How important is free-to-air coverage to the A-League?

Mike Tuckerman Columnist

By Mike Tuckerman, Mike Tuckerman is a Roar Expert

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    Channel Seven has loomed as an unlikely bidder to broadcast the A-League, but will a free-to-air home on a major network take football in Australia to the next level?

    Lost amid much of the fanfare surrounding the recent grand final was the fact that after four years, SBS quietly wrapped up their coverage of the A-League.

    It was coverage that attracted its fair share of criticism, from the choice of commentators to the fact it was shunted on to SBS Viceland, and at times it felt like many fans forgot the A-League was even broadcast on a free-to-air network.

    That’s not a huge surprise given that the majority of A-League fans have got an active Fox Sports subscription, with the days of SBS being known as the ‘Soccer Broadcasting Service’ sadly long gone.

    And while Friday night footy might be a marquee event in other codes, it didn’t help that Football Federation Australia never scheduled the match of the round on the opening night of the weekend.

    It didn’t stop them from actively shopping around the free-to-air rights barely two years into the last broadcast deal, to the understandable chagrin of SBS.

    Now FFA is once again looking for a free-to-air partner, and according to a report by Dom Bossi in the Sydney Morning Herald, that partner could potentially be Channel Seven.

    But would they be a decent fit for the game? And how come FFA is having so much trouble selling the free-to-air broadcast rights anyway?

    It’s an understatement to suggest football fans in Australia have long memories, and any discussion around Channel Seven broadcasting the world game tends to start and end with the network’s shameful coverage of the National Soccer League.

    After signing a 10-year deal in 1998 to broadcast NSL and Socceroos matches on its pay-TV arm C7 Sport – a component of which was supposed to be concurrent free-to-air broadcasts – Seven soon relegated NSL coverage to a late-night one-hour highlights show, allegedly as a favour to the AFL.

    It spawned the unforgettable “Nobody screws soccer like Seven” bumper sticker and ensured that, nearly two decades later, football fans still remind the network they would rather anyone else broadcast the game.

    But given that FFA has clearly failed to sell the free-to-air broadcast rights for next season and beyond – no mean feat given that Channel Ten was assumed to have the deal sewn up months ago – just how picky can the A-League afford to be?

    There are a few factors that continue to work against a free-to-air broadcast deal, not least the fact it’s extremely difficult to schedule commercial breaks during play.

    There’s also the fact that the three commercial networks have already spent vast sums of money to acquire the broadcast rights to the NRL and AFL respectively, and will soon break the bank to screen the Big Bash League.

    Yet A-League rights are reasonably cheap in the grand scheme of things, and there’s surely a demand to fill long summer hours with content – especially on a channel like 7mate.

    If beggars can’t be choosy, then surely having the A-League broadcast on one of Seven’s secondary channels can’t be a bad thing?

    There’s a tendency to underestimate the importance of Fox Sports in all of this, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that they’re paying a minimum of $57 million a year to broadcast the A-League from next season.

    Often the online chatter surrounding A-League broadcast rights treats Fox Sports’ investment as an act of charity, with the network seemingly expected to cough up huge sums of money to produce A-League coverage, and then hand it over for virtually nothing to a free-to-air network.

    Similar sentiment exists around streaming – which sounds nice, but relies on someone actually filming the football in question.

    All of which makes one of Seven’s secondary channels now seem like the only viable option.

    But even if they swoop in, the question remains: will it convert casual sport watchers into genuine A-League fans?

    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.

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    The Crowd Says (114)

    • May 19th 2017 @ 8:54am
      Dan said | May 19th 2017 @ 8:54am | ! Report

      Yes!! We need to get into the mainstream public and also find the guys who did the sportsbet ad and get them to do an a league Ad. We need to get people talking.

    • May 19th 2017 @ 8:57am
      Caltex & SBS support Australian Football said | May 19th 2017 @ 8:57am | ! Report

      Don’t worry, SBS will remain committed to Australian Football and they will again be the FTA channel in 2017-2018 season. Gallop, will resign before the next season starts—he has nothing more to offer, now he has committed football to a far too long 6 year deal with FOX. Lyall Gorman, will return to football and run the game as it deserved to be run with respect.

