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

Mike Tuckerman Columnist

By , 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.