This article was published on August 14, 2011

How the BBC 606 radio show kick-started an online football community

How the BBC 606 radio show kick-started an online football community
Paul Sawers
Story by

Paul Sawers

Paul Sawers was a reporter with The Next Web in various roles from May 2011 to November 2014. Follow Paul on Twitter: @psawers or check h Paul Sawers was a reporter with The Next Web in various roles from May 2011 to November 2014. Follow Paul on Twitter: @psawers or check him out on Google+.

“Today, after eight years and many hundreds of thousands of user comments, we are closing down the 606 website.” [Ben Gallop, Head of BBC Sport Interactive, 31st May 2011]

The fall of 606

The end of the 2010/2011 football season also heralded the end of an era for the online football community. May 31st, 2011, was when the plug was pulled on an online institution for sport in the UK.

The BBC’s 606 website was a collection of forums covering countless sports, from archery and athletics, to fencing and fishing. But the majority of its userbase were football fans who supported any one of over 200 teams across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Each team had its own dedicated forum, as did each league for those who wanted to ‘banter’ with fans of other teams. Though that didn’t stop fans entering the forums of their rivals anyway to, for want of a better phrase, ‘stir some shit’.

There were even dedicated forums for the four home international teams, plus the Republic of Ireland. It was a thriving online community that was normally lively, sometimes heated, but rarely dull.

The whole 606 concept started with a football phone-in show on BBC Radio 5 Live, which launched way back in 1991. It’s still broadcasting on Saturdays and Sundays to this day, and it covers anything relating to UK football. In 2003, the 606 website was born, and over the next eight years it was where fans congregated to talk football, debate the intricacies of how the game and their club was being run and to wind each other up.

But the online world had evolved beyond almost all recognition in those eight years, and it was this that ultimately saw the forum fall from grace.

Back in January this year, the BBC announced it was reshaping BBC Online. Without going into too much detail about it, the underlying premise was to concentrate on fewer things, but do those things better…it even produced this infographic to help illustrate its vision:

This also meant that BBC Online’s budget was cut by 25%, which was a major factor in the demise of 606. Ben Gallop, Head of BBC Sport Interactive, said:

“The main reason why all these changes are being made to BBC Online is a financial one – the overall budget is being reduced so we need to cut our cloth accordingly. Instead of moderating and maintaining a site as large as 606, we can concentrate on our editorial priorities.”

But that was only part of the reason. It seems that technology and audience behaviour had evolved considerably in the years since 606 was launched. As Gallop noted, there was no Facebook or Twitter back in the day – the social sphere has transformed the way people interact online.

The 606 website reached its peak of 1.1m unique users a week in 2008. In January 2011 it had fallen to around half a million, and that was just visitors. In terms of ‘active’ users, there were only 15,000 who were commenting on the forums each week.

This was in stark contrast to the BBC Sport website on the whole, which had grown from 9m users a week in 2008 to well over 12m in 2011. Gallop best summarised this whole scenario when he noted:

“In essence the Sport site has seen 33% growth over the past two-and-a-half years, while 606 has experienced a 50% fall.”

As a former active user of the 606 forums, I can say the general consensus from the users was one of anger and frustration. This was evident too in the comments in Gallop’s closing blog post. “Many tens of thousands of people use 606 and how much did it actually cost to run?”, said one irate user. “This service was well used. Should have cut some of the dross from the TV listings instead.VERY unhappy!!!!!!!“, said another. Many others shared these sentiments, but the decision was made, and 606 was no more.

But there are many positives to take from the whole 606 episode. Football is the most popular sport on Earth, and as such, there’s no shortage of fans with the technical skills to establish their own forums and social networks dedicated to the sport. We’ve seen a wave of copycat forum-style websites pop up, not to mention more dynamic social network style sites, some inspired by 606, others not. And here’s a look at some of them.

