AFL is leaving NRL for dead with its TV coverage

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NRL CEO David Gallop speaks to waiting media. AAP Image/Joe Castro

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Earlier this year I wrote an article stating that Foxtel’s AFL coverage would be nirvana for footy fans.

We’re now five rounds into the 2012 AFL season and it’s clearly evident that the TV broadcast coverage of the AFL, primarily Foxtel’s Fox Footy Channel, has revolutionised sports coverage in this country.

The centre piece of the Fox Footy Channel’s offering was always going to be the broadcast of every single game of the home-and-away season, which equated to showcasing nine live games of AFL every week to fans.

There is no doubt that providing Australians access to every single game live is a wonderful achievement for the AFL. However, what has proved just as crucial is the fact the Fox Footy Channel is 24 hours a day. That essentially means that the AFL, in one form or another, is always on TV. Well, pay TV, to be precise.

However, don’t be fooled into thinking a 24-hour channel merely provides quantity, because where Foxtel’s AFL coverage really shines is its quality.

In particular, I’m referring to the quality of programming outside of the actual games themselves.

On the Couch is one of the best sports shows I’ve ever watched.

The passion, knowledge and professionalism of Gerard Healy, Mike Sheehan and Paul Roos is nothing short of sensational, and combined with the guests that they have on the show, they ensure that the show is can’t-miss TV every Monday night.

The grilling of Fremantle Dockers coach Ross Lyon earlier in the season was captivating viewing. The hosts asked probing, yet respectful, questions about Lyon’s defection from St Kilda.

And Lyon, to his credit, never blinked in answering each question with the honesty and thoughtfulness it deserved.

Whilst the show has been around in one form or another for a long time now, it remains a tremendous asset to the sport, and is one of the jewels in Foxtel’s AFL crown.

Open Mike, in which one of the best on-air talents in Australia, Mike Sheehan, interviews AFL personalities, and the nightly talk show AFL 360, hosted by Gerard Whateley and Mark Robinson, are just two more examples of the many, many impressive AFL programs on Foxtel.

However, it’s not just Foxtel’s contribution that ensures the AFL is the best covered sport in Australia. Channel 7 deserves some credit too.

The Seven Network broadcasts a minimum of 4 games per AFL round, live to the vast majority the country.

This provides the game with tremendous reach, and access for the public, particularly when you remember that most Australian households do not have Foxtel.

Combined, Foxtel and the Seven Network’s broadcast ensure that you can’t miss the AFL. It’s a vital tool in the code’s strategy of converting people into fans.

Compare the AFL’s broadcast to the NRL’s. Four live games on nationally on free-to-air plus a 24-hour channel showing all nine games live, versus one live game on free-to-air, only broadcast in NSW and Queensland, and five games nationally live on Foxtel.

Any way you look at it, the NRL’s TV broadcast is left for dead compared to that of the AFL.

That should not be perceived as a criticism of Channel 9, nor Foxtel. Channel 9 is a business that makes its money from advertising revenue, hence the need to show games on delayed telecast. And Foxtel’s NRL coverage is fantastic and getting better every year.

However, the AFL has set the bar high in terms of TV coverage, and the NRL needs to respond if it wants to keep up.

The NRL and its broadcasters need to sit down and work out the best way to ensure all stakeholders are happy, and that includes the NRL themselves, the broadcasters, and the fans.

Without a doubt, the first item on the agenda for the NRL should be how the game can squeeze in some more ad breaks, so that free-to-air networks can reap the financial benefits from their investment, while still showing games live.

The AFL negotiated a great TV deal and was able to command a price tag of $1.25 billion.

However, too many rugby league pundits have become hung up on the figure the AFL earned, and have stated that it’s important that the next NRL broadcast rights deal generates the same type of money.

That’s an irrational and emotional response based on simply wanting the NRL to be perceived as an equal.

Certainly the AFL’s deal should be used as a benchmark, but the NRL’s TV rights should be negotiated on its own merits. Whether that’s more or less than the AFL deal will be decided by the negotiators, rather than by pride.

There is no question that the amount the rights are sold for will be important. However, I believe the proposed quality and quantity of the coverage of the winning bid is just as important.

The NRL’s negotiations shouldn’t just be about money, but how the game will be broadcast.

Showcasing the game live in all its glory to as many Australians as possible should be paramount in the discussions.

Author disclosure: In his other job, Ryan has business dealings with Foxtel.

Ryan is an ex-representative basketballer who shot too much, and a (very) medium pace bowler. He's been with The Roar as an expert since February 2011, has written for the Seven Network, and been a regular on ABC radio. Ryan tweets from @RyanOak.
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