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.

    Sport & sports media | (Ice) hockey, AFL, IndyCar, NRL, sports cars, college football, NFL, Rugby, NASCAR, V8 Supercars. Tweeting about sport, movies, music and other randomness from @kitchtrips

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    The Crowd Says (70)

    • January 15th 2014 @ 7:26am
      Storm Boy said | January 15th 2014 @ 7:26am | ! Report

      NFL aren’t live in every market. There is often blackouts of coverage in home cities until the game sells out. NFL is shown on Sunday nights on NBC I think but I don’t think it is the biggest ratings slot of the Thursday-Monday NFL round. MNF is the big winner. We’re not like the USA as much of that MNF is based on going out to a bar or pub with friends.

      • January 15th 2014 @ 8:12am
        Kasey said | January 15th 2014 @ 8:12am | ! Report

        I understand that until recently (1970-ish) there was only one NFL game telecast on American TV (the local franchise v whoever) so the addition of nationally telecast MNF (feat. exotic non-local teams) was like water in the desert for football starved fans and became a massive hit based on this. Are AFL fans really footy starved?? Sunday night footy is terrible for families, by scheduling SNF, the AFL are saying to families: stiff bikkies, thanks for your support during the season, but we don’t care if you can’t make it to the game because your kids have to go to school on Monday. I predict the backlash/pushback from the fans will be loud and clear on this issue.

        • Roar Guru

          January 15th 2014 @ 8:14am
          Andrew Kitchener said | January 15th 2014 @ 8:14am | ! Report

          Doubtless the AFL hopes for more TV ratings than people through the gate. If a stadium is 40% empty, but the game draws big-time numbers on television, you figure the League would be happy enough.

        • January 15th 2014 @ 8:59am
          micka said | January 15th 2014 @ 8:59am | ! Report

          +1

          I will surely watch the Sunday night games on the box but they can say goodbye to families with kids. No one wants to be putting their kids to bed at 10-11 at night with school the next morning…

          “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.” – No, I won’t.

        • January 15th 2014 @ 11:08am
          Floreat Pica said | January 15th 2014 @ 11:08am | ! Report

          Getting the balance right for each team’s scheduling will be the hard thing. Each club would want to ensure they have 4 or 5 games per season in a time-slot suitable for bringing kids- with membership dollars so critical, stopping your future membership from going to the game would be something no-one wants.

      • Roar Guru

        January 15th 2014 @ 8:17am
        Andrew Kitchener said | January 15th 2014 @ 8:17am | ! Report

        Additionally, since MNF left broadcast TV (ABC) and went to ESPN, there’s been a major downgrade in scheduling. Where Monday night was once the big night for football, where your Cowboys vs. Redskins or Pats vs. Colts games were shown, that has now switched to NBC. Sunday night is the big-time destination, with the best broadcast of them all.

      • January 16th 2014 @ 4:43pm
        Jorji Costava said | January 16th 2014 @ 4:43pm | ! Report

        Once 4k TV becomes workable. It’ll take AFL to a whole new level across the country. You can see double the area on your tv in far more clarity.

        To give you an idea, it allows you just to set a camera in the middle of a basketball court and you can see in perfect view the whole court.

        It is going to be a game changer.

    • Roar Guru

      January 15th 2014 @ 7:41am
      Andrew Kitchener said | January 15th 2014 @ 7:41am | ! Report

      Sunday Night Football is far bigger than any other sports property in America.

      The numbers from the 2013 season are extraordinary, and tell the story:

      ESPN’s most-watched Monday night game was the Eagles-Redskins game on Sept. 9, with 16.52 million viewers.

      NBC’s most-watched Sunday night game was the Eagles-Cowboys game on Dec. 29, hauling in 27.4 million viewers.

      NFL Network’s most-watched Thursday night broadcast was the Chiefs-Eagles game on September 19, with 11.1 million.

    • January 15th 2014 @ 8:47am
      Shmick said | January 15th 2014 @ 8:47am | ! Report

      Australia is a nation of whingers who don’t like change. That’s a fact, and that’s the toughest part of the challenge for the AFL.

    • January 15th 2014 @ 9:01am
      Storm Boy said | January 15th 2014 @ 9:01am | ! Report

      AFL is not a tv game. NFL is not a family game. It is predominantly male adult fans and viewers. Forcing AFL families to not go to their club’s game by putting it on a Sunday night is not going to go down well here. It may work in other codes as their fans stay at home and are mostly male.

