When the BBC Sport website was launched on Monday July 3rd 2000, it was the morning after France beat Italy with a golden goal to win Euro 2000.
The Internet was a different place. Most homes still had slow dial-up access, if it were possible to connect online. Cell phones were for calls and text messages only. And the first major social network – Friends Reunited – had only a few days.
Over the next two decades, we went from watching sports on large large televisions to experiencing 4K action on our phones, from waiting on Ceefax for football scores, to the arrival of goal news directly on our watches.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of its website, BBC Sport traces the evolution of its website and how the changing needs of sports fans have helped shape its history.
The BBC News website, launched in 1997, had covered the sport – with a small team of journalists providing a limited number of game stories and reports, along with the 1998 World Cup of France pop-up coverage.
But this was to be the beginning of something different: a dedicated sports service on the growing BBC online site.
Ben Gallop, now head of radio and digital for BBC Sport, was part of the team that launched the website.
He said the atmosphere as the team ran to meet the July 3 launch deadline was feverish.
“When we first launched, we were in what was essentially a prefabricated office in addition to the London Television Center,” he explained.
“We had been given this space, it was cut off from everyone else, we could do our own thing and this certainly created the sense of a true startup mentality.
“It’s such a cliché, but the kind of people that every night would have done in the past for those digital launches, was part of the culture of that era.
“It was the dot com boom and everyone imagined some action.”
The first days of the website would have been a challenge for the staff, with the initial approach similar to that of the newspapers both in terms of volume and timing. In the days leading up to live text coverage and video streaming, events would have been reported after they were completed, leaving reporters waiting to archive their stories.
Anna Thompson, now women’s sport leader at BBC Sport, joined before the launch – but admits that some changes may be less frantic in the beginning before things really took off.
“I wanted to join the sports website because I was a big sports fan and had been sports editor of a regional newspaper before joining the BBC, so it was right on my way.
“At the time, the website was open 24 hours a day and I remember the night shifts in the early days when there was little sports or sports news.
“My first big event came in the 2002 Winter Olympics, which was tremendously exciting. Who could forget Rhona Martin’s last perfect millimeter stone to win the curled gold? It was a privilege to be there.”
The world (of sport) as it was
The first summer of the new millennium will prove challenging for sports fans.
- Venus Williams won his first Wimbledon women’s championship, while Pete Sampras took his seventh and final men’s SW19 title.
- Manchester United won the Premier League with an 18 point gap from Arsenal in second place.
- Chelsea beat Aston Villa 1-0 in the last FA Cup final at Old Wembley.
- David Coulthard took the checkered flag during the French Grand Prix, although Michael Schumacher would eventually be named champion.
- Tiger Woods won the Open for the first time, making him the youngest player, aged 24, to win all four majors.
- Sky paid £ 1.1 billion to get live rights from the Premier League while ITV secured the highlights package and spent £ 315 million on an agreement to show the Football League on ITV Digital.
What was number one the week BBC Sport launched?
The design changes
The first big test for the BBC Sport website was the 2000 Olympic Games, which was held in Sydney.
The site, based on BBC News design, was only 620 pixels wide, ideal for smaller screens then, but less than half the current website width.
As a UK Olympic broadcaster, covering the Games every four years would be an important operation for BBC Sport online – and the catalyst for improving the site’s appearance for an increasingly online audience for the latest news.
Before the 2004 Athens Games, the News and Sports sites had been updated to use larger screens, extending another 300 pixels to allow for more stories to be viewed.
In the following years, greater coverage of video and live text was introduced, which allows site visitors to have fun in real time.
But the biggest change on the site since its launch would come in 2012, with the world’s eyes on the UK – and on the BBC – for the London 2012 Olympics.
Arriving a few months after the sports team moved to the new BBC base in Salford, the website was redesigned to show London’s action, with each event streamed online.
“The redesign was the first major update to the site for nine years,” said Neil Hall, BBC Sport’s product manager.
“In addition to its new appearance, it has been a complete overhaul of basic technology.”
The timing of the Olympics and the redesign would prove to be fundamental in the development of the website.
