Where football clubs need to raise their game

Whether of the North American or European variety, football clubs are employing over-conservative and uniform tactics on the web.

Featured sites

The football season is starting – both football (soccer) and football (American). Fans of each may be baffled by the other, but when it comes to the web, they will find the offerings comfortingly familiar.
I started looking at official sites for London football clubs for a specific reason – to see if I could take my son to a match in the next month or two. I looked at his favourite club, Arsenal, and the one closest to my home, Crystal Palace. I then started looking further afield, ending up across the Atlantic. As I clicked around I realised two things: first, most football clubs (both codes) follow each other slavishly; and second – linked to this – that they have little urge to experiment. Almost no sign of the latest buzz, ‘Web 2.0’, which I find quite surprising.
There is some variation, though it is mainly in the degree to which sites are commercialised. Broadly UK sites are the most money-minded, followed by US ones and then the continental Europeans.

Net sales

Let’s take Arsenal to give an idea of a highly commercial site. It starts with a splash page – that is, one that promotes particular features before moving into the main home page. The big plug on Wednesday [23 August] was for Arsenal TV Online, and particularly the match with Dinamo Zagreb that evening. Another link said ‘Bet now’, with a third leading to the home page.
That this site is a money-making machine is everywhere evident. The club is making the most of the spread of broadband to promote its own online television channel, which costs £3.99 ($8 €5.70) a month. Every page has a long strip advertisement to the right. The Arsenal Shopping Channel will sell you a Mini Gunner Romper for your infant fan, and much else. The betting section, run by the internet company Paddy Power, is tightly integrated into the club site – though once you are in it there is no quick way back to arsenal.com. You can bet on football, of course, but also on other sports and which way the FTSE index is heading; you can play poker, too.
But the club does have many non-commercial features – it has to get potential customers, sorry fans, to the site somehow. The home page is filled with news and every possible fact and figure about the club is here. The Fanzone includes games, song sheets and fixture alerts, although you have to look under Tickets, then Membership to find a message board – another sign of the site’s quite dodgy navigation. The message board is very heavily used, though seems to be a mix of MSN Messenger-style chitchat (“I fancy a cocktail”) with football-focused musings.

Mix matches

The original purpose of my visit, to try to buy a ticket, is theoretically possible, though it helps to become a club member (more money needed) and most matches are sold out. So I skipped down to the less high profile, but nearer-to-home, team, Crystal Palace. Much the same sort of mix, with club television, banner ads and a ‘Bet Casino and Poker’ link in the main navigation bar. There are, however, signs that the site is poorly maintained. The Buy Online link leads to a near blank page (as far as I can see you cannot buy tickets from the site), while Route Planner leads to London’s Transport Direct site – no indication of what you are supposed to put in as the destination, so very little use.
The other English clubs I looked at offer the same sort of mix, with a bit more or less in different areas. Manchester United stands out for the videos it will send to your mobile phone and also for the special site for disabled supporters (mudsa.com), which reads out links as you pass the mouse over them.
Man United and Arsenal have Chinese and Thai sites linked to them (both are looking to strengthen their East Asian fan base), but unsurprisingly the English sites are not as internationally-minded as those across the English Channel. Otherwise, content across Europe is more of the same, though with a much less commercial feel. Germany’s Bayern Munich has hardly any banner ads, which gives it a clean look, and provides versions in English, Japanese and Chinese, as well as German. Italy’s Juventus and Spain’s Real Madrid also have Chinese versions.

Teams uniform

So to American Football clubs – and it is all the same again, though with fewer ‘bells and whistles’ than in the UK. The Pittsburgh Steelers opens with a pop-up window exhorting us to sign up for a Team Pass, which turns out to be a subscription to the club’s television channel. Even the price, $6.99 a month, is similar to Arsenal’s. No betting here, of course – this is the US – and, surprisingly, fewer banner ads, but plenty of opportunity to shop. The overall feel of this site is much like that of an English club: news on the home page, lost of stats, a fan section and a ticket office (though you will be lucky – “a single ticket sales was held in May”, otherwise write in to get on the season ticket waiting list).
Skipping around the US, I found variations on the same themes. The New England Patriots offers “low number Patriots license plates” by auction. The New York Jets tries to sell chants to use as mobile phone ringtones and has a list of ‘Jets friendly bars’ in the city. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the jolliest site I saw, making the most of its name with a cheerful piratical look and also triggering a clip of excited commentary whenever you click a main link.
I kept a close eye out for clubs that use the latest online features (or gimmicks, depending on your point of view). No blogs; only one podcast, from the Miami Dolphins. No attempt beyond message boards to get users to provide content. I would have thought that, as hubs of huge and loyal communities, these sites would be a natural for all the buzzy things that go under the banner Web 2.0. Maybe the clubs should stop copying one another and try to do something different – there are, I can’t help feeling, a huge number of opportunities unexploited.

First published 30 August, 2006
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