Can the NRL capitalise on AFL's Free-to-Air arrangements?

With Channel Ten pulling out of negotiations with Channel Seven over buying some of its free-to-air AFL matches, and Channel Nine seemingly unable or unwilling to step in, the AFL will be on one free-to-air network come 2012, simplifying things for fans and opening the door for rival codes.

For the NRL, it leaves a network that desperately needs to fill the AFL void with some premium Australian sporting content, led by a CEO – Lachlan Murdoch – who is not only a league fan but comes from a family that has heavily invested in the code, needing to outbid current free-to-air hosts, who have final bidding rights.

The ingredients are there for a mega-deal that can get close to the billion-dollar mark first broken by the AFL; certainly with the potential to exceed the $800 million mark bandied about in the media.

The NRL has some key selling points to take to potential broadcasters.

In the State of Origin series (three guaranteed ratings hits), Indigenous All Stars and other representative fixtures, it has more to offer than a home and away season with finals.

It has its Monday night football timeslot, which, given the AFL’s hesitancy to commit to the night, stands alone as the only sporting fixture on the day and could be one the fixtures to move across to free-to-air.

Meanwhile, the possibility of future expansion keeps the door open to the likes of Perth, Adelaide, Central Coast and more teams in Queensland.

But it’s the number of contenders for the NRL rights that would suggest it could push the predicted mark.

Current hosts, Channel Nine, cannot afford to lose its prime Australian sporting content, particularly at this critical juncture for the network as it struggles to match Channel 10 and Seven in the ratings.

Over at Channel 10, Murdoch and his cohorts may be sweeping through the place and cutting out significant chunks off its budget, but they too need premium sporting content if they are to truly connect with the younger audience they seem to be targeting.

ONE remains home to heavy sporting content, despite the recent makeover, and one cannot have failed to miss the increased NRL content this year.

The NRL represents a guaranteed ratings hit, particularly when State of Origin is thrown in the mix. While the AFL has a much greater national representation and can command more attention across the five major cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide), the NRL’s great strength lies in the big numbers it can attract in New South Wales and Queensland – two of three most populous states.

That will count for a lot when Nine and 10 weigh-up their bids.

And, ultimately, the fact that both have been left without any AFL frees them up for both timeslots and budget allocations to go to war for the NRL.

Meanwhile, Foxtel will be heavily involved in the negotiations to ensure it doesn’t lose too much of its NRL content. Rugby league content accounted for 77 of the top 100 programs on the pay television provider – a fact the NRL will leverage in the bidding process.

Given those strong numbers, Foxtel won’t want to lose out entirely in the bidding, even if it faces a reduced number of exclusive games given the greater interest from free-to-air.

Given it will have heavy AFL content on the soon-to-be launched dedicated AFL channel, retaining some NRL will give the pay-TV provider the national appeal and selling point it needs to reach as many homes as it can.

And remember, Channel Seven won’t rule out an NRL bid.

Even though it has exclusive free-to-air AFL commitments and has stated it is still keen to retain V8 Supercars (like the NRL, up for grabs from 2013 on), one fancies they could be throwing their hat in the ring to drive up the asking price for their rivals to pay.

This is all good news for the NRL and the likes of V8 Supercars. The AFL’s billion-dollar television has, in fact, opened the landscape up nicely – simplifying things, somewhat.

Whether Channel 10 and Nine divvy up rugby league between them remains to be seen. But there is now room to move and negotiate – and two networks, left out of the AFL’s deal, can not only battle for the NRL rights, there could be more room for V8 Supercars and co to get more breathing room and their own greater slice of the pie, without the need to resort to secondary digital channels.

With the digital revolution continuing unabated and digital channels’ ratings and reach increasing by the week, there could be a lot more wiggle room for sporting codes.

Dare we mention the likes of Super Rugby, A-League, Socceroos qualifiers and the like as options for free-to-air commercial networks now? Foxtel’s hold on them and the concerns regarding how they’d rate on free-to-air would suggest not.

But things seem a lot less cluttered for all codes. And they seem to be shaping up nicely for the NRL, thanks to the AFL – funnily enough.

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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