It’s like 606, but it’s not 606

Despite the popularity of the BBC’s 606 forums, it seems not everyone shared the same enthusiasm for it.

Long before its demise, Michael Reid – a Guernsey-based bookmaker from Belfast – was sowing the seeds of a rival website. Reid has been working in the online gambling industry for 8 years, and he specializes in building mathematical derivative models for automatically creating betting odds. This requires a decent bit of technical knowledge.

Reid launched initially in early 2008, when 606 was at its peak, with a focus on the Scottish Premier League. “Basically I was trying to steal a couple of Google keywords in Scottish Premier News, to quite unashamedly attract those who were interested in Scottish Football searching for those keywords”, says Reid. “It was a bad name really but it was primarily an SEO thing”.

But that was just a precursor to the main site we see today. “We changed the name to not606 in early 2010 to try and target a wider audience including all the English clubs. It took a little while to have the desired effect.”

In the years prior to 606’s demise, Reid’s site acquired several thousand sign-ups. “We were teetering around the peripherals of the Scottish supporters for a while”, says Reid. Whilst its registered numbers were in the thousands, active members was substantially lower, “It would have probably been counted in the dozens”, continued Reid. “It wasn’t great, for the years we existed before hand we were mostly a small, inward looking community of disgruntled ex-606ers”.

Today, not606 has well over 13,000 registered members, the vast majority of which have signed up in the last few months since 606 was closed down. But what are the main motivations for launching the site – is it purely a hobby and for the love of the game? Reid said:

“I suppose I should say that for the moment not606 is really a hobby as it has been for the last few years. In terms of the actual amount of effort though it’s practically becoming a full time job. I’ve found myself putting most of my free time into working on the code and the design in the last few months since it really started to take off.”

As with any such site, covering costs is one thing, making money is another ball game (excuse the pun) altogether. Although Reid’s site is making some money, the nature of the beast means it’s having to upgrade rapidly to cope with the rise in incoming traffic since 606 closed. He said:

“Not606 at this moment does generate revenue but it’s a funny subject for me, in that for the previous few years it had been a personal (money consuming) hobby project and had practically no chance of providing any sort of income. With the closure of 606 though, I seen a huge influx of traffic and it required the inevitable upgrades in infrastructure to cope. We are now on our 4th dedicated server upgrade in seven months and I’m currently discussing adding a second local server to be a dedicated database host – to fund the extra hardware required it came to the point where I had to introduce advertising.”

The dreaded ‘A’ word. But the good news is, only those not logged-in to the site are subjected to it. So if you are a regular, logged-in member you’re not affected, and if you don’t log in then you see adverts and help pay the bills for the not606 team. Advertising doesn’t affect over 60% of visitors, people who choose to regularly visit the site, so it’s an elegant solution to the increasing costs.

So with increased traffic, not606 is really starting to grow, though Reid tells me he doesn’t take a penny out of the site yet, and has been pushing all the income back into it. Reid has some big plans for the future too, he says:

“We’ve a new design for our content management system coming soon, I’ve employed a full time journalist to promote and provide editorial for the best user-generated content and I am in discussions with PA Sports for them to provide extra content for the site. So while the site is now generating decent monthly revenue, with over 900,000 visitors a month, I have yet to see any of it myself.”

Just now, Reid has one full-time paid contractor who works as an editor, whilst there are dozens of volunteer moderators that ensure the forums maintain a certain standard. It really sounds like the closure of the BBC 606 forums has been a God-send for Reid, so how happy was he when its closure was announced?

“Honestly? Delighted. We were always going to be the main benefactors of such a move from the BBC. I know they had their reasons, but to simply kill such a popular service was for me a bad move, in that it gave no value to the license fee payer (of which I am one) when they had spent years building up such a service. I have personally benefited and I’m on the cusp of creating a decent commercial alternative so I can’t really pretend to be anything other than happy over the decision.”

