How David Bowie built the Yankees' first real website

As a British baseball fan, I’m totally reliant on the internet to sustain my passion. The MLB London Series was a fresh departure from the norm, but my typical fan experience is one of tweets and gifs, streams and replays.

Every morning, I wake around 7:00 am, pour a cup of coffee and fire up my MacBook in the spare room. I then spend twenty minutes hopping from one website to another, consuming box scores and dissecting news from America.

In many ways, I have grown complacent in this routine. As a society, we generally take for granted just how wonderful the web actually is. With ubiquity comes ungratefulness, and we could all benefit from taking a step back to appreciate the technological infrastructure that governs our lives.

To that end, I have recently been fascinated by the early development of cyberspace architecture. In particular, the early internet space pertaining to sports teams is a beguiling topic riven with sensational stories. Chief amongst them is the tale of how a British popstar played a leading role in transforming the New York Yankees’ official website in the 1990s. Such quirks simply do not materialise anymore.

David Bowie had a penchant for visionary iconoclasm. A music icon of global renown, his was a personality of stunning diversity and skill. He was always ahead of the curve, daring to break boundaries and experiment with new trends. Rarely has modern British culture inspired a more creative spirit.

David Bowie and the internet 

Naturally, Bowie foresaw the internet’s coming dominance. “If I was 19 again, I would bypass music and go right to the internet, “ he famously said. In 1996, Bowie became the first major artist to release a new song exclusively online. Telling Lies, a single with no accompanying video, was downloaded by more than 300,000 people. While marketing the song, Bowie participated in a live forum on his official website, allowing all downloaders to discuss his latest work. This was a prescient harbinger of things to come.

Bowie’s passion for technology led him to create UltraStar in 1998. An internet service provider, UltraStar offered subscription-based dial-up access to the nascent web. Its first major project delivered BowieNet, a trove of photos, blogs and videos linked to the star’s website. In many ways, Bowie was a visionary of marketing, pioneering subscription access and exclusive paid content well before it became a thing. Fans could even buy their own BowieNet email address, honing a powerful kinship with their hero. Years before Myspace and Friendster, Facebook and Bebo, BowieNet was essentially a music-focused social network. Bowie knew what he was doing.

From there, UltraStar collaborated with Rolling Stone Network and Music Boulevard, a rudimentary precursor to iTunes in the pay-for-download space. “We’re on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying,” Bowie told a stunned Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight in 1999. “The actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything we can envisage at the moment. The interplay between the user and the provider will be so in simpatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.

“Artists like Duchamp were so prescient here. The idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle. That grey space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”

The Yankees' powerful marketing strategy

The Yankees pride themselves on innovation. Their brand relies on iconography and a portrayal of excellence. They must be first in everything, right down to marketing, media and merchandise. While Bowie was pioneering the use of online content distribution, the Yankees were busy building YES Network, their own regional television channel to broadcast games. The team already had a very basic web presence, mainly carrying box scores and general information, but the synergy with Bowie’s UltraStar was profound.

In August 1999, MTV carried the following piece on their apparent collaboration:

“UltraStar, the Internet company founded by rocker David Bowie, has created a new official website for the New York Yankees (www.yankees.com). Like Bowie's own BowieNet service (www.davidbowie.com), the Yankees offer fans dial-up Internet access and membership in an online fan club.

'We couldn't be more pleased to be working with the premier team in all of sports,’ Bowie said in a statement. "We hope to deal with one of the most profound unanswered questions in all of sports: Paul O'Neill can play drums, Bernie Williams can play guitar, but who's on bass?"

Woeful puns aside, Bowie appeared to have a keen interest in baseball. He claimed to have played on a team of expat Canadians called the Dulwich Blue Jays as a teenager, and indeed he attended a few games as fan. UltraStar also built a website for the Baltimore Orioles, widely considered the first team to have a fully branded web presence of any appreciable structure and strategy.

However, any association with the New York Yankees is imbued with a veneer of class and importance. UltraStar refined earlier work by UltraPLEX Information Systems and Medius Interactive to redevelop the Yankees’ website, adopting the BowieNet model to foster a sense of community. This would later become a go-to technique in every digital marketing seminar, textbook and university course. David Bowie didn’t necessarily write the doctrine, but he certainly fought loudly for its value, purpose and institution.

Taking a look at the Yankees' first real website

Wayback Machine is a digital archive of the World Wide Web that allows users to view and scroll old internet pages from different snapshots in time. I only discovered this amazing tool while researching Bowie’s influence on the Yankees. The first Wayback snapshot of yankees.com came in June 1997. The home page features a photo of Babe Ruth with one of his famous quotes about the greatness of baseball. There is also an injury bulletin on Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, while Pat McEvoy blogs about the signing of Japanese star Hideki Irabu.

This was the first Yankees website, in factual terms, but UltraStar revamped the infrastructure and delivered an internet presence more in tune with our modern association of official team domains. This rather brilliant screenshot shows yankees.com in 2000, a few months after the Bronx Bombers swept the Atlanta Braves to claim their 25th world championship in franchise history. 

New York Yankees website in 2000.

As you can see, this is remarkably similar to today’s conventional team website. The Clubhouse section gave full roster details, complete with photos as players such as Clay Bellinger were immortalised in pixelated mugshots. Meanwhile, The Box Office tab allowed fans to buy tickets by all means, including fax and conventional mail!

Yankees Xtreme was the headline feature of UltraStar’s project. Once again borrowing inspiration from BowieNet, this was essentially an online fan club and forum where users could pay to join then chat with other members in real-time forums.

Years before Twitter reshaped our sports-watching experience, such chatrooms were a revolutionary tool in uniting fans around the world. In this regard, Bowie honed a remarkable gift for the few baseball fans in his homeland, who otherwise had to rely on US Forces radio and expensive newspaper imports to keep abreast of Major League events.

Elsewhere on the Yankees’ revamped website, Statzone provided very basic statistics in a clunky, non-sortable format. Ken Griffey Jr. led the league in home runs when this snapshot was taken, a fine example of Wayback Machine inspiring nostalgia that cannot be surpassed.

In this regard, the Yankees Time Machine was a cool function that allowed users to browse through old headlines and history, so long as they had the Netscape browser or Internet Explorer 4.0.

Finally, the Fanzone was a quirky nirvana for geeks like me. It encouraged visitors to “download a desktop pattern of your favourite player,” and included links to play pixelated games with a baseball theme. You could even buy the Yankees’ official magazine online, or order a box of Jeter’s Frosted Flakes, a cereal marketed by the team’s immortal shortstop.

Jeter's Frosted Flakes cereal. One of many endorsements by the Yankees' shortstop.

Ultimately, I'm enthralled by things like this. Hankering for bygones times is a symptom of growing old, and I guess in a baseball sense, I'm reaching that stage. Many of the players I grew up watching have now retired, while some are even represented by their sons, such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Fernando Tatís Jr. 

Mariano Rivera, Mike Mussina and the late Roy Halladay will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend, among others. Jeter will follow next year. I'm approaching veteran status as a baseball diehard, my heroes becoming immortals.

But I couldn't be a fan without the internet, and without team websites carrying news around the world. I couldn't be a fan without David Bowie and similar visionaries, who built the landscape that allows me to stay connected. Their work inspires me. Maybe I'll add Jeter's Frosted Flakes to my morning routine as a tribute.

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