      • Roar Guru

        January 15th 2014 @ 9:06am
        Andrew Kitchener said | January 15th 2014 @ 9:06am | ! Report

        I beg to differ on the NFL not being a family game. There sure were plenty of families at MetLife Stadium and Soldier Field when I was there a couple of weeks ago.

        • Roar Guru

          January 15th 2014 @ 10:59am
          peeeko said | January 15th 2014 @ 10:59am | ! Report

          andrew, were you at soldier field for the packers game? it was absolutely freezing

          • Roar Guru

            January 15th 2014 @ 1:38pm
            Andrew Kitchener said | January 15th 2014 @ 1:38pm | ! Report

            No, but I’ve been to Bears games in the snow before. It’s intense.

      • January 15th 2014 @ 9:07am
        Kasey said | January 15th 2014 @ 9:07am | ! Report

        I see families all the time at AFL games and the AFL rightly prides itself on keping the game affordable for families(affordable yes, butr SNF raises the accessible? issue) From my experiences of the NFL..if you don’t have a good income, you’ve got buckleys chance of securing a ticket to a game once PSLs and ticket price is accounted for. How could an average family afford to take the kids regularly?

        So many Americans think of the NFL as a money grabbing League. This weekend’s 49ers @ Seahawks playoff game has average prices per ticket on the online secondary market(NFL ticket exchange) well above US400 ea.

        • Roar Guru

          January 15th 2014 @ 9:24am
          Andrew Kitchener said | January 15th 2014 @ 9:24am | ! Report

          Conference Championships aren’t a good indicator of ticket price market. Everything is raised astronomically the deeper into January we go. Although, I’ve never paid huge prices for regular season games, even in New York. I’ve actually shelled out more for Rangers tickets than Giants.

          • January 15th 2014 @ 9:26am
            Kasey said | January 15th 2014 @ 9:26am | ! Report

            AK, Of course… Hockey(specifically the NHL) Now there’s an expensive ticket to acquire.

            • Roar Guru

              January 15th 2014 @ 9:35am
              Andrew Kitchener said | January 15th 2014 @ 9:35am | ! Report

              Especially at Madison Square Garden. Go down to Florida and you’re sitting ten rows back on the centre line for what you’d pay for tickets in the 400’s at the Garden. The best kept secret in hockey is LA: inexpensive tickets and the Kings have a great atmosphere bubbling.

        • Roar Guru

          January 15th 2014 @ 11:03am
          peeeko said | January 15th 2014 @ 11:03am | ! Report

          i paid 175 for the cheapest nosebleeds at chicago bears last game. its was minus 6 but with only one team in a city of 8 million thats the going rate

          • Roar Guru

            January 15th 2014 @ 1:03pm
            Andrew Kitchener said | January 15th 2014 @ 1:03pm | ! Report

            Wow, really? I paid much less than that and we were only halfway from the field, on about the 40. What website do you use?

      • January 15th 2014 @ 9:25am
        Slane said | January 15th 2014 @ 9:25am | ! Report

        NFL is super family friendly. Both sexes love it. All ages love it. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Even at college level the crowd is close to 50/50 male/female.

        • Roar Guru

          January 15th 2014 @ 9:37am
          Andrew Kitchener said | January 15th 2014 @ 9:37am | ! Report

          Right on. I was at Michigan vs. Ohio State in November. We parked about six blocks away in a church lot in Ann Arbor and walked. Was impressed with the number of family groups we saw coming in, parents with kids all decked out, and the student section was a 50/50 split. It was a great atmosphere.

          • January 15th 2014 @ 12:01pm
            Kasey said | January 15th 2014 @ 12:01pm | ! Report

            College football is a very different animal to NFL football…the tickets are generally cheaper for starters.

            • Roar Guru

              January 15th 2014 @ 12:51pm
              Andrew Kitchener said | January 15th 2014 @ 12:51pm | ! Report

              Certainly, but football is football and the nation’s obsession with the NFL translates to Saturday football, too.

            • Roar Rookie

              January 16th 2014 @ 10:42am
              josh said | January 16th 2014 @ 10:42am | ! Report

              I believe college football has dry stadiums too.

