Finally, some commonsense from Football Federation Australia, with Frank Lowy realising the game is up for the A-League and the Australian World Cup bid if drastic changes aren’t made – and made now.
At a function hosted by Melbourne Victory, Lowy acknowledged the future of the game wasn’t in being squirreled away on pay-TV and said “there’s no doubt that the game needs to be shown on free-to-air from time to time, or certain parts of the competition on free-to-air”.
This is a seismic statement from the FFA chairman and will have Fox Sports executives, to extend the earthquake metaphor for a moment, shaking in their boots.
With two years left on their seven-year, $120m deal, Fox would have been forward-planning to embed themselves even further in the profile of the local game, withstanding the rights already purloined by SBS, which include the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Instead it has been left on shakier ground than ever before.
Football has been Fox’s glittering prize: A-League matches, A-League highlights shows, Socceroos qualifiers in Asia and for the World Cup, home friendlies.
A not inconsiderable bounty.
In the process, broadcasting careers have been made and a wedge driven between Fox and SBS for the bragging rights as the “home of football”.
But it appears Lowy has cottoned on to the fact that if he is going to bid for the World Cup, a mission whose raison d’etre is to bring the game of football to as many people as possible, he can’t at the same time be seen to be denying it to the majority of Australians, the very people he needs to get behind the campaign.
Hence his new, calculated message of “football to the people”. Up until now, true to his businessman’s creed, it was “football to the highest bidder”.
Football fans would be right to be cynical about it but hardly in a position to complain. For the game to truly grow it does need to be seen by as many people as possible, and that is on free-to-air.
What Lowy must equally do, however, is not make the same mistake as his predecessor, David Hill, and sell the game’s soul – or part of it – to the station with the biggest ratings or advertising revenue. Hill’s selling rights to Channel Seven back in the late 1990s was one of the greatest mistakes in the history of Australian sport.
Who can forget the slogan: “NOBODY SCREWS SOCCER LIKE 7”?
A former chief executive of its then-pay TV arm, C7, even admitted in an email the network had deliberately “suffocated the sport” in order to appease the AFL, who transferred its own rights from Seven to Nine and Ten.
No, the rights must go to the station that will do the right thing by the game. That station is SBS.
I say that not as a SBS employee (though I am) but as a football fan who appreciates what SBS has done and continues to do for the game I love. No one else, in my opinion, comes close to their passion for the game and the credibility and intelligence of their staff.
Give it to SBS, Frank. And let’s all get on with the show.