The evolution of the footy on TV

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In recent days, it has been reported that the NRL might be on the verge of a $1 billion pay day if, among other things, it agrees to allowing more openings during game time for broadcasters to run advertisements.

Most would be aware that such opportunities have been afforded broadcasters during AFL games for many years, but the thought came to me: how exactly did this evolve?

I then recalled that I had in my possession a book entitled Heart of the Game: 45 years of football on television, edited by Michael Roberts and published in 2001.

I thought I would take a trip down memory lane.

The broadcasting of the then VFL goes back to the earliest days of TV in Australia and began as nothing more than a bit of an experiment, which became an instant hit with fans.

Sounds like good news, but in fact this scared the living daylights out of the VFL management, who could only envisage the loss of gate receipts, recalling that at that point, they were allowing the broadcasters into the grounds for next to nothing.

Crowds remained good in 1957 but started to drop over the next two seasons, and reached a nadir in 1960. At that point the VFL rejected 14,000 pounds from all three stations to broadcast the last quarter live, and they also rejected replays.

Crowds jumped up by 360,000 in 1961.

Channel 7 became so annoyed with the VFL that it actively pursued a deal with the VSL to broadcast the match of the day each round during the 1961 season. The deal fell over at the last minute when the VSL committee rejected the offer, and Channel 7 returned to broadcasting the VFL the following year.

Broadcasting the last quarter live gave way to Saturday night replays, and for some years, all the Melbourne broadcasters were involved in broadcasting the VFL.

By 1974 only Channel 7 and the ABC were left broadcasting the VFL, namely as Saturday night replays, and Channel 0, broadcast a live game from the VFA each round, played on Sunday afternoons.

Increasingly, the VFL became impatient at not being allowed to play games on Sunday (by order of the Victorian Government), which essentially had allowed the VFA to continue as a smaller rival state competition for decades.

Bit by bit, the VFL worked out ways round this, including mid-week cup competitions, playing and broadcasting one reserves game each Sunday, and finally, playing games in Sydney on a Sunday, eventually leading to South Melbourne moving its home games to Sydney in 1982.

In 1987, with a new Commission in place, the VFL shocked the footy world by taking the rights off Channel 7 and handing them to the ABC. This deal lasted a year, but it was the dawn of a new professional VFL that drew a line in the sand and was prepared to suffer short term loss for long term gain.

Channel 7 returned to broadcasting the code the following year, offering $30 million for five years.

It was around the mid 1980s that tentative steps were taken, firstly, to play Friday night games, and then gradually, to extend the round over three days.

With these changes in schedules came the gradual move from broadcasters focusing on replays to doing more and more live games, recalling that most places outside of Victoria had had live coverage of VFL games for years.

In 1987 the VFL expanded with two new teams, the Eagles and Bears, representing an ongoing progression to a national completion that had started with the move of the Swans north five years earlier.

This meant more opportunities for live games back into Melbourne without any fear of upsetting local attendances.

More money flowed into the game, it became more professional, and at some point the broadcasters had to devise new methods of meeting the cost.

Australian Football has always had four quarters, providing opportunities for ads during the breaks, and has always had a natural break after each goal, with the boundary umpires tasked with running the footy back to the field umpires to restart the match with a centre bounce.

The idea of running ads immediately after goals  came gradually, and then was set in stone officially when the broadcaster and AFL agreed a set time after each goal. At some point, the AFL devised a lighting system on the scoreboard to alert the umpire when it was ok to bounce the ball, and this has been in use now for at least 20 years.

I can’t recall a backlash when this system first came into use, and as far as live games go, it has never been an issue. Each goal is a time to applaud, cheer, talk positively or negatively with those around you, and fill in the Football Record if you’re keeping tabs on goal kickers.

Thirty seconds? Before you know it, the ball is being bounced, and it starts all over again.

A complexity that exists in Australian Football, and a similar situation might exist in league as well, is that there is a big difference in the number of goals scored from game to game.

In the early 1990s, Essendon won a game kicking only three goals, and last year, Geelong won a match kicking 37 goals (for the second time in its history).

How does the broadcaster deal with this disparity? I’m not entirely sure, to be honest.

I recall one game where neither team scored a goal in the final quarter, and the broadcaster became so impatient about this, it simply stopped transmission mid-way through the quarter and ran a minute of ads, clearly those that had paid a premium!

A fair bit about the game has changed in the 40 years I have followed it and there is no better illustration of this than the primacy TV has in the modern game.

But already, a new era in sports broadcasting is close at hand.

The AFL is now a year-round beast. From the pre-season Cup to the draft, it's always on. What's on your Christmas wishlist for 2015? What are your reflections on the year that was? If you're feeling inspired, you can share it with other Roarers by submitting an article.
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