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Why FTA isn't the A-League's elixir

by Teo Pellizzeri on Jun 29, 2011

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If you aren’t a pay television subscriber, the A-League may as well not exist. I speak from experience, having gone without from 2007 to early 2010 being unable to afford an Austar package.

Relying on sporadic radio coverage from different states, choppy pirate internet streams or, at my lowest point, the Sportal live scores page for my football fix. I speak of course about following the league on the whole, rather than simply the one team (Melbourne) whose games I could attend.

But even with this experience of having gone without, I roll my eyes whenever getting the A-League on to a Free-To-Air platform is presented as one of the key pillars of improving the competition.

Champions of the FTA cause forget one fundamental fact that none of us regular fans can do anything about. Television rights money is the lifeblood of the game. Don’t mess around with it.

I really do wonder if those that believe getting the A-League back on FTA would improve the competition have even watched sport on commercial TV at any point in the last decade.

We hear plenty of the arguments for getting the A-League on FTA, here are just some of the arguments against.

1) The FFA won’t make anywhere near enough money out of ABC or SBS, and will slash its value to barely workable levels if it does not give exclusivity to Fox Sports

Which leaves us with three options. Nine, Seven or 10. This in turn opens Pandora’s Box for the following…

2) The game isn’t built for commercial TV

It seems completely unrealistic in this day and age that any of Nine, Seven, 10 or any of its digital affiliate platforms could show anything other than a national disaster or royal wedding for more than 10 minutes without a commercial break. Never mind 45.

For whatever reason, read-out advertisements by game announcers or on-field graphics just don’t cut it. 30-second advertisements make money for TV networks and not contingency plans that mean you can go for 45 minutes without a break.

3) FTA broadcasts of sport are not about the actual sport

Particularly in summer, outside of ratings season. Just look at Nine’s cricket coverage and Seven’s tennis coverage. Cross-promotion of ratings-season shows is an integral part of sports broadcasting for free-to-air networks. These highly necessary, but highly vexatious add-ons to sporting broadcasts would be completely necessary and would become an inevitable bugbear of any production.

4) Unlike FTA institutions, the FFA cannot take for granted that fans will watch

There is a good reason why networks can take liberties with delays, ad-breaks, cross-promotions during the contest and sensationalist commentary. Fans will watch regardless. Can’t say there’s any existing evidence of such in-built fanaticism for the A-League.

5) FTA analysts are not interested in just the sport itself

So let’s imagine then that Foxtel still gives the FFA an adequate amount of money to be the sole broadcaster of matches, and for whatever reason does allow a highlights package or magazine show to be shown on a FTA network.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it would be anything like the current highlights show or Fox Sports FC. Commercial television is about broadcasting to as big an audience as possible. So a potential A-League highlights or magazine show would have to conform to one of the following norms.

Scenario 1: A highlights or proper analysis show does not rate enough to justify prime time exposure. It gets buried on a digital affiliate channel like One HD in early morning or late night. Everyone wonders why FFA bargained down the value of Foxtel’s exclusive deal in exchange for this.

Scenario 2: SBS stumps up the money for said highlights/magazine show and simply broadcasts to an existing audience of established fans. Everyone wonders why FFA bargained down the value of Foxtel’s exclusive deal in exchange for this.

Scenario 3: Nine or Seven take a gamble and buy the rights to a magazine show about the A-League that includes highlights and discussions, but in order to justify being shown in a high-exposure timeslot starts focusing on the things that make AFL and NRL popular around the nation, such as players’ off-field behaviour, sex scandals, ilict drug use and violence. Everyone wonders why FFA bargained down the value of Foxtel’s exclusive deal in exchange for this.

Too Negative? Has Teo missed the point? Leave your thoughts below.