The AFL must heed the warning from its fans
There is a delicate balance codes must find between offering fans live television coverage of its game without having that very coverage impact crowds turning up to the grounds.
The problem has been exacerbated with the stubbornness of free-to-air networks which continue to show delayed coverage of sporting events, even in interstate markets from where the game is being played, and the resultant rise of illegal live streaming of matches online.
The growing popularity of sites such as Justin.tv and the like is a growing concern within the AFL and its broadcasters, with Channel 7 describing it as a “serious problem” and the AFL acknowledging that it’s compromising current television deals.
It also impacts a league’s overseas television rights, although the AFL does counter this with live streaming of its own to key foreign markets.
Channel 7’s refusal to budge on the issue of showing Friday night footy live has compounded the issue, and it is undoubtedly one of the major factors for the rise in popularity of online streaming.
There is a simple solution to combating these illegal streams for the network: offering live coverage! It would kill off the need and demand for such sites.
But there is a bigger issue at stake and that is balancing the demand of fans for live coverage, particularly when there are these online options for them to pursue, and maintaining the attraction for fans of going to matches.
The AFL has a right to expect television broadcasters to delay coverage in the city where the match is being played if the game is not sold out.
While they don’t have the crowd concerns of other codes, particularly as a result of a strong membership base, some of its clubs can ill-afford to have too many games shown live.
For clubs on the breadline such as Port Power, which has been using drapes at their home games that has cut capacity at AAMI Stadium from 51,515 to 44,500, and North Melbourne, with its highly publicised membership shortage, it’s imperative that they entice fans to their home games.
And evidence suggests live coverage does impact on crowds.
The A-League, for example, undoubtedly suffers in the crowd stakes partly as a result of having every one of its games live – and uninterrupted – on Fox Sports. When fans are already paying a hefty fee for Foxtel, then it’s hard to justify leaving the comforts of watching the game live at home to go to the ground and pay even more money.
But as long as there is this illegal means of watching the games online, all codes may be forced to counter with increased live coverage – something that is becoming a fundamental expectation of fans in this Internet/iPhone age.
Like the rise of pirated DVD and illegal downloading of films, you sense this won’t be easy to police for the codes, particularly as it’s a growing industry, and the best way to combat it is to demand that television partners commit to live coverage as a base expectation.
In order to maintain crowd figures in the face of this live coverage, perhaps there needs to be an examination by leagues as to how they can offer more to fans at the grounds.
Expensive parking and tickets, overpriced pies and little to no other entertainment apart from the match itself may be becoming a price too great to pay for the casual supporter when they can simply watch from their laptops.
It is an issue that all sporting codes need to look at.
In the meantime, the rise in the number of AFL fans resorting to online streams of games should act as a warning to its officials from its supporters that Channel 7’s stubbornness is not going unpunished.
Adrian Musolino is editor of V8X Magazine, and has written as an expert on The Roar since 2008, cementing himself as a key writer who can see the big picture in sport. He freelances on other forms of motorsport, football, cycling and more.