Why, in an age when the internet continues to evolve, do football club websites consistently lag far behind the times? How is it that club websites are the last to embrace any kind of innovation, or that every club is tied to the same universally bad template, year on year? We look into the history of the slow march towards mediocrity.
Fans of most Football League clubs will have noticed that their club’s website have been redesigned during pre-season. On the face of it, an update couldn’t have been more welcome. Bedevilled by a horrible design, clunky functionality, and with key information hopelessly out-of-date an overhaul has been long overdue.
Unfortunately, rather than fix these easily correctable issues, they took a platform that was already decidedly average and made it substantially worse. How on earth did our national game get saddled with such a shoddy online offering?
Football League websites have had a collectively chequered past, dating back to the NTL deal. This tied all their teams to template platforms operated by one provider, with clubs responsible for content. Up until this season, this was provided by what was originally Premium TV. After a promising start their offer to Football League clubs stagnated considerably, as they stoutly refused to move with the ever evolving digital field. And yet somehow another company has managed to lower the bar with a mass redesign that has left many fans frustrated with every visit.
The clubs themselves have little room for manoeuvre, due to Football League Interactive signing all clubs up to this arrangement. While there is some financial gain for the football league clubs, their website have been made to become drones tied to the limitations enforced on each site, which began 12 years ago.
Back in 2000 Premium TV was a subsidiary of NTL, who as part of their big sponsorship deal for the Football League agreed to provide £65 million in rights fees over 5 years. This joint venture was supposed to last 20 years (twenty!) but hit the rocks in barely two. NTL filed for bankruptcy and the Football League was left to renegotiate a deal with Premium TV after they were unable to meet a £5m instalment. It seems the original deal was based on assumptions about the growth of digital revenues that were utterly unachievable. As a result of the financial meltdown, Premium TV under the direction of a newly installed CEO, halved its staff and agreed a new deal with the Football League guaranteeing future revenues for clubs, but greatly reducing the length of the original deal.
Despite these problems, Premium TV brought us some decent innovations – the most obvious being its subscription ‘World’ service for each club. All of a sudden, video content was being used to bring fans club news, interviews, match highlights, match commentary, the lot. I remember signing up to BladesWorld immediately, and being amazed with the riches on offer. If you didn’t have Sky, it was a must. And if, like me, you lived out of the area of the team you support, it was the only way to listen to your club’s games.
What happened next? Well, Premium TV was bought by Access Industries and merged with another company to create Perform. Perform now provides digital services for a whole host of websites in addition to the Football League – including 15 in the Premier League, clubs in the Aussie A-League and MLS, several SPL teams (though, in typical fashion, they have yet to update Rangers’ status), and even Barcelona. In 2008, they were the first to screen an England match exclusively online for the Ukraine World Cup qualifier.
But the corporate merry-go-round doesn’t end there. Last year, the FL announced that SapientNitro would be taking over as the provider for Football League Interactive’s collection of websites, with Perform continuing to provide the World content. All hope that we were going to get something that built on the current foundations quickly vanished. Even a a slight improvement was to much to ask. Instead fans have been treated to a head-bangingly bad redevelopment. One that not only fails to do the basics properly, but completely ignores trends in how people are increasingly using the internet.
When SapientNitro announced the deal, their press release boasted that the service would be ‘optimised for speed’. Unfortunately, they neglected to mention that this ‘speed’ referred to how quickly you’d become annoyed after visiting the site. A particular bug-bear was the way your use of the site would be unexpectedly halted by a huge pop-up. Even more bizarrely, some news articles required you to click through to a second page. On selecting the link you’d go through to a second page only to find the text of the whole article all neatly laid out on one page – which makes you wonder why they didn’t just present the story that way in the first place. Various other issues with the general look and feel of the site makes you seriously question whether there was any consultation with fans about how their new sites should look.
SapientNitro, like Perform, also don’t appear to have grasped what is needed from a sports website in 2012 – either through a lack of foresight, or perhaps through the Football League deciding to get the service on the cheap. Mobile internet usage – via either Tablet or smart phone – has continued to rise over the last year, with an increasingly number of people using these as their main point of accessing the web, and therefore their club’s website. iPhone or iPad users will have quickly discovered that the new Football League websites are at best highly clunky – or to be less generous, virtually incompatible.
Another mind-bogglingly frustrating mystery is, despite the explosion in use of mobile internet devices, it is still impossible for anyone with an iPhone or iPad to access the World service. The template for their site on both devices is awful.
This has meant that, for the first season since the World service began, I no longer have a subscription. A layout of £34.99 for a season of occasionally watching video news at work is not good value. Especially as there are now alternatives that weren’t available 10 years ago, ones which are also available to the increasing number of people that tend to access the web on the move.
Video highlights are available, sort of, via iPlayer courtesy of the Football League Show for example. Were World accessible on formats that don’t insist on Adobe Flash, I’d be back immediately – despite the clunkiness of the websites, £34.99 is a price worth paying for Claridge-free football highlights.
So what needs to happen? Well, the Football League needs to sit both SapientNitro and Perform down and demand a better service for fans. Having looked at the sites that Perform provide digital services for in the MLS and A-League, there is plenty that they should be able to offer – starting with apps. The MLS Matchday app in particular, while looking a tad Football Manager esque, is excellent and simple – offering a clean design, free video content and extra content via subscription. Just being able to watch non-Flash dependent video off the website was a joy, as was the case when I had a quick browse of the Wellington Phoenix’s site where I watched a goal from former lower league wonder Chris Greenacre. The site looked clean, content rich, and completely integrated with Facebook and Twitter. In other words, everything that’s currently lacking from your average Football League club.
I would hate to think that this is all part of a conspiracy to keep club websites poor in order to ensure they can’t bypass the established media channels. There is much that the Football League can be doing at the minute to correct this problem. Top of the list should be demanding better from their partners.
Written by @josephclift