    • May 19th 2017 @ 9:24am
      DH said | May 19th 2017 @ 9:24am | ! Report

      I don’t see much of a change going from SBS2 to 7mate.

      If you’ve got Freeview, you can access both and probably don’t really have a preference.

      The game changer would be when the main channel 7 channel starts advertising the games during prime time shows like the news and MKR. That’s a long way off, but I suppose being on 7 is a start.

      As long as there’s something in the contract to say every game has to be live.

      I’m not sure why Channel 7 is considered so much better than SBS. I watch more SBS than Channel 7. Though I have foxtel so never really watch sport on either.

      • May 19th 2017 @ 9:39am
        Tom m said | May 19th 2017 @ 9:39am | ! Report

        SBS doesn’t have near the marketing power or pull that a full commercial TV station like channel 7 has. This should be celebrated but as usual most fans are unwilling to embrace change.

        • May 19th 2017 @ 10:52am
          Chris said | May 19th 2017 @ 10:52am | ! Report

          Tom not sure if anyone is on here saying we dont embrace “any change” as you put it.
          Ch 7 needs to be treated with caution though as we know where their investment lies.

    • Roar Guru

      May 19th 2017 @ 9:29am
      Rellum said | May 19th 2017 @ 9:29am | ! Report

      Rugby is basically on pay TV and look how that is going. In the short term you need free to air TV. In the long term you need to have streaming, look at the MLB TV. Perfect coverage for someone who wants to watch the sport.

    • May 19th 2017 @ 9:31am
      Jeff dustby said | May 19th 2017 @ 9:31am | ! Report

      Smell the fear

      • May 19th 2017 @ 10:01am
        punter said | May 19th 2017 @ 10:01am | ! Report

        Fear the smell.

        • May 19th 2017 @ 11:58pm
          jeff dustby said | May 19th 2017 @ 11:58pm | ! Report

          all over me

          • May 20th 2017 @ 7:40am
            punter said | May 20th 2017 @ 7:40am | ! Report

            Over us all!!!

    • May 19th 2017 @ 9:31am
      Nemesis said | May 19th 2017 @ 9:31am | ! Report

      Commercial FTA TV won’t create avid ALeague watchers.

      It will just add more ALeague viewers from the group of Aussies who are too thick and too lazy to change a TV channel so they just sit & watch whatever is promoted by their favourite TV network.

      If the ALeague then switched back to SBS a few years later, I doubt those type of fans will continue watching in significant numbers.

      In the same way, if Friday night NRL or AFL were broadcast on SBS2 you can be sure they wouldn’t attract the same viewing numbers as they do on 9 Network & 7 Network respectively.

      So, yes. FTA TV is important to just have ALeague shoved in the faces of Aussies every day. Same as having ALeague on the Back Page/s of the major newspapers in each city would also be important. It doesn’t make people love the sport. It just makes people aware of the sport.

      Finally, if the 9 Marquee Fixtures were broadcast on commercial FTA TV on Saturday night the Broadcaster would be assured of having a Top 20 TV Show every Saturday from October to May.

      • May 19th 2017 @ 11:59pm
        jeff dustby said | May 19th 2017 @ 11:59pm | ! Report

        for a know it all, you know very little

      • May 20th 2017 @ 3:46am
        Arto said | May 20th 2017 @ 3:46am | ! Report

        Exactly, Nemesis, but it’s the ‘foot-in-the-door’ moment and THAT’s what so important about it… Once it becomes a part of mainstream FTA, it then gains access to a much wider audience and variety of advertising/promotional channels which then again snowballs such that it becomes more popular. It’s not likely to happen at warp speed, but that’s the evolutionary path at least.

        The major unknown moving forward is how much relevance programmed television (ie: non-streaming or non on-demand tv) will have in most people’s lives moving forward. The irony being that sport, being a fixed-time event, will actually a tool whereby programmed TV (& especially FTA Networks) can prioritise their Resources towards in order to remain relevant!

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