Regular users of the network of independent websites, Rivals.net, were in for something of a surprise when they logged in last week only to find a blank page with only the cursory message, “‘Rivals.net is currently unavailable” replacing their unofficial fan site. Rather than being a temporary blip, however, this was permanent. Sky, the owners of the network, had pulled it completely, claiming that “Rivals.net wasn’t performing as well as we’d hoped”. Rivals.net was founded in 1999 and, while its style wasn’t to the taste of all, there was no question that it was successful, with such fanzines as Everton’s “When Skies Are Grey”, Manchester United’s “United We Stand” and Fulham’s “There’s Only One F In Fulham” all finding an online home there.
The site later became a part of the 365 Media Group, which was in turn bought out by Sky in 2007. There had been complaints about Sky’s management of the sites since it took over – not least a revamp of the design of the site and the forums which proved unpopular and were said to be less user-friendly. To this extent, Sky could be described as the architects of the site’s downfall. Some Rivals.net sites went independent, whilst others chose to move to competitors such as Vital Football. However, there had been no warning of the decision being made to the people that continued to use the site, and the sudden closure was a shock to them, at least.
In some respects, Rivals.net will not be missed by many. Although the site was one of the first to offer an interactive forum service, the forums were occasionally poorly administrated and managed. Some forums would have moderators that blocked any opinions that differed from those of the people running the site, whilst others would simply allow people to run amok, only stopping to actually moderate in the most extreme cases. The news has also been greeted with a degree of glee by their competitors in the field, who have been quick to offer users of Rivals.net a new home. What is more troubling about the sudden closure of Rivals is the way in which it was done, with the people running the site being offered no opportunity to back up material that had taken a considerable amount of time to write.
For the people writing the sites, this was the ultimate kick in the teeth. Reportedly, site owners were not notified of the closure until some time after the plug had been pulled meaning that they simply had no chance to back up their output, which is a pretty rotten piece of behaviour on the part of Sky. Why not at least email the webmasters two or three days beforehand to let them know that this was going to happen and give them a chance to save their work? Sometimes it seems as if Sky almost seem to relish playing the pantomime villain in this sort of situation. They haven’t explained their decision above and beyond it having been taken for commercial reasons, which is fair enough – few would argue that Sky should act as a charity and maintain a loss-making network of sites. This doesn’t, however justify the way in which they did it. For a company that makes a lot of a fuss over how passionate it is about football (this has been a central theme of their advertising for many years), to treat football supporters in this way gives the impression of their mask slipping.
There is a silver lining to this story in that some of the more popular forums are already up and running again, and the hope is that many of the original sites will be able to start again independently in the fullness of time. However, Sky’s actions have ripped another small hole in British fan culture, and the moral of this story may be that independence may be the best way forward for sites of this type. Regardless of what one might feel about the quality of debate that sometimes took place on their forums there is no doubt that an enormous amount of work went into the many Rivals sites, and their administrators deserved better treatment than this.