Is the new EPL broadcast deal really a good thing for fans?

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In just over six months a new English Premier League campaign kicks off. So why hasn’t Optus announced its broadcast plans yet?

Last November’s announcement that telecommunications provider Optus had secured the exclusive Australian broadcast rights to the EPL for the next three seasons was a huge surprise to many.

With pay TV network Fox Sports the long-term home of English top-flight football on Australian screens, news that the current EPL season will be Fox’s last came as a shock.

Fox currently broadcasts up to ten EPL games live and in high definition each week, with simultaneous kick-offs available on demand.

That will no longer be the case next season, after Optus outbid both Fox and Qatar-based broadcaster beIN Sports in a deal reportedly worth upwards of $50 million.

One well-placed source told me that while Fox suspected it might lose the EPL rights, the network expected to relinquish them to beIN Sports.

When news broke that Fox would lose its 18-year-stranglehold on the EPL, some fans on social media predicted it would drive down costs for Australian consumers. I’m not so sure.

What is certain is that Optus’ failure to deliver anything other than a cursory media release is not a good start.

A fortnight after the announcement, the Australian Financial Review’s Paul Smith wrote a detailed analysis of what Optus must do to avoid alienating fans.

Putting aside questions of what the actual broadcasts will look like, so far the telecommunications provider has failed to provide any insight whatsoever around almost all of Smith’s key points.

Add to that the online rumours that some Optus staff were talking about running advertising during the ‘EPL finals’ and you get the sneaking suspicion they don’t necessarily know what they’re doing.

Of course, Optus nabbing the EPL rights could still turn out to be a positive thing.

It’s almost certain the matches will be screened via IPTV service Fetch TV, while Optus’ mobile phone and internet users will presumably enjoy complimentary access to EPL broadcasts.

Meanwhile, Optus chief executive Allen Lew has insisted the company’s infrastructure will be upgraded to broadcast multiple games in high definition over high-speed internet connections.

Given that Optus has already signed a streaming deal with Cricket Australia and Lew himself long ago cited his plan to aggressively bid for content, it’s unlikely the EPL rights will be the last major addition to the sporting stable.

The problem for Optus is that it has just wrested control of a television product that is already expertly broadcast.

Will Optus offer pre and post-game analyses from former Premier League winners like Mark Bosnich and Robbie Slater? Will highlights be readily available on TV and online?

Watch beIN Sports’ live Serie A game on a Monday morning, for example, and you’ll find your analysis comes from British broadcaster Andy Kerr’s Sunday Night Live panel show.

It’s serviceable-enough viewing, but it has nothing to do with Australia or the way we watch our football.

Ironically, it was News Corp chairman Robert Thomson who labelled Australian EPL fans “insomniacs” in the wake of Fox losing the rights to a product screened in the early hours.

As it stands, the A-League generally out-rates the EPL – although there should also be some serious questions asked about how the OzTAM ratings are produced.

Ultimately, Fox’s loss could well be our communal gain, with Optus driving down pay TV prices and offering a superior broadcast experience.

However, their silence so far is damning. If Optus genuinely expects EPL fans to switch telco providers, they’ve already left their run alarmingly late.

More likely is that Optus nabbing the EPL rights will only add to fans’ costs, particularly if they choose to share it exclusively with Optus customers.

And an expensively-acquired broadcast product could ironically be what drives us all back to illegal streams.

Mike Tuckerman
Mike Tuckerman

Mike Tuckerman is a Sydney-born journalist and lifelong football fan. After lengthy stints watching the beautiful game in Germany and Japan, he settled in Brisbane, and has been a leading Roar football columnist from December 2008.