              • Roar Guru

                January 16th 2014 @ 11:30am
                Andrew Kitchener said | January 16th 2014 @ 11:30am | ! Report

                That is why tailgating was invented!! 🙂

    • January 15th 2014 @ 9:14am
      Jorji Costava said | January 15th 2014 @ 9:14am | ! Report

      If I were the AFL and Seven, I would be running AFL Sunday afternoon to the 8:30 movie in order to take a wrecking ball to Channel Nine’s 6pm news. It would utterly decimate Nine that. Surprised they have not done it. Real shame about the Sydney and Brisbane viewing figures. If they had all the states on board it would be an incredible TV juggernaut. Maybe one day.

      • January 15th 2014 @ 1:26pm
        JamesP said | January 15th 2014 @ 1:26pm | ! Report

        “If they had all the states on board it would be an incredible TV juggernaut. ”

        No doubt about that. If the AFL was as loved in NSW and QLD as it is elsewhere it would be in a similar position to the NFL in the states. As it is, the AFL GF is usually the top rating sports program of the year, but not the biggest on TV in general.

        • January 15th 2014 @ 1:39pm
          Kasey said | January 15th 2014 @ 1:39pm | ! Report

          As a measure of how easy it is to call the SuperBowl America’s (perhaps even Earth’s) largest Sporting event:

          consider this line from The King of Sports by Gregg Easterbrook:
          “Gridiron football is the king of sports – it’s the biggest game in the strongest and richest country in the world. Of the twenty most-watched television broadcasts ever, both in the United States and internationally, all twenty were Super Bowls.

    • January 15th 2014 @ 9:51am
      Johan said | January 15th 2014 @ 9:51am | ! Report

      I think it is definitely worth a try- I suspect it will work but if it doesn’t work then it can be changed back. The league needs to try and experiment to maximize its revenue and this is a sensible experiment. If ofher leaguea is Australia don’t want to try and make extra coin then that is up to them. I’m surprised the NRL doesn’t try this as we are constantly being told that The NRL is a TV sport hence the crowds are so low.

      • Roar Guru

        January 15th 2014 @ 9:56am
        Andrew Kitchener said | January 15th 2014 @ 9:56am | ! Report

        The NRL doesn’t even have all their games live. That should be their first fix.

      • January 15th 2014 @ 10:00am
        Kasey said | January 15th 2014 @ 10:00am | ! Report

        IIRC the last time(mid 1990s?) the AFL experimented with Sunday (Evening?) Footy they put the games on at twilight didn’t they?

        The feedback was quite clear and definitive in the negative for the reasons detailed above..families can’t justify attending the games…but hey if the AFL want to try again, this time with night instead of twilight(which will surely exacerbate the late night for kids on a school night issue) …the old South Australian saying about Victorians comes to mind: ”you can always tell a Victorian…you can’t tell him much but you can always tell one!” 😉

        • Roar Guru

          January 15th 2014 @ 10:20am
          Andrew Kitchener said | January 15th 2014 @ 10:20am | ! Report

          I honestly don’t think the AFL will mind if they lose some butts on seats in the crowd but gain higher TV ratings. Putting games on a Sunday night doesn’t seem to me to be a move for fans in the ground, but more for television purposes.

          • January 15th 2014 @ 10:24am
            Kasey said | January 15th 2014 @ 10:24am | ! Report

            AR raises the issue below in a comment I cant quite get to with my work browser where he says:
            There’s certainly plenty left for the AFL to “sell” in its broadcast package, but finding a balance between the fans and the networks is a big challenge. Currently, they largely get it right, but I suspect prime time TV spots (and possibly SNF) will increasingly become the big ticket games…especially when all games are produced and televised via AFL Media.

            My response to both AK and AR is:

            For the NFL, NFL Films is the rights holder and content producer for the excellent NFL Game>Pass (of which I am a subscriber), but the video feed still comes from the TV broadcast of the games. The great and mighty NFL doesn’t man the cameras and trucks to put together the coverage of the games..why would you think the AFL would head in that direction, think of the overheads involved with taking on all the camera operators, the producers and the commentators etc. My point is, if the AFLs mega crowds showed signs of softening, would commercial TV see that as a sign the product was going off the boil? They mightn’t chase the coverage rights as hard as they have in recent times.

