Icons make most of dot.com potential

Everything from Emmanuel Petit's film criticism to David Ginola's real thoughts on Tottenham can now be accessed on-line.

Emmanuel Petit's official website was not able to identify his current club correctly yesterday, but it was able to sell you a T-shirt, let you know his views on the more existential aspects of a blockbuster movie and tantalise you with an article that starts: "I've been fascinated by leather for a long time".

Emmanuel Petit's official website was not able to identify his current club correctly yesterday, but it was able to sell you a T-shirt, let you know his views on the more existential aspects of a blockbuster movie and tantalise you with an article that starts: "I've been fascinated by leather for a long time".

Such ephemera from footballers will soon be ubiquitous thanks to the dot.com revolution but the extent to which such websites succeed will depend on the quality of the products they offer and on the profitability of selling them.

If recent scoops by the likes of Marc Overmars (announcing his transfer to Barcelona on his site at icons.com) and David Ginola (berating Spurs on his site at Ginola14.com) are any indication, audiences could be huge and so could business. But if the overall standard of Petit's site - run by the French broadcaster, Canal+ - is anything to go by, supporters could soon lose interest.

Petit's site yesterday even got his club wrong. Clicking on the "Club" link gave information only about Arsenal, which is not a good advert for the immediacy of the information superhighway given that Petit moved to Barcelona last weekend.

The "News" section consisted of seven small, individually-dated paragraphs. Two items related to the move to Spain and included such incisive gems as: "At Barcelona, I hope I'll win many trophies such as the Champions' League." One item, dated in July, announced his marriage, while two more talked briefly about the European Championship.

Another item said only "Treat yourself to my official site T-shirt" and then linked you to a cyber shop where you could buy, among other things, a £13 T-shirt with "emmanuelpetit.com" written on it.

The final "news" item, dated 10 April, was a mini critique of the film American Beauty. "It's a symbolic film," opines Petit. "I sometimes felt that my life was being shown on the screen. Everything that upsets you in your every-day life is represented in that movie."

The site therefore amounted to a core section of only about 250 words in total, supplemented by several links to commercial outlets, including a favoured designer of leather goods and a computer games retailer.

Petit may have made the same physical move to Barcelona as Overmars but it was the Dutchman who stole a march on the presentation of his transfer. "I envisage transfer stories are going to be our bread and butter," said Andy Winter, the editor of Overmars' host site, icons.com. "There are a lot of sites but not many are breaking stories of the magnitude of the Overmars transfer in the way we did."

The icons.com site already houses 11 big-name players (Patrick Kluivert and Dennis Bergkamp among them) and is planning to have 30 more online by the autumn and hundreds more within the next year. Each player's site carries a biography and statistics, a dream XI, a merchandise section and regularly updated diaries. Typically, the players will e-mail or dictate between 200 and 500 words per day about what they have been doing and how their careers are progressing.

"What we're really focused on is quality content for the top players," said James Freedman, icons.com's chief executive. "No other media allows players to speak in this way or has room to accommodate them in this way."

The icons.com site hopes to cash in on advertising, merchandising and syndication, while its footballers will make money from signing-on fees and percentages of merchandising revenue. The site has only been running since June, but the fact that Overmars' transfer announcement attracted 250,000 hits in one day shows the potential for exponential growth.

Freedman and his brother, Edward, know what they're talking about. James has a background in publishing European football magazines, while Edward was a merchandising director at Manchester United for six years and later worked for the Spice Girls. They are already in merger negotiations with a Scandinavian company, sportsprofiler.com, which runs sites for the likes of Tore Andre Flo, Ole Solskjaer and Leeds' Alan Smith.

Hundreds of other players will also soon have their own sites when major projects by the management company SFX and the agent Paul Stretford come to fruition. SFX looks after the likes of David Beckham, Alan Shearer and Michael Owen while Stretford will be taking Andy Cole and Kevin Campbell, among others, into cyberspace. Even some managers, including the rather unlikely figure of Derby County's Jim Smith, have personal sites under development.

Whether they will be as successful as Ginola's - which is as slick as his hair and is run by sportsnetglobal.com, a firm that also operates a cyberstore selling everything from babies' football boots autographed by Patrick Vieira to sun hats signed by Ryan Giggs - remains to be seen.

"The best thing about the web is that we can control the whole thing, it's a great means of communication," Chantal Stanley, Ginola's agent, said. "The player can be confident that they have a direct approach to fans that is reliable and accurate."

And, as Petit has found out, the player can also receive direct, if not always flattering, feedback from fans.

"I honestly do not think you'll do well in Spain," wrote one fan in the "Forum" section on Petit's site this week. "You'll probably end up warming the bench at Barcelona and soon you'll be whining like the way you did in England. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Arthur."







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