AFL takes a page from NFL’s playbook with Sunday night football

Andrew Kitchener Roar Guru

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    The AFL will break new ground in 2014, scheduling a number of primetime Sunday night games – doubtless at the insistence of their broadcast partner, the Seven Network, who are projected to start games just after 7:30pm.

    In retrospect, I’m surprised it’s taken as long as it has for the most popular winter sport in the nation to stake it’s claim in primetime.

    And why not? After a successful twilight experiment, a night game on the final day of the week.

    Their northern cousins at the National Rugby League seem to be happily stuck in the ’90s as far as broadcasts of the game go with delayed telecasts, which must put the NRL alone as the only major league in the world still not delivering every single game live in some form or another.

    The AFL, on the other hand, have been pushing the television boundaries for years, trying out Monday night (another American invention, and rating a storm for cable network ESPN) and Thursday night football.

    Footy will be played in both those important television time slots in 2014, but the Sunday night games are the ones we should watch with particular interest, for it may be the beginning of something big.

    I’ve just returned from my annual four-to-six week American trip, where I get to speak to a bunch of people in various parts of the sporting media landscape over there. It’s also given me time to compare broadcast habits of American sport compared to Australian sport.

    Based on what I’ve seen in America, and knowing the ratings that Friday night games can pull, Sunday night primetime footy looks like an all-posts winner.

    In America, NBC paid (and continue to pay) a not-so-small fortune for rights to the primetime Sunday night game which is generally the best contest of the weekend – or at least features high-drawing teams from major markets like the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and New England Patriots.

    I can only imagine that a similar thing will happen in Australia as Sunday night football becomes more regular. Imagine a Collingwood versus Carlton, Richmond versus Essendon, Derby or Showdown sort of scenario.

    In America, the ratings that NBC pull on a regular basis for Sunday night football are astronomical, and, week-in-week-out, are the best numbers that the struggling network drags in.

    They are the fourth most-popular broadcast network in America, well behind CBS, ABC and FOX.

    Except on Sunday nights. It’s appointment viewing now, with numbers even besting the juggernaut that is reality singing contest The Voice.

    The AFL is going to look at their Sunday night numbers and realise what NBC realised – that they’re on a major winner. It’s my guess that we’ll see increasing numbers of Sunday night broadcasts season after season.

    It could be only five years before there’s a regular primetime Sunday night game every week, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it even out-rate Friday night football, provided there is sensible scheduling.

    I can’t imagine the league messing up a primetime slot with a bad game. The AFL will be looking to make it appointment viewing, a centrepiece of what people do on a Sunday.

    Why will Sunday Night football be successful? Simple: eyeballs.

    Think of all the distractions on Friday nights, Saturday afternoons, Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. There are a thousand and one things that people can be doing across the weekend that would keep them away from their television sets.

    If you’re not going out to tie one on, you’ve doubtless got kids playing sport, or you’re playing sport yourself, or the weather’s just too damn nice to be indoors watching football, especially if it’s not a hugely appealing match-up.

    Come Sunday night, though, the weekend is coming to an end, and there’s less people doing things.

    As evidenced by solid ratings for various TV shows on a Sunday night, most Australians seem to want to sit in front of their television and watch whatever’s on while mentally preparing themselves for the working week.

    It’s where networks run some of their strongest products, and what television people like to label a captive audience.

    People are more likely to watch a bad game on a Sunday night with nothing else on than they would be on a sunny Sunday afternoon when the alternative is to head outdoors.

    With so many eyeballs, Seven can go to their advertisers waving the figures that say primetime audiences are bigger than those on a weekend afternoon and demand more money for running their advertising.

    They also have more chances to promote other shows coming up in the week. It works for the networks and, of course, for AFL House, who will have the added viewer data to take to their own fleet of official sponsors.

    As far as the sport’s governing body, its broadcasters and advertisers go, Sunday night primetime football is a no-brainer.

    I like the idea of a full day of football. The NFL dominates the American sporting landscape on Sunday afternoons during the fall.

    Networks have pre-game shows starting at midday (or earlier on cable networks) which lead into games the League schedules at 1:00pm, 4:25pm and then the primetime game that begins around 8:30pm east coast.

    What that means is you can, if you so choose, turn on your television at midday, watch a pre-game show, then football right through to around midnight.

    It’s a football fan’s dream.

    If Seven slide their news coverage in a break, they stand to expose another network product to a big audience. It might help the news broadcasts in the week, too, if viewers find them to be better than what they normally watch for the news of the day.

    What happens on Sundays in America is exactly the sort of saturation coverage that’s made the NFL such a powerful force, and why other leagues and sports do their best to avoid all clashes with pro football – or suffer death in the ratings as a result, like NASCAR has recently.

    If the AFL does something similar they stand to grow their product enormously, and Seven will certainly appreciate the extra ratings.

    It’s not a stretch to say that the NFL has ground their competition into the dust. Of course, there have been challengers, but none have had the staying power.

    The National Football League is unquestionably the big dog of American sport, and this year’s Super Bowl (to be played at MetLife Stadium, just across the Hudson River from New York City) might prove to be the most-watched show in the history of television in America.

    Not just sporting broadcasts, but television full stop. That’s how big the NFL is.

    Obviously, the AFL won’t ever grow to that level, because Australia simply isn’t big enough, but the way Commissioner Roger Goodell runs football in America is with a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude.

    He’s made changes to his product to further assert his position, and the AFL should be looking to do the same. Invading primetime is the first step.

    What about crowds? Well, let’s face it, if you’re a serious, rusted-on fan of your team, you’ll go to games no matter when they’re scheduled.

    I can only imagine that people prefer Sunday night to Monday night games – I don’t know for sure, as the Swans don’t get these sorts of games for me to properly put my theory to the test – as you haven’t struggled through a day at work prior to game time.

    Monday nights, I prefer to do nothing at all. I can’t imagine I’d be hugely enthusiastic about going to the footy. Generally, there seems to be apathy to the Monday night concept.

    The Seven Network would doubtless prefer a Sunday night game as it won’t ruin their weeknight primetime schedule, and Sunday nights allow them to make viewers painfully aware of what’s coming up.

    Of course, the way Seven ram their product plugs down your throat during the tennis might be replicated for footy, and that wouldn’t be a good thing for anyone, as all long-suffering tennis fans could attest to.

    Subtlety would be nice, or Seven risks alienating viewers.

    All in all, I see mostly positives and only a few minor negatives about the introduction of AFL primetime Sunday night football.

    Of course, whether the experiment grows past this year and takes on a bigger presence on the league’s media landscape depends on its success, which will be measured by viewer numbers.

    As long as the product is handled well, and the AFL has proven itself to be quite savvy from a media standpoint, we should only see growth.

    I think it’s a concept that’ll deliver big-time for both the AFL and Seven. I’ve seen it work in America, and we’re as sports-mad as they are, so why not here?

    Looking into my crystal ball, I see a time, in the not too distant future, when Sunday nights are bigger ratings nights than Fridays.

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