AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou

AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou addresses the media during an AFL Media Conference at AFL House, Melbourne. Slattery Images

The AFL’s billion-dollar television deal is the equivalent of a big bang for Australian sports – a cosmic explosion that will redefine the landscape. With the AFL’s deal with Channel Seven and Foxtel locked in for 2012 to 2016, other codes most now jockey for their own deals from what’s left.

The deal looks like this: four games on free-to-air (on Seven with the possibility they will on-sell a game or two per round to Channel Nine or 10); all nine games per weekend live on a dedicated AFL channel on Foxtel; significantly better coverage in the outsider territories of NSW, ACT and Queensland, with four live free-to-air games on Seven Mate in addition to the Foxtel AFL channel; all nine games live on Telstra mobiles; live Friday night footy via free-to-air into Victoria, NSW, Queensland and Tasmania (no luck South Australia and Western Australia).

There’s also the $1.25 billion to go into the AFL’s coffers to help clubs on the breadline, fuel Gold Coast Suns’ and Greater Western Sydney Giants’ development, and assist the grassroots game from regional clubs to the innovative Foxtel Cup.

With GWS Giants set to join the Gold Coast Suns in the AFL in 2012, the increased free-to-air presence in NSW and Queensland will be key to the continuing the growth of the game in rugby union and league’s heartlands, helped by the $253 million that remarkably topped up the predicted $1 billion deal.

Greater coverage on Seven Mate as opposed to the current deal’s extreme timeslots should help the sport develop beyond its current niche in those areas.

But the real impact of the deal goes well beyond the AFL’s boundaries and greatly impacts wider Australian sport.

For one, the deal represents, or at least confirms, the key role pay television plays in Australian sports, for Foxtel and Austar are the real winners here.

Foxtel have remarkably scored live coverage of all nine matches per round, plus finals bar the grand final. It’ll see the relaunch of a 24/7 AFL channel – wall-to-wall coverage for the code with uniform coverage on the channel across Australia.

The importance of premium sporting content for pay-TV cannot be understated. 23 of the 25 top rated programs on Foxtel last week were AFL, NRL or Super Rugby content. When OneHD – Australia’s first 24/7 free-to-air channel – was launched amidst the digital television revolution, we assumed the domination of Fox Sports and pay-TV in the sporting realm was on the decline.

But the move away from sports-only content on OneHD and its struggle for ratings, other free-to-air channels stubbornly resisting live coverage, the subsequent dip in ratings and the preference of Better Homes and Gardens over live footy, proved there is only so much demand for sport to the mainstream masses.

With a number of key powerbrokers behind Fox protecting its interests, it’s little wonder it’s held sway in the face of free-to-airs recent sporting dalliance. This deal, if anything, proves how important pay-TV is to Australian sports.

With the launch of the AFL channel hosting all its Aussie Rules content, Fox Sports will supposedly have more room across its three channels (assuming it keeps all three) for other sports, which, you’d expect, to be filled by the fringe sports that found a new home on OneHD but could be squeezed out by their shift to a wider entertainment focus.

Meanwhile, for the one-third of us with Foxtel and the its sports package, why would you bother with Channel Seven’s AFL coverage ever again when Foxtel is showing all matches live, without commercials from siren to siren and in high definition? Foxtel can offer AFL fans a footy utopia for $60-odd per month, away from the infuriating delays, Better Homes and Gardens lead-ins, standard definition and Desperate Housewives promos.

It’s a tremendous selling point for Foxtel – and they intelligently countered fans’ concerns that their AFL content would come at an additional cost, confirming the channel will be part of their current sports package.

Surely Channel Seven has overestimated television consumers’ loyalty to free-to-air. As a current Foxtel subscriber with the sports package, my days of watching AFL on Channel Seven are well and truly numbered. I’m sure I won’t be alone on that front. How greatly this impacts Channel Seven’s ratings from 2012 on remains to be seen. My bet is they’ll come to regret that part of the deal, which will only strengthen Foxtel’s outlook.

But the heavy content on Foxtel prompts the question: will AFL fans be forced to choose between memberships/attending matches or a Foxtel subscription?

The AFL is not immune to the crowd concerns that plague other codes. Clubs such as North Melbourne and Port Power struggle to attract sufficient crowds and remain on the AFL’s breadline, while Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney have a long way to go to cement themselves in what are immensely challenging markets for the AFL. If crowds are impacted by the pay-TV deal, then a big cut of the $1.25 billion needs to go to compensating the clubs for their declining gate-takings.

Elsewhere, the AFL’s television deal sets up the NRL’s nicely; leaving two major free-to-air players, Nine and 10, free to squabble over the rights, while Channel Seven supremo David Leckie said the network’s AFL deal wouldn’t rule them out of the NRL’s.

Key to the next NRL deal is a bigger free-to-air presence, particularly in its non-heartland markets, namely Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria. As a result of this new AFL deal, there’ll be more live free-to-air AFL games in Sydney than NRL matches – a worrying development for rugby league.

But now the NRL has great bargaining power. Even if Channel Nine or 10 manage to grab an AFL game or two from Seven, they still have a void left by the AFL’s new deal. Channel Nine cannot afford to lose the NRL rights and be left with no major Australian sporting code, while Channel 10, under new management and eager to bounce back after some lean times, could do with the NRL’s huge pull in the two huge markets of NSW and Queensland.

What a contrast it would be for Channel 10 if it got its hands on NRL and State Origin when it has recently been lumped with live Saturday night AFL, which struggles so badly for ratings in NSW.

Meanwhile, OneHD, which will still be used by Channel 10 to showcase premium sporting content, could become a critical ingredient in the NRL’s growth, as the network could potentially carry live matches and other content (it already has NRL-specific programming) across the country.

The NRL’s broadcast deal ends at the end of 2012. Expect a ding-dong battle between Nine and 10 for the rights, or a possible tandem bid to squeeze out Foxtel.

Don’t think for a second the NRL is in any way a loser out of the AFL’s deal. It could actually help along its own deal and growth beyond its NSW-Queensland home. As the AFL’s deal highlights, key to the new television deals for the respective codes is gaining a stronger foothold on the opposing side of the Barassi Line.

As for the rest of the sporting landscape, the next critical development will be to see whether Seven on-sells one or two of its four AFL matches to Nine or 10.

That could have a big impact on V8 Supercars, for example, who are currently locked into a deal with Channel Seven until the end of 2012 and may be squeezed if Seven retains all four AFL matches. Look for Channel 10, the former home of V8 Supercars who still retains important motorsport content in the form of F1 and MotoGP, to go after the V8 rights, particularly if it misses out on an AFL match, as Seven will struggle to cope with V8 races across a weekend alongside its heavy AFL content.

Meanwhile, the Socceroos’ free-to-air package will soon be up for grabs (thanks to the anti-siphoning revamp), while the A-League, Super Rugby, NBL, ANZ Netball Championship and the rest will fight for a free-to-air presence – an eternal struggle – in a post-OneHD sports only landscape.

The concern for them is that the AFL and the NRL would have squeezed free-to-air networks of so much of their allocated budget and time allowance for sport, that there’ll be little if any scraps left, particularly without the OneHD sporting haven. This could have a significant impact on the fringe codes.

Now that the AFL’s big bang billion-dollar deal has been unleashed, the rest of the sporting landscape can form from its remains. And remains is all that could be left once the NRL is done…

Follow Adrian on twitter @AdrianMusolino

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.
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