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A-League on the box

by Teo Pellizzeri on Feb 22, 2012

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Two major incidents in the last week have put the "free to air is the panacea of sport" myth back into circulation. The first, an extract of Clive Palmer's confusing rant on SBS's The World Game and the other the start of the AFL's NAB Cup.

Let's start with Clive - he's the talk of the nation right now and it might be nit-picking to look specifically at one thing he said, but navel gazing is not something the media does particularly well so it was unlikely there was going to be a follow up question in response to these quotes:

"What can be done for the crowds across the a-league is to stop fox broadcasting it live in the region in which the game is played...The TV rights need to be up for open tender, not just given to Fox in some back-room deal, they need to be in open tender, between SBS, channel Seven, channel Nine, ABC, free to air television and anyone else that wants to run it. These sort of sweet-heart deals should be over once and for all.

"You've got people like Tony Sage, me and Nathan Tinkler, that's not a bad team to negotiate the TV rights for the television for the A-League if you want the highest price. If you want people experienced in negotiation. Or you can give it to the public servants that run the FFA, what do you think's the best?"

SBS decided not to follow up any of these points with Palmer during his interview, fair enough given he rarely drew breath.

So let's break this down point by point and actually look at the reality.

Firstly blackouts in the home market - This one is easy to rebuke. Twenty20 cricket, Test Cricket, AFL - all free to air sports going against the gate and posting crowd increases, not decreases. Say what you will about 50-over cricket but the advent of Twenty20 cricket is a far bigger factor in crowd drop-off compared to live against the gate.

Blackouts are not a practical answer in the A-League, where you're effectively punishing people who can't go, like the disabled or people who cannot commit the time to getting to games due to work, family and so forth. Never mind the quibbling of what areas get blacked out and what don't. All it would end up doing is punishing people who travel long distances to games, but can't do it for every game. If there was any tangible evidence that Blackouts assisted crowds, the AFL (signed a TV deal last year) and the NRL (signing a TV deal this year) would be doing it.

As for open tender with the networks? Clive threw a few conspiracy theories around and that's his perogative, but the practical realities of broadcasting a game of football just do not support his contention.

Firstly - Foxtel is a subscriber service. They've muscled in on AFL and NRL and shared both products with free to air, but the A-League would be sadly naive if it thinks it can do the same at the next TV rights negotiation. Australia has a hard-core entitlement complex when it comes to sport on television - look no further than the (public arena) outcry at the lack of free-to-air AFL NAB Cup telecasts at the weekend.

For those of you who don't follow AFL, the NAB Cup has been an FTA staple for a number of years but couldn't attract any dollars in the latest round of TV rights negotiation, leaving Foxtel to buy the rights to every single game bar the final, which it is sharing with Channel 7. As AFL fans will know, the main criticism of pre-season footy is it "doesn't mean anything" so shock horror, after years of this being peddled by the media and fans, the bidding TV stations actually agreed, and didn't bid.

All hell broke loose. Talkback radio, web forums, letters to the editor - all raging and raging hard at how footy - previously "meaningless" - was now not on the box in pre-season and this was an outrage. Entitlement complex at it's finest.

How is this relevant to the A-League? Breaking Foxtel's exclusivity is not going to wash with Foxtel. Exclusivity drives subscription, Foxtel's business is subscription. If a "match of the round" is on FTA and the rest of Fox, it's pretty much a concession that free-loading fans with an entitlement complex will settle for one free game. Same goes for a highlights package. Clive, Nathan and Tony might be a dream-team of business and negotiation but good luck if they want to sell non-exclusivity to Foxtel and hope the same, never mind more, money comes back their way when an offer hits the table.

Of course the above assumes that Clive cares about things such as production values, live broadcasts and treating viewers with any respect.

Right now Foxtel does provide something that no other network would want too, or afford to do. All games live to all centres, all in HD. Never mind no in-play commercial breaks.

Compare this to the way sport gets treated on free to air and you have to wonder if any of the fans advocating A-League on free to air actually watch any other sport on the box. Melbourne Storm fans get their team for free on three hours delay if at all, while everyone gets the AFL Grand final, Boxing Day Test and Melbourne Cup in standard definition. Other than during a natural disaster or royal wedding, can anyone remember the last time 7, 9 or 10 went more than 45 minutes without a commercial break? What timeslot could the A-League possibly out-rate its opposition in if shown live on one of the FTA commercial networks? Would be great if Clive had an answer for that actually.

Given 10 is looking to invest in NRL, Seven is up to its ears in AFL and Nine is sniffing around summer competitor the Big Bash League, it's hard to imagine the A-League having any leverage whatsoever in discussions with FTA commercial networks. The A-League got embarassed in the ratings by the Big Bash League on Fox.

Alright so we're entitled to be cynical about the commercial broadcasters, but what about the ABC or the spiritual home of football, SBS?

Anyone who follows Les Murray on Twitter will have seen on January 22 he said "SBS bid for the rights to the W-League but lost out to the ABC." then in a follow-up Tweet "ABC has a fleet of mobile production facilities, saving them a truckload of money. SBS doesn't have that."

That was just for the W-League, is the money magically going to appear for A-League? Someone else other than SBS is going to have to film it at a very minimum even if SBS is the network screening it.

The ABC is scaling back its operations too - the collapse of negotiations to broadcast AFL Tasmania last week is not expected to be the first AFL state league to either go completely, or receive a significant cut-back in broadcasting.

Clive might have made the odd good point in among the hot air on his TWG rant but he wasn't wrong when he said Foxtel and the A-League have a sweetheart deal. He just got it the wrong way around - it's not a sweetheart deal for Fox, it's a sweetheart deal for the fans and the viewers.