To surf with love

The Web's greatest hits: Never before has the world of sport been so accessible as fans switch on to the weird and wonderful; Stephen Brenkley finds net goods for the technologically minded supporter
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The Independent Online
It's possible, if you are so inclined, to discover at the touch of a few buttons all that anybody but close family would possibly want to know about Cornish darts. For instance, in the county B team's most recent match against Buckinghamshire "the double" - it was reported for posterity - "proved somewhat elusive", though at least John "Swampy" Marsh acquitted himself well with a darts average of 26.68.

This information and more, much more (who knows, Swampy may be in line for promotion to the A team), is given in the Cornwall Darts Organisation's official web site on the Internet. It is available, all but immediately, to the whole world, or at least that burgeoning part of it with personal computers.

The CDO's admirable initiative in providing the service has met with a muted response. Since it was set up in September, only 118 people have visited the site, which means that Swampy's fame is not yet global. But this cannot conceal that herein lies a new way of following sport.

Take football. It is a global game but never before can it have been so globally accessible. There have been unofficial, or incomplete, or swiftly outdated, web sites around for a couple of years. They have been a novelty but little more. This has changed, and how. The Leeds United FC official web site (www.lufc.co.uk) was established in July and now has more hits a week, one million, than the Beatles. The number of people making the hits - the seriously technical expression for the simple act of getting access to one page of information - is some 300,000. Some 60 per cent are from outside the UK.

The Leeds United site was designed and is written by the computer and Internet firm, Planet On-Line. It was the first simply because the company is based in Leeds. But it has already been joined by others: West Ham, Leicester City, Queen's Park Rangers and, last week, Sheffield Wednesday. Stoke City will follow early next month. Talks are in progress with several other clubs.

"Football clubs are probably the highest profile brand names in this country at the moment," said Planet's managing director Peter Wilkinson. "Nothing else has such brand loyalty, not just here but all over the world. People support English clubs in the most obscure places. We can give them what they want in minutes."

The scope of what is available is already pretty breathtaking. Each club site contains a history, player profiles, statistics unthought of by statisticians, match reports and continually updated stories. During matches there is a live commentary as well as textual report and soon it is intended there will be a video highlights package within minutes of the final whistle. The only drawback to all this wizardry may be objectivity. Since the clubs own the sites they have the right to vet them. Truly controversial stories may be non-existent.

Wilkinson and Planet's chairman, Paul Sykes, joined forces two years ago. Wilkinson had been running his own computer business for 14 years but saw the potential of the Internet. Sykes is a property developer (he built the giant Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield) who has made a fortune by an ability to spot potential before others. He is a much smarter, much richer version of Bill Owen in Last Of the Summer Wine and his ideas work.

They met, it is now important to note, at football. For two years the pair sat next to each other at Elland Road and barely exchanged a nod. When they did, they became buddies and soon after that business partners. Sykes - "I'm as thick as a plank," he will cheerily tell you in an accent that is more Barnsley than Dickie Bird's - talks of the Internet with the zeal of a convert.

The main business of Planet (theplanet.net) is hardly sport and they have a host of big companies from Barclays to Yorkshire Water using their network. But Wilkinson and Sykes have hired a specialist sports team to service their web sites and invested at least pounds 300,000 in the concept. Expansion into other sports has already begun. Wasps rugby union club and Bradford Bulls rugby league club have sites. Ice hockey, basketball, cricket - which, bizarrely for a game not reputed to be ahead of its time, already has some excellent sites, including one suggesting that Steve Waugh is god - and, naturally, Formula One, may follow. As the information is free they have to get that money back and, being businessmen, make some more.

"Content is king and the most important part of the the football sites is about the dissemination of information," Wilkinson said. "But there has to be revenue. That will come from merchandising, from ticket sales and perhaps most of all from advertising. If people all over the world are visiting sites, and they are, then it should be possible to sell ads."

He and Sykes believe that all big clubs will eventually sell most of their tickets on the net and vastly increase their merchandising. They talk of global expansion and fan e-mail from abroad. But they may not care to let the world know that Sussex University's table tennis B team got a 10-0 stuffing from Unigas C in the Brighton and District League. Not even close family would want to to know that.

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