Which sport, if any, will Network Ten opt for?
Can Network Ten acquire Australian premium sport content? (Image: Supplied)
Here is a simple overview of how the free-to-air sporting rights landscape looks following the completion of the AFL and NRL’s new media deals: the Seven Network has AFL, Nine has NRL, and Network Ten has nothing.
After losing its AFL rights last year and having missed out on the NRL from 2013, Network Ten is left with a gaping hole in its sports content.
While it will up its coverage of the NBL this summer, does well with its international motorsport – Formula 1 and MotoGP – coverage on Sunday nights, and offers netball Tests and the ANZ Championship, it no longer has a high-profile big-name sporting code leading the charge.
This is at a time when the network is badly underperforming. Following on from a string of reality television bombs and on top of the loss of its AFL coverage post-2011, Network Ten’s share price has almost halved since January.
As Commonwealth Bank media analyst Alice Bennett told The Sydney Morning Herald, “premium sport is crucial” – and right now Network Ten has none of it.
Unlike reality shows or sitcoms from America, sport tends to rate consistently and to expectations – something the network desperately needs.
Ten must find some middle-ground when it comes to sporting coverage, having gone from the over-the-top all sports digital channel OneHD to forgoing that and scaling back to whatever sport was leftover and rebranding as ‘ONE’.
Considering Ten reportedly offered $800 million for four games a week of the NRL from 2013 but was knocked back in favour for current broadcasters, Channel Nine and Fox Sports, there is clearly a want and financial clout for premium sporting content. And the ONE secondary digital channel has a sporting legacy that can adequately showcase prime-time sporting content away from the main channel.
Cricket, football and V8 Supercars are amongst the sporting codes with television deals up for grabs in the current financial year. It’s now a question of which, if any, of those codes interests Ten.
In terms of popularity, mainstream appeal, previous free-to-air ratings and attendances, cricket is the biggest of the lot. And recent media reports suggest Ten has shown interest in what Cricket Australia has to offer when the latter’s current deal with Nine runs out in March.
Cricket Australia not only has its international summer of cricket to offer but the rise of the Big Bash League could add an extra highly-sought after component to the negotiating table.
Cricket is the staple sporting summer diet for Australians, providing Nine with a strong launch into the ratings season and valuable commercial partnerships with cricket advertisers, so would suit Ten’s requirements.
But Channel Nine won’t relinquish the rights to a sport that is in its blood easily, with its coverage dating back to the advent of World Series Cricket (the nostalgia generated from the Howzat! mini-series will only have reaffirmed how integral cricket is to Nine).
Nine, together with Fox Sports, announced yesterday a broadcast partnership with ESPN Star Sports to show major ICC tournaments through to the 2015 Cricket World Cup. It won’t want a rival network owning the more valuable international summer in the lead-up to Australia’s hosting of the 2015 tournament.
So with Nine likely to put up a fight to keep its status quo of cricket in summer and rugby league in winter, Ten may struggle to wrestle cricket away, particularly if Seven enters the race and puts the bidding beyond Ten’s reach.
With the possibility of bundling all forms of the international game – Test, ODIs and Twenty20 – not to mention the new domestic carrot of the Big Bash League, Cricket Australia could be in for a far greater payday than the $350 million it netted for its last deal.
Less attractive for Ten is Football Federation Australia as it seeks a free-to-air component for its rights from 2013.
It’s highly likely that most of the A-League content will remain on Fox Sports, which has been so crucial to the development of the league, but adding a free-to-air component is a priority for outgoing Football Federation Australia CEO Ben Buckley as the growing league attempts to widen its presence.
Adding some Socceroos content into the mix could help sway a network like Ten, who showed some interest in football (albeit celebrity-fueled interest) when it televised the David Beckham-headlined exhibition match between Sydney FC and Los Angeles Galaxy.
But is the A-League still too new and uncertain a product for a struggling network like Ten to gamble on? Ratings on Fox Sports haven’t necessarily justified a commercial free-to-air move.
Like the NBL it could cater for the hardcore fanbase and attract a niche market across One and delayed on Ten. But it could run into conflict with Ten’s increased NBL coverage, which will include a 9.30pm Friday game on One, a live Sunday afternoon game on Ten and all finals matches, not to mention Ten’s interest in a summer of cricket.
The A-League is hardly the big-name sport the network needs to help turnaround its fortunes, although it could, when combined with the NBL, offer Ten a strong summer platform, pending what A-League coverage it pries from Fox Sports.
While football fans have looked to Ten as a free-to-air possibility given the clear disinterest from Seven and Nine and the hope One could carry a lot of the content should Ten deem it unworthy of its main channel, SBS, the traditional home of football, seems a more realistic option given where the A-League is at in terms of status in Australia.
A report in The Australian suggests Ten hasn’t been back to the negotiating table with Football Federation Australia for “quite some time”. It could take quite a bit to entice them.
So to V8 Supercars, which is likely to have its deal done before Cricket Australia and Football Federation as it kicks off for the 2013 season in March.
Current host broadcaster Channel Seven is on the record as saying it’s interested in retaining the rights, but the inevitable clashes with the AFL have meant V8 Supercars is too often bumped to the secondary digital channel 7Mate, which has had an impact on ratings.
Channel Nine has reportedly thrown its hat into the mix and with its NRL coverage on Fridays and Sundays alone, there will be less clashes than with the AFL on Seven and a potentially strong union between two codes with a similar “blue-collar” appeal. But there will still be a need to play second fiddle to a football code for V8 Supercars and there are mixed reports on how seriously Nine is looking into the series.
While Nine has never broadcast the Australian Touring Car Championship/V8 Supercars, Ten was a critical ingredient in the development of V8 Supercars as host broadcaster from 1997 to the end of 2006, growing the profile of the series by making it its number one priority amongst its stable of motorsport coverage.
Unlike football and cricket, V8 Supercars falls into the ratings period and will have clear air away from the footy codes, providing Ten with some winter sporting content. And in the Bathurst 1000 it would have an event that like the Melbourne Cup has a guaranteed major audience following on from the AFL and NRL seasons.
Some intriguing options for Ten. All three would provide the network with much-needed sporting content and together would combine to provide a strong platform to at least attempt to match rivals Seven and Nine with their respective footy codes.
The ball is very much in Ten’s court.
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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