Football is still in the little leagues compared with Australian rules and rugby league, the two behemoths devouring TV’s sporting dollars by the billion.
But what is remarkable, and worrying even to the giants, is just how fast it is growing.
Three things stand out in football’s new $160 million TV rights deal: it’s twice as lucrative as the last one, it can be renegotiated after just four years instead of seven, and it finally delivers a free-to-air component, critical if audience numbers are to take a great leap forward.
Pay-TV remains the cornerstone, with Fox Sports kicking in 80 per cent of the annual $40 million package which delivers all Socceroos and A-League matches live.
But the entry of SBS changes the game in one significant aspect. It’s not one of the big commercial networks, and it must screen World Cup qualifiers and A-League finals on a one-hour delay.
But it has long cast itself as football’s spiritual home, it retains rights to the World Cup finals until 2022 and perhaps most importantly it now gets one A-League match live every Friday.
SBS will be hoping Friday night football becomes an institution for round-ball fans as it has for AFL and NRL supporters.
So will Fox Sports, which believes big SBS viewing numbers will help drive increases in its own customer base.
Cash-strapped A-League clubs will be delighted. Football Federation Australia might now be able to achieve its goal of hiking up its annual distribution to them, currently at $1.9 million, to match their $2.5 million salary caps.
And what of the Del Piero factor? Fans may be surprised to learn there wasn’t one.
The Italian superstar’s appearance in Sydney FC colours has worked wonders on audiences, both at grounds and in living rooms, and will no doubt help maintain the A-League’s surge into next year and beyond. But apparently it made little difference to the new TV contract.
“From my side we were pretty well done before all that (Del Piero’s signing) came,” said Fox Sports CEO Patrick Delany.
“The competition really turned last season, when ratings went up 40 to 50 per cent.
“Over the past two years the ratings have grown by nearly 100 per cent.”
Another important factor, he said, was engendering some geographical “tribalism” with the advent of the Wanderers in the huge sporting marketplace of western Sydney.
Football’s $160m deal is still dwarfed by AFL’s $1.25 billion and NRL’s $1.025 billion, both over five years rather than four.
But what if football can double its marketability again four years from now?
Then it will be taken very seriously indeed.
David Gallop, now running football after 10 years with rugby league, is fond of the sleeping giant analogy.
He says football is now “awake, out of bed and out in the street, with cash in his pockets”.