Fanzine fights for the right to print fixtures

With the season of comfort, joy and compulsive over-eating almost upon us, it is sad to report that the troubling case of the Watford Two still rumbles on. Ian Grant and Matthew Rowson argue they are guilty of nothing more than the words in the title of their Watford fanzine website, which Grant, a web designer, launched in December 1994.

The Internet was then in its rapid ascendant; Watford, it would be fair to say, were not.
Grant saw a band play in Brighton and decided its name encapsulated perfectly the Watford fan’s existence: Blind, Stupid and Desperate.

Rowson, a statistician by profession and lifelong Watford fan, began to contribute to www.bsad.org seven years ago and the pair, co-editors now, spend a difficult-to-justify amount of time maintaining the site’s fond, ironic chronicling of life with the Hornets. They make no money from it: in fact it costs them £60 a month for an Internet server.

So when, at the beginning of this season, the site received what Grant and Rowson felt were threatening legal letters demanding the removal of offensive content they were shocked. They refused, their server was contacted and BSaD was taken off the Internet until Grant and Rowson backed down. The heinous material that caused the problems? Watford FC’s fixtures for 2005/06.

“We were extremely surprised and did feel bullied,” Rowson says. “We do the fanzine for the love of writing about football, with about 1 000 regular hits weekly. We never thought the outside world was even aware of us.”

That was reckoning without the keen commercial enforcers at DataCo. This is a company owned by the Premier and Football Leagues, whose job is to charge for publication of the fixture lists, as well as the increasing volume of other data, including match statistics, to which the clubs claim copy-right. The operation makes between £7-million and £8-million for English and Scottish professional clubs, paid by 22 000 newspapers, bookmakers, websites and broadcasters worldwide.

The fee is standard: £266 plus VAT to print the fixtures of one English club. Newspapers printing the fixtures of all clubs, plus a delivery fee, pay about £6 000 plus VAT to DataCo. BSaD, oblivious, printing their own club’s forthcoming fixtures, were asked for £266 plus VAT or told they must take them down.

Rowson and Grant are now enjoying a phoney war with DataCo, flagging up a few of Watford’s forthcoming fixtures but without mentioning dates. “Why can’t you see the rest of the fixtures?” the site asks. “Because we’re not allowed to show you them. Never forget, people, that football is just a means to make money.”

But DataCo is unembarrassed and has pressed on with enforcing its rights against other offenders. Southampton site www.saintsforever.com has felt the sharp sting of contact from DataCo, as has Simon Wilson, who runs the excellent www.codalmighty.com, a Grimsby site ringing with joyful self-mockery. “It seems like pure greed,” Wilson says, “the League squeezing as much from the devoted fans as they can.”

If this seems a classic case of big-business football, Scrooge-like, screwing its own most loyal followers, then David Folker, DataCo’s general manager, makes a reasonable fist of an apparently impossible justification.

The story begins in 1959, when the Football League successfully sued Littlewoods, forcing the company to pay for printing the fixtures on pools coupons. The money, Folker says, became the clubs’ major collective source of cash. That case has never been challenged and now, Folker says, the income of around £7,5-million is shared equally among all clubs, so 56% goes to the 72 Football League clubs. Only 18% is paid to the 20 English Premier League clubs.

“That’s about £67 000 per Premiership club,” Folker says. “It’s very little to the big clubs but, for the 30 Scottish Football League clubs, 22% of their total revenue comes from DataCo. This is not the big clubs looking to make money from fans’ sites, not at all. We recognise that the fans are the lifeblood of the game.” Why so heavy-handed, then? Folker’s argument is that they have no choice under competition law. “We have to be consistent.”

DataCo argue that if they make exceptions, even for non-profit-making distributors — and Folker says, validly, that this is not always easy to ascertain, as some fanzines do make money — they could be open to challenge by commercial organisations, like newspapers, who pay up only grudgingly now for what they feel is good advertising for the clubs.

Some years ago, to recognise the contribution of fanzines, DataCo struck a deal. It agreed that clubs could officially “nominate” one fanzine each that would then pay a token £1 and be allowed to publish fixtures. Rowson saw problems immediately: there is more than one fanzine at most clubs and also, though BSaD has a good relationship with Watford, becoming officially “nominated” is a sure way to destroy a fanzine’s credibility.

Some believe the Littlewoods case could be successfully challenged now, and a law firm has offered its services to Rowson and Grant for free: they’re currently considering whether they can face it. Blind, Stupid and Desperate they are — and now quite cross. — Â

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