A refreshingly honest assessment by Reid who believes one of the key differentiators to not606 over its BBC predecessor is that his forums would be free to discuss almost anything – as long as they do so in a ‘mature’ way. And this is one of the reasons many people disliked the original 606 forums, in that they believed they were too heavily moderated. Reid said:

“It’s been tough keeping to these rules and our original ethos, as inevitably there are will be bad eggs, but by in large I think we have done okay. We have individual moderators on the team boards who actually support that team, so I leave them to decide what their fellow supporters can and can’t get away with – and the general off topic discussion area is mostly unmoderated which can lead to some edgey discussion which sometimes needs a bit of intervention.”

But Reid then hit upon a crucial point, one that goes some way towards explaining why the 606 forums were eventually closed. And this notion could perhaps be applied across the board at the BBC, not just to its former football forums:

“When closing 606, the BBC stated that their reason was because the forums had been dropping considerably in popularity – I believe this is typical of a non-commercial organization. It basically let a product go stale because it was not revenue-generating. The difference with not606 is that, in turning commercial, there is a drive to constantly improve the service and to listen to the users. Our continued weekly growth is testament to our success in pushing forward towards a better platform.”

That is perhaps a valid point. Why did the 606 userbase fall by around half in three years? As I noted earlier, Ben Gallop from the BBC pointed to the evolution of the social Web as a key reason why it had dropped in popularity – so why couldn’t the BBC evolve alongside it? And that’s the point Reid’s making, if it had been a commercial enterprise, it would no doubt have pulled the stops out to make it a success.

The BBC may not be driven by profit, but it should be driven by what the licence-fee paying public want. It could’ve made a few simple adjustments to make the site more social, for example integrating with the Facebook and Twitter APIs. However, the BBC’s mistakes are there for others to learn from, and Reid is determined to not let his site go ‘stale’, despite users being resistant to change. He said:

“No matter what change I make it’s sure to upset someone. I added a Google+ button to the site and I had two private messages telling me to take it down! The original 606 reportedly declined in popularity because it refused to change and got stale. I am determined to kick on and try to improve the site for the better, it’s just hard to take everyone along for the ride when the users can be so vocal.”

We’ve now entered the decade of mobile, a fact that’s not lost on Reid either. Not606 has its own dedicated mobile apps, for both iOS and Android. So the banter can continue any time, any place.

Rate your player: ‘Endorsed by the pros’

Rateyourplayer (RYP) was officially launched on the 13th of July, 2011, and it sells itself as a ‘football social network’ that’s endorsed by the pros. It’s currently directed at the UK market covering the top English leagues and the Scottish Premier League. The company has 4 shareholders, one of which is footballer Wayne Routledge, who plays for newly promoted English Premier League club Swansea City.

Russell Whitter, CEO, says that the idea of RYP stemmed from the closure of 606. “As an active member of this forum I personally looked around the web trying to find alternatives”, he said. “However, to my surprise, I could not find an easy-to-use forum that was neither off-the-shelf or an open-source platform i.e. vBulletin, phpBB. As a Web developer myself, and brother to Wayne Routledge, me and a few colleagues decided to develop and provide a bespoke football forum/social network that would allow football fans to easily voice their opinions and socialise.”

Although RYP was inspired from the demise of 606, it differentiates itself through promising to involve Premier League and Football League players in regular Q&As, and users can also filter discussions on the forums based on players, not just teams. It also promises to give live updates, notify of @mentions and you can see what teams other members support while in discussion.

The site is still relatively new, and the founders are in the process of adding many new features. They also plan to get a number of Premier League and Football League players on the site, so members can communicate and interact directly with players in discussions.

London-based Whitter has a 1st-class degree in Internet Business and Information Systems, and after graduating he became an E-presence Manager at a firm, running its e-commerce operations, as well as building many of its in-house systems including their CRM. But he had a burning ambition to run his own business, in an area that would really excite him. He said:

“While in my office, I read a very interesting article about the closure of the BBC 606 forum due to budget cuts and was disappointed. My disappointment then turned to excitement as I believed this gave me an opportunity to get into something I love. Football.”

