over by BSkyB last year, when it bought the 365 Media Group. There is now a shell of poor-quality news reporting and if you’re looking for anything “opinionated, cheeky [and] downright funny”, you’d be better off going to YouTube to see Gordon Strachan’s pithiest interviews. The day after Boxing Day, for example, you could find little more than straight match reports, or sites left unchanged for weeks.

The “Features” could lead you to a piece by a bloke reporting back on what his mates said about the game down at the pub (Portsmouth), a piece about a game 13 years ago that week (Reading), a reprint of an article from the official programme (Shrewsbury), an appeal for “new writers” (Spurs), or nothing at all (too many to mention). Rivals does now offer some unique and exciting video content unavailable to the other networks – those same interviews with the manager you can see on the parent company’s Sky Sports News.

What do they have to say about the market? Rivals did not respond to questions asking why so many of its editors had l eft the network, or what their plans for the future are. What’s in it for the workers? Rivals, like all these sites, is looking for new reporters, and welcomes pieces “from writers who preferably have previous experience of fanzine-style writing to give the site a fanzine feel as well as the ‘serious’ news reporting”. 

All positions advertised at the Spurs page, for example, “are on a purely ­voluntary basis, [but] in the past writing for the site has helped people secure positions in journalism.” Though mostly as an editor at a ­competing site. 

This network was founded in 2005 by two editors who, in their words, had “grown frustrated” with Rivals and is one of several that claims to be “run by the fans, for the fans”. It provides a portal for campaign sites, such as the Football Fans Census (recommended in WSC 203) and Stand Up Sit Down (WSC 219), and offers various prizes to users and contributors. Co-founder Jonathan Fear claims that its “sense of community” makes Vitalfootball different. But what about its content?

Again, independent commentaries, fresh insight and cutting prose are in short supply. Many teams are without editors, while much of the content is news picked up from official sources or the local media and match reports often dull and chronological. But there are signs of creative life. For example, in the match report of Lincoln City’s Boxing Day defeat to Bradford, “the returning Croft was roasted like a suckling pig. The space afforded Thorne from 12 yards equates to the freedom of Lincoln and our wives.” With brevity and skill, and without boring the reader, the writer manages to tell you both what happened, and what it felt like.

What do they have to say about the market? Fear says that “according to stats, Vital has overtaken all the networks on reach and pages. We feel that we’ve achieved a firm footing – which with no big-money backing hasn’t been easy to achieve.”

What’s in it for the workers? “We want to make a profit, but to date neither director has taken a penny out of the company, and both directors have put a great deal in. We pay our editors 50 per cent of the site advertising revenue. We’ve attracted a fair few editors from rival networks.”

This long-standing site is owned by a “sports media and technology company” called Entertainment & Sports Agency, and claims to be “the largest network of independent football fan websites in the UK”.

If you’re not excited by yet more second-hand news and generic match reports that you can easily find elsewhere, then you can join its “vibrant” messageboards instead, which are “a honey pot for user generated content”. This means FootyMad has realised that its editorial content is nothing special and that webzine writers will never make it anything special, so the best way to show advertisers that a site has some pull is to point to a heavily used mess­ageboard. Indeed, despite housing 158 supposedly independent sites, this network above all has a conspicuously dull and one-dimensional feel. But one genuinely useful section is “League History”, which lists a team’s ­season-by-­season standing at a glance.

What do they have to say about the market? Attempts to put questions to FootyMad via their “contact us” section were rebuked by faulty technology. What’s in it for the workers? “FootyMad is continually on the lookout for talented new editors and reporters who are dedicated to their club and would enjoy maintaining, or helping to maintain, this website.” Meaning: “Vacancies galore! Come and help ESA for next to nothing!”

Founded in December by yet more break-away Rivals editors, is owned by Middlesbrough-based web design company Waking Lion. So far they only cover a small number of English and Scottish teams, but have sections too for Indian cricket, horse racing and darts. Editor Steve Goldby says the site “offers the style of messageboard that the vast majority of fans want. Whereas other networks may be more aesthetically pleasing, posters simply do not want to use a board with lots of flashing bells and whistles.”

It may be unfair to judge when the site is only a few weeks old, even disregarding the lack of bells and whistles. On the other hand, FansOnline might have been better advised to wait until they had more clubs on board, and should certainly work to cut out articles that lead the page with headlines such as Seawasp get off our message board (Manchester City). In truth, its content overall so far looks no more promising than FootyMad’s.

But Goldby expects “massive growth” in 2008. What’s in it for the workers? “We do pay our editors. Contributors are paid by editors, at their discretion. We don’t exist solely to make a profit but our business is expanding massively and we don’t get office space, hosting costs, salaries and other bills paid for us. Money is not our main aim, but if we don’t achieve profit, we stand still.”

This site was formed at the start of the 2007-08 season after another reported mass defection from Rivals. There’s no background info and no way to contact the administrators, but judging by the content it looks a safe bet to be the first casualty in the webzine wars.

In the Premier League list, it took until Derby (seventh alphabetically) to find a site that had been updated the day before, and even that was just the players who’d played on Boxing Day, to be rated by fans. Some sites, such as Ipswich, are updated regularly, but the lower divisions are especially barren.

Yet another “for the fans, by the fans” network, formed at the end of 2007 by yet more ex-Rivals contributors. They say that since the Sky takeover the Rivals network – many of whose sites had in the past been heavily critical of Sky – had become slower, the message-board interface had been adversely changed, and new contracts had reduced editors’ pay.

So soon after launch, content was sparse. What do they have to say about the market? Sky’s takeover “has led us here… so we can take back what was ours. The intention is to be all that Rivals was and more. The site is robust and not only has the functionality that Sky stripped out, but also has added features.”

What’s in it for the workers? “All editors will be paid a straight percentage of advertising revenues. All editors will also be offered a share of the profits of the company via risk-free preference shares, with everyone getting the same share in the profits each year.”

The promises of a share in ad revenue are well intentioned, but in reality the returns are tiny. With all networks desperately seeking eager, mostly voluntary contributors, at least three will quickly fall by the wayside for lack of a workforce. Long-term success may depend simply on attracting the most messageboard users – for better or worse, now the true “voice of the fans”. But as a source of news or independent comment, the network-owned webzine is writing itself into the grave.

From WSC 252 February 2008