“It really felt like a moment in time when all of this technology and ability were coming together, just when we were going to have the biggest sporting event of our lives,” said Gallop.
“We were really lucky, if we’re honest, that the London Olympics happened when they did. If our home games had been four years earlier it would have been too early, and if they had been four years later there would have been a sense of “we’ve already done it”.
“But since London won the Olympics in 2012, we have been able to use streaming media, mobile devices and social media like never before.”
In the wake of the Olympics, as the use of the Internet has continued to evolve, the site has also done so, with changes to the design to take into account the growth of mobile devices and the launch of a smartphone app in 2013 which now brings over three million visitors to the site a week.
About that change in yellow …
The 2012 redesign was a controversial moment for some site users, who felt that the company had gone too far in incorporating the yellow color scheme used by BBC Sport.
Some invoked Coldplay’s song Yellow, claiming that the site looked like “an explosion in a web design store” and claimed that the yellow was “far too bright and uncomfortable for the eyes”.
Gallop insists that he has no regrets about turning yellow, but admits that the BBC has learned a lot from responses to change.
“We went for a ‘big bang’ redesign,” he said.
“This is a great way to get attention, but perhaps it is more suited to the type of raise you see in the” old media “world.
“If you want to take yours [digital] audience with you, we’ve learned that it’s much better to choose an iterative approach.
“You may not generate as many titles that way, but in the same way you are less likely to turn people off.”
One of the main successes of the website was journalism
Over the course of two decades the site has also been at the forefront of breaking and covering the biggest sports stories – from the Fifa corruption scandal to Dan Roan’s interview with Lance Armstrong, and agenda surveys such as Price of Football and cash inequality in sports.
However, the coverage of para-sports athletes, women’s sport and the lesser known UK success stories have always played an important role.
Industry expert Stephen Lepitak, executive director of The Drum magazine, believes that public service commitment and depth of coverage have been a key part of the site’s success.
“For me, it’s the only place where I think the base is still covered,” he said.
“A lot of sports wouldn’t get much coverage without BBC Sport online. The idea of not having it would be devastating for the sports industry.
“It’s a site that trusts.”
Five of BBC Sport Online’s greatest days
|Date||What happened that day?||Browser in the United Kingdom|
|Aug 14 2016||Day nine of the Rio Olympics and Gary Lineker presents Match of the Day in his pants||14.5m|
|June 16, 2016||Euro 2016: England v Wales||11.7m|
|July 7, 2018||World Cup 2018: Sweden v England||10.4 million|
|May 15, 2016||The fright of the old Trafford bomb causes the game to be postponed||10.2m|
|Oct 27 2019||Rugby World Cup 2019: Wales v South Africa||10.2m|
In 2012, over 11.5 million people in the UK used the BBC Sport website every week. By 2020, that number had grown to 21.3 million, with millions more visiting from abroad and following BBC Sport’s social media accounts.
But what comes next?
As the website enters the third decade, the world appears again in a different place. Months of sporting events were postponed when the impact of Covid-19 hit the world, with a cultural and social impact likely to be felt in the years ahead.
With increasing competition from new websites and the rising cost of sporting rights, the BBC faces more challenges than before to offer the public the coverage it wants.
However, Lepitak believes that these costs will also allow the BBC to play an increasingly important role for the general public.
“We are getting to the point where registrations are introduced to the right, left and center because media companies need revenue and many people cannot afford it.
“So BBC Sport is a service for the public who probably can’t afford to have access to sport yet.”
And for Gallop? After 20 years of watching how sports coverage has evolved, he believes that the site has a key role in bringing the public together.
“We can see how the sports media is evolving,” said Gallop.
“We know there is more interest in the stories around the sport itself and in the fun and entertainment that comes with it, so I can only see that growing side of our production – to complement the news and live coverage that will be always the pillars of our website.
“More and more the public will play a more active role. Block sport has been a challenge – with the crowd closed off the pitch, there is even more need for fans to meet virtually.
“I’m fascinated by the role we can play here.”
You can read more about the launch of the BBC Sport website at BBC history.