            • Roar Guru

              January 15th 2014 @ 10:37am
              Andrew Kitchener said | January 15th 2014 @ 10:37am | ! Report

              V8 Supercars goes the other way. Channel 7 gets the pictures from V8 TV. Interesting paralells.

            • January 15th 2014 @ 10:49am
              Australian Rules said | January 15th 2014 @ 10:49am | ! Report

              Kasey:
              “My point is, if the AFLs mega crowds showed signs of softening, would commercial TV see that as a sign the product was going off the boil? They mightn’t chase the coverage rights as hard as they have in recent times.”

              This is a pretty confusing comment.

              The *reason* that crowds might soften, is because the AFL had scheduled more games in prime time. It’s precisely the reason that the networks *would* pay more for the rights. Am I missing something?

              • January 15th 2014 @ 11:19am
                Kasey said | January 15th 2014 @ 11:19am | ! Report

                My point is that TV stations use sport to bring in viewers. They choose popular sports to do this because it is easier to sell advertising and thus offset production costs and the fees paid to the sporting organisers. If the crowds drop in the AFL (and ratings don’t rise by a commensurate amount) then they might find it harder to sell advertising and thus won’t be able to offer as much money for broadcast rights…so being cogniscent of ratings is important but if crowds drop in the various stadia then it stands to reason that the atmosphere drops too which makes for a much less attractive ‘product’…I’m thinking of Gold Coast United games which I as a football fan used to dread watching.

              • January 15th 2014 @ 11:51am
                Australian Rules said | January 15th 2014 @ 11:51am | ! Report

                Sorry but your argument still makes no sense.

                You’re suggesting that TV networks would actually pay less for games shown during prime time ratings (rather than the usual Sat afternoon slot), because there could be a small dip in crowds..?

                Seriously?

              • January 15th 2014 @ 11:59am
                Kasey said | January 15th 2014 @ 11:59am | ! Report

                What about if the drop in crowds was used as ‘evidence’ that the game was losing popularity? That might affect the sheen attached to the image of the sport.

              • January 15th 2014 @ 12:20pm
                Matt F said | January 15th 2014 @ 12:20pm | ! Report

                They have 9 AFL games a week. One game on Sunday night with slightly lower crowds isn’t going to destroy the average. Besides, if TV ratings are good then that takes away the theory that it would be losing popularity.

                Look at Monday Night Football for the NRL. The ratings are great for Foxtel but the crowds aren’t very good at all. It hasn’t been used as evidence of declining popularity of the NRL, in fact they signed a much more lucrative TV deal

              • January 15th 2014 @ 12:27pm
                Australian Rules said | January 15th 2014 @ 12:27pm | ! Report

                I think you’re clutching at straws Kasey.

            • January 15th 2014 @ 10:57am
              Matt F said | January 15th 2014 @ 10:57am | ! Report

              I would have thought that TV networks would be more concerned with TV ratings

              • Roar Guru

                January 15th 2014 @ 11:06am
                Andrew Kitchener said | January 15th 2014 @ 11:06am | ! Report

                Exactly. And, of course, this primetime footy idea is coming at Seven’s behest. They’re entitled to get maximum bang for their buck, after all.

                Just like in America, when NBC took over the Sunday night slot, which had previously been an ESPN product with less-attractive games, the Peacock insisted that the NFL give them games worthy of the money they shelled out. Look where those ratings are now.

      • January 16th 2014 @ 4:40pm
        Jorji Costava said | January 16th 2014 @ 4:40pm | ! Report

        Will be interesting to see how much AFL telecasts improve with 4k television.

        FIFA is using it and from the demostration videos it allows to see a lot more of the field, so you can see the runs players are making to passes.

        AFL would be in the same boat. Much larger sections of the field could be seen making it much better to watch on tv.

        Not sure if I buy the NRL is better on tv argument. I see the empty stadiums and I just get a lack of atmosphere which kills the interest. Bit of a con job that argument. I do not buy it at all.

        • January 17th 2014 @ 9:44pm
          Jack Russell said | January 17th 2014 @ 9:44pm | ! Report

          I think the argument is that it’s better suited to TV as you can see more of the play. It’s a fair argument, although you could apply the same argument to chess. That doesn’t mean it’s more interesting to the viewer.

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