Sweet FA

Before he flew off to the East to witness a bit of World Cup action first-hand, Ross Bentley spoke to the man in charge of the FA...

Before he flew off to the East to witness a bit of World Cup action first-hand, Ross Bentley spoke to the man in charge of the FA Web site about how it can contribute to future footballing greatness

While the England squad has been taking sweet revenge on the Argentinians at the World Cup in Japan, Andrew Halstead, chief information officer at the Football Association has been conducting a rather different campaign.

For while the national team's players strive to win the most revered trophy in football, Halstead is working hard to build up the game at the grassroots. "Information technology is what I do," says Halstead, "but it is very much in line with an overall initiative at the FA."

Central to the strategy is the organisation's Web site www.theFA.com, which was launched about a month ago in time for the World Cup. This is the third version of the FA's site in as many years, and it represents a new dawn in its use of IT to reach the thousands of people who regularly play football.

The first version of the Web site was simply an online explanation of the rules of the game. The FA is generally regarded as the home of soccer. In other parts of the world the football associations are named for the countries they serve - the French FA or the Japanese FA - but the English football association is known worldwide as "the FA". Global interest is demonstrated by the fact that 35% of visitors to the site are from outside the UK.

The second version of the site went live last August and was expanded to include FA news and views. Halstead says the FA is the second most-quoted organisation in the UK - sandwiched between the Government and the Royal Family.

The latest site is backed up by a technical infrastructure that will enable the site to grow and incorporate all the planned online services in the future, says Halstead. It also provides a worldwide stage on which the FA can brand its new image. No longer the stuffy ivory tower, but a progressive organisation in touch with and concerned about the grassroots game and the next generation of English footballers.

Halstead is hoping that the high level of traffic visiting the site during the World Cup tournament will kickstart and reinforce the branding.

The site also includes a section on women's football, the fastest growing sport in the UK. It has e-learning slots for parents supporting their children and attending matches, information for would-be referees and an e-commerce section where fans can buy T-shirts and replica kit.

A digital archive area provides viewers with a selection of highlights from England games past and present as well as up-to-date interviews from members of the national squad. Two members of Halstead's team, the head of new media and a Web journalist, are out in Japan at the moment gathering news material.

The Web site is hosted by NTT/Verio. "We looked at [the company] because it is the hosting partner for uefa.com which is a superb site," said Halstead.

Replicated caches of servers at locations around the world will, he said, manage the chances of being overrun with online traffic. Halstead is ready for the peaks in activity expected to appear around England games and at the times of important news. He has already had some experience of the number of visitors the site can expect. "When manager Sven Goran Ericsson was due to name the England squad we had four million hits in two hours," he said.

The FA chose Interwoven to supply the content management system while ETC was brought in to customise the interface. Elmwood was contracted to carry out the design on the site as a whole.

The FA team that worked on the site was made up of people from IT, marketing and external affairs. "As always, we had to work to impossible timescales but our partners were really helpful in getting us to launch on time,"he says.

Aston Villa supporter Halstead has a goalful of plans for the site, including building personalisation functionality on. "At the moment the site appeals to England fans, referees, local footballers both male and female and kids. I want to be able to cross-fertilise these groups by building up a profile of individual users - for example, there may be England fans who are also referees. If we have this information we will be able to personalise their home page.

"This is my biggest challenge - to encourage people to participate in football. I need to know who are these potential participants and what their specific interests are," said Halstead. "This is our version of customer relationship management and it is in line with the business vision of developing football at the grassroots level."

The FA has also developed a Web-orientated national football system (Wonfas) to record the results from 2,000 affiliated local leagues made up of more than 40,000 local teams. Already more than 700 league administrators have qualified for an FA grant to buy a laptop computer to input results direct to Wonfas. It is hoped that all 2,000 will have access to Wonfas by the end of next season.

Halstead hopes that the site will develop to the point where visitors will be able to download archive footage of a Beckham free kick alongside digital shots and match reviews from local games. "Just imagine the encouragement young players will get from seeing themselves on the same site as their heroes.

"This is what it is all about - building the game up from the grassroots. Take Darius Vassell: he has just broken into the senior team but has already played 53 times at different junior levels. Our aim is to take more people through the system. We can play and develop a team that is capable of winning the ultimate prize - the World Cup - and IT has a role to play in this."

From touchline to online
The FA site:
  • Provides international match information

  • Provides national match information

  • Provides local match information

  • Provides an archive of past information

  • Builds the FA brand

  • Supports and develops women's football

  • Helps parents to support their participating children

  • Recruits and supports referees

  • Sells merchandise.

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