Free-to-air coverage vital for A-League’s future

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    Roar players celebrate following the A-League season 7 grand final between the Brisbane Roar and Perth Glory (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

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    Since the announcement of Football Federation Australia’s four-year, $160 million media rights deal with current host Fox Sports and SBS, the debate that has kicked into life is which is more important, the value or the new partner?

    The value, $40 million per season, for some is disappointing as it falls short of expectations and supposed previous bids. But it crucially covers the salary cap for the 10 clubs.

    The partnership with SBS is more crucial, because it opens the free-to-air door for a league hidden away on pay television, at a time when it has the momentum to entice a new audience.

    SBS’s coverage includes one live Friday night A-League match per week, all finals series matches, including the grand final, Socceroos World Cup qualifiers on an hour delay, and a weekly A-League highlights show in addition to online, radio and mobile rights.

    All bases are covered – a live showpiece fixture in a regular and attractive timeslot, a highlights package that will showcase the best of the action and should feature prominently on the network’s schedule, and the finals series and Socceroos matches covered on a slight delay.

    Irrespective of the sum, the salary cap is taken care of and it’s now up to the clubs to maximise the increased exposure of additional free-to-air coverage.

    A league (and wider code) available to only those with enough disposable income for pay television is now open to those not so fortunate, and a potential new audience more likely to stumble across the coverage and give it a go, as opposed to a sports-only pay television network.

    Some will claim the game has merely retreated to its former spiritual home, the home of ‘old soccer’. But it’s crucially a network that will respect the game and give it plenty of love and attention as it’s part of SBS’s fabric.

    Super Rugby, the National Basketball League, V8 Supercars and the A-League’s predecessor, the National Soccer League, stand as examples of codes who have, in the past or present, paid the price of commercial free-to-air networks’ cut-throat, unsentimental approach to fringe code sports coverage.

    Even if the potential audience is smaller than a Seven, Nine or Ten, who were seemingly never interested in the A-League anyway, the treatment it will receive with live prime-time coverage, only slight delays etc. is far more valuable than being treated as an afterthought elsewhere.

    Remember, regardless of the numbers SBS may give away to the commercial networks, its reach far outweighs that of Fox Sports, putting the A-League for the first time in households who have never been exposed to it, at a time when the buzz around the league with star marquees and entertaining and unpredictable football is at an all-time high.

    This is the most positive aspect of the new media deal, on top of meeting the requirement for the clubs’ salary caps, for the growth potential is clear.

    It’s also an opportunity to do away with any talk the game’s ‘old soccer’ and ‘new football’ divide was reflected in the schism between SBS and Fox Sports.

    Now FFA must ensure the money is allocated wisely, with clubs becoming viable propositions for their owners while also enticing potential new investors into the game, particularly if the likes of current club owner Nathan Tinkler are forced to vacate the league.

    There are positive noises coming from FFA that expansion is on the backburner and a knockout cup competition remains on the agenda, with David Gallop now in charge and impressing in his early days as the game’s leader.

    As for scheduling, FFA must ensure the Friday fixtures become the showpiece event of each round, like the AFL and NRL, in order to maximise the potential of the free-to-air debut. It becomes the A-League’s greatest advertisement.

    Whether you believe the deal is strong or not, there can be no denying the game finds itself in a far healthier position than a year ago, when the league seemed to be unravelling as its faulty expansion plans collapsed and faith in the league and governing body was at an all-time low.

    With a free-to-air presence added to the current coverage, the league can only grow in exposure and popularity. It’s a win-win.

    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.