So as a developer, and an active user of the 606 forum among other social networks, Whitter began thinking of ways he could improve the shortfalls of the 606 system and integrate elements of Twitter and Facebook to build a more feature-packed, user-friendly alternative.

Essentially, he was looking for ways to enable football fans to interact and express their opinions, while letting them find specific discussions more easily. Whitter said:

“One of the main features we added, which I believed to be a shortfall of many forums, is the ability to find or filter discussions by players. This was a regular issue for me as I would often navigate through all the team discussions to find content related to a specific player.”

Whitter currently works full-time on the site developing and adding new components, and he has 6 people assisting with the development, updating of player & team data and moderating comments. As with any new startup, he is encountering some issues too. He says:

“The main issue we are coming across is getting the website more public and acquiring more registrations (nearly 500 presently). However, we believe this is only a small issue, because the football season is not up and running yet.”

A key differentiator seems to be the involvement of professional footballers, who will also assist in the branding and marketing of the site, presumably helped by the fact that Wayne Routledge is involved in the project. And to help encourage interaction in the early days, they are also doing a prize draw to win an IPad 2 for members who sign-up and leave 5 comments.

Whitter believes that Rate Your Player has the potential to become the leading sports social network/forum – at first in the UK, and then across the world.

But what about revenue? This has been launched as a proper startup, not just a side-project or hobby. Whitter says:

“We intend to implement a targeted advertising program that will only display advertisements which will appeal to users and add value to the site, for example special deals on tickets from clubs and betting odds. We will also be looking at other avenues in the future. We don’t have any intention to add advertisements for at least another year until users feel comfortable using our system.”

Bantr: A social network for football fans

Bantr is another new social network for football fans, which we actually covered in depth last week, and the site now has close to 5,000 fans signed up. The startup secured over £200k in funding last week, and co-founder Peter McCormack hopes to be able to work full-time on the project as soon as he can.

Although the timing of Bantr does coincide with the demise of 606, it wasn’t a direct inspiration for McCormack, who said he rarely used the BBC’s football forums. “I always avoided football forums due to the low quality conversations. Twitter has historically always been better”, says McCormack.

Bantr aims to focus a lot more on quality, and the plan is to make it a lot more than a simple forum. McCormack says:

“Bantr is a social community and thus it is designed for the wants of the modern internet user, we give a lot of control and value to the quality of content. My main motivation was to give a voice to the fans. The fans are not listened to enough and we want managers and chairmen to respect the value they add.”

It’s still very early doors for Bantr too, having only officially launched last weekend, but the initial response has been very positive. The main problem, in fact, has been not being able to develop features quickly enough, which is a common issue for startups, though some updates were made in time for the start of the Premier League yesterday.

Whilst the initial remit was purely football in the English leagues, it seems that Bantr is already looking to open to Europe, with Spain the next country to be added. McCormack says:

“We have already been asked to expand into 8 other countries and our Get Satisfaction page is full of great new ideas. This time next year, we hope to be the leading global community for football fans.”

The future for the online football community

In many people’s eyes, pulling the plug on 606 was a bad move by the BBC. Those who argue that it still had a big enough following to remain online probably do have a point, and others who say it should not have allowed the forum to grow stale in the first place also have a point.

But the good news is there’s no shortage of alternative platforms for football fans to connect, share views, debate and, well, ‘banter’ with each other.

There’s other sites too that we haven’t mentioned, such as New 606 which launched back in January 2011, shortly after the BBC announced it was killing off the 606 website. And let’s not forget about Twitter, which has been used by football fans for years to share news and other tantalizing tidbits about the beautiful game. It’s also a great way of interacting directly with football players and clubs alike.

Here’s to another scintillating, action-packed season!

Get the TNW newsletter

Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.