Football Federation Australia chief executive Ben Buckley. AAP Image/Paul Miller

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Who was the biggest winner out of a day that delivered the NRL a new billion-dollar media deal and Football Federation Australia (FFA) a new CEO, the NRL or the A-League?

The Australian Rugby League Commission sealed the NRL’s new media deal with Channel Nine and Foxtel retaining the rights to show the league and its representative matches for the next five years, in a deal they say is worth at least $1.025 billion.

It’s pretty much status quo in terms of coverage and how it will be divided up between Nine and Fox Sports – Nine with three weekly matches (two on Friday night and one on Sunday plus the odd Thursday night), State of Origin, Tests and City versus Country and Foxtel left with the other five weekly matches across Saturday, Sunday and Monday night.

While the failure to replicate the AFL’s deal with all matches live on Foxtel leaves NRL fans at the mercy of frustrating delays, matching the billion-dollar mark set by the AFL is a psychological win for the NRL considering its national footprint is much smaller compared to the AFL’s and delivers vital funds for the growth of the game.

The size of the deal certainly highlights the strength of State of Origin and the worth of the big viewing figures the NRL attracts in two of three biggest cities in Australia, Sydney and Brisbane.

With the AFL and NRL’s new deals completed, the other, smaller codes with rights up for grabs, including the A-League and V8 Supercars, can now move in the new landscape. And crucially for them, the AFL and NRL have taken residence at just one free-to-air network each.

Both Channel Seven and Channel 10 were reportedly in the mix for the NRL rights but were eventually outbid by the Nine and Fox Sports, that had the vital last bidding rights in the process.

So this leaves two free-to-air networks left with free timeslots and, should they be willing to spend, funds. But the question now is whether they are interested in spending big on what are considered fringe sports.

Channel Seven’s play for the NRL rights, on top of its exclusive free-to-air AFL rights, proves that the financially-strong network is willing to spend heavily to retain its top-rated position.

While its unlikely that Seven is in the mix for the A-League rights given its history with the NSL, missing out on the NRL could make it hungrier and more willing to retain V8 Supercars from 2013.

Channel 10, which lags behind its commercial network rivals in terms of ratings, has been left without one of the major sporting codes. While it hosts international motorpsort (Formula 1 and MotoGP), netball and recently upped its commitment to the NBL (proof it’s looking to fill the void?), delivering live games and a presence on its main channel for the upcoming season, it lacks a big-name football code.

Channel 10 seems the best fit for the A-League, particularly with the ONE channel retaining some sporting content following its recent makeover and with the ability to double-up content on one of the strongest performing secondary digital channels.

It certainly seems more likely than Seven or Nine and is being talked about as the only realistic free-to-air option aside from football’s traditional home, SBS.

But it remains to be seen whether these commercial networks are interested in the A-League, be it one live game a week, delayed coverage or a highlights package on top of the almost certain Fox Sports component of the media rights deal. The bargaining power of Fox Sports could be a key part of the negotiations as it seeks to protect its exclusivity with certain codes – the A-League and Super Rugby being the prime examples.

However, there are a couple of free-to-air openings and it will be telling how the media landscape reacts to the AFL and NRL deals and what bits of the puzzle fall where.

Key to the A-League rights is the divisive figure of former AFL man Ben Buckley, outgoing CEO of the FFA who will be replaced in November by former NRL CEO David Gallop – the other big news of a dramatic day in Australian sport.

Buckley’s legacy could hinge on his last bit of business for the FFA, which will be to finalise negotiations over its media deal with the key requirements being a greater financial return ($300 million over five years the aim) to ease the strain on A-League clubs and deliver a highly-sought after free-to-air component. His role in the AFL’s previous media rights deal in 2005 was seen as a critical factor in his appointment at the FFA, so he must deliver.

Buckley’s six-year FFA tenure has been challenging – failed World Cup bid, failed expansion moves with two regions (Gold Coast and Townsville) tainted by the scars of two failed clubs, A-League clubs struggling financially, fractured relationship between A-League club owners and the FFA, and still no concrete plans to unite the grassroots of the game with the A-League via a cup competition or the like.

Gallop comes to the FFA with far more experience at leading a major code than Buckley, six years after he was targeted to replace former FFA CEO John O’Neill. It certainly highlights how much control FFA chairman Frank Lowy has over the game he runs, having finally wooed his man.

Gallop is undoubtedly a strong leader. He was charged with leading the NRL as it rolled from one scandal to another (not his own doing), skillfully handling the controversies and continuing to grow the game while maintaining a constant presence in the media defending his code.

It was a stark contract to Buckley, whose persona never suited taking a forthright stance in front of the cameras, which only fueled the feeling amongst football fans that he wasn’t passionate about the game.

At times when the code needed him, when, for example, issues such as negative media coverage on crowd trouble and numbers required strong conviction, Buckley’s softly-spoken nature and lax responses didn’t satisfy the demands of being the game’s leader. He never appeared to be on the front-foot defending and spruiking the game, certainly not like the AFL’s Andrew Demetriou or Gallop during his NRL reign.

But Gallop is the third leader in a row to come from a non-football background, and the third to come from another football code. In fact, the FFA has now completed the trinity of leaders from the “big three” footy codes, with rugby league’s Gallop following rugby union’s O’Neill and the AFL’s Buckley.

It’s an ongoing concern that the governing body continues to seek a non-football person to lead the game, perhaps reflecting Lowy’s desire to maintain a professional distance from those who were involved in the game pre-FFA.

Aside from O’Neill, the trio’s dealings in the other codes have been restricted to Australia, with little need to engage with Asia, for example, such a key area of growth for Australian football at club and national level, not to mention the wider global geopolitical world of football.

Even at home it’s a complex beast that lacks the clear pathways and structures of the likes of the NRL and AFL. Football’s grassroots remains disconnected from the top tier, and while some don’t like to admit it, the “old soccer” and “new football” division remains.

How a non-football leader who has been so ingrained in another game’s culture and practices can grasp all this is questionable, particularly considering O’Neill and Buckley’s failure to make significant inroads in these areas.

Think of the major decisions that were made since the A-League’s inception that lacked a football perspective: the delay in expanding to two teams in Melbourne and Sydney, thus delaying proper same-city derbies – the lifeblood of football; the naivety of locking A-League clubs into stadiums that were far too big for the game, thus stifling the match-day atmosphere; and centralising so much of the club’s business dealings, thus making it more difficult for clubs to develop their own unique characteristics.

It’s been a slow process to get the league steered in the right direction. And although he is an undoubtedly talented administrator with a better track record and presence than his predecessor, Gallop must get acquainted with the peculiarities of football quickly.

The NRL could, therefore, have played a key role in the future direction of Australian football; not only training and freeing up a leader the round-ball game desperately needs but also staying put at its free-to-air home and leaving some openings elsewhere.

A billion reasons to smile for the NRL and a few for football fans…

Adrian Musolino
Adrian Musolino

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.