Lewis Wiltshire

Like many people in the sports industry, I can track my career via World Cups.

Once every four years, this football spectacular not only gives us memories we will never forget (Brazil 1-7 Germany remains one of the most astonishing events of my lifetime) but also provides pause for thought. Where were we during previous tournaments, how did we do things then, and how have we progressed since?

My first World Cup memory is 1986, as a 9-year-old fan. I got in trouble with my Dad for sticking COME ON ENGLAND signs to the wall in our lounge (apparently the Blue Tac left marks on the wallpaper). Four years later, Italia ’90 changed the face of football (in England at least) and therefore the careers of an entire generation of us who were teenagers watching at home.

The sport industry we work in now would not look anything like the way it does had Gazza not cried and the wider English public not fallen back in love with football. Those events created a momentum which swept a nascent Premier League along with it. Now the Premier League is a flagship for 21st century sport, not to mention a Seven League client. Italia 90 was certainly as seismic an event for the UK sports industry as London 2012, a generation later.

Equally, Major League Soccer’s beginnings were boosted by a World Cup in the US, in 1994. Seven League has worked with MLS – another digital legacy, one generation later.

1998 was the first World Cup I had any professional involvement in, if we count writing one World Cup-related article in a newspaper which criticised David Beckham for his infamous red card (I worked as a football reporter for the Eastern Daily Press at the time).

I later interviewed David for the BBC, then worked with him on a Twitter Q&A (he’s using my laptop in that photo) but luckily he seemed to have somehow missed my Page Seven article in a regional paper, in and amongst being the most famous athlete on the planet, and I wasn’t about to mention it.

The BBC Sport website was created in 2000 and I joined the team in 2001 (I have previously written on the impact of the BBC News and Sport websites on our digital landscape). The 2002 World Cup was significant for websites because it took place in Japan and South Korea, which meant European audiences were at work during many of the games. At that time, the bulk of many people’s online usage was via a desktop computer in their offices.

The BBC’s 2002 World Cup section is still available – I remember that the white background made it feel very modern compared to the yellow hue of the main BBC Sport site of the time. My interview with Danny Mills (using my old Norwich connections – and conducted over email!) is of course the highlight.

In one sense the digital landscape changed dramatically between the 2002 and 2006 World Cups – YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were all founded during that period, and 2006 was the height of what we used to call Web 2.0.

I would argue strongly that the concepts of participation and personalisation at the heart of Web 2.0 continue to define digital 10-12 years on, but its impact was felt later. I was running the BBC Sport website’s football desk during World Cup 2006 and although I was obsessed at the time with blogs and RSS, what we were doing still felt like Web 1.0 publishing.

No major football organisations were live-tweeting the games, that’s for sure. The biggest social platform was MySpace.

As this Mashable article from 2010 explains, that year’s World Cup was the first to feel the impact of the digital platforms created 4-6 years before.

I had become editor of the BBC Sport website the year before. I remember going for lunch alone in BBC Television Centre the day the tournament started, apprehensive about whether the hard work we had put in would deliver a successful tournament.

Across London, my now-7L colleague Peter Clare was Digital Marketing Manager for the FA and remembers their website crashing on the day the England squad for the World Cup was announced. The modern-day FA website is of course more robust – plus, England’s squad this time around was revealed in an innovative way on social media. Still, your website crashing was almost a badge of honour in 2010.

Pete also remembers things kicking off on the England team’s Facebook page when the team drew 0-0 with Algeria. These were relatively early days for social media community management …

By the time of the 2014 World Cup, I was at Twitter and responsible for the tournament’s coverage on the platform globally while Pete had joined our CEO and founder Richard Ayers at Seven League with the company just two years old. 7L carried out a review of social media performance by teams, players and sponsors during the World Cup for FIFA, that year. There was certainly a lot to review, as I knew at the time.

But things change fast. In 2014 social media still felt like a duopoly between Facebook and Twitter. Instagram was a big platform for users but wasn’t yet the essential tool for sport industry fan engagement it has become. Snapchat was a nascent messaging app.

In the four years since 7L has supported, on behalf of UEFA, 52 of the 55 European National Associations, including all those at the World Cup, so we will take pride in their digital ouput during the next few weeks.

We will also have one eye on Qatar 2022. What will digital look like then? The BBC is showing 33 games in VR this summer – yet another progression. The extent to which VR will be mainstream, or not, in four years time is yet to be determined.

One thing we already know: as always, the World Cup will provide defining moments in tech. The fun part is working out what those will be.

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Categories: Content Digital Football