Ever since Optus sealed exclusive broadcast rights for the English Premier League in November, no football fan could confidently predict how they were going to deliver their product, what it meant for future sports content and how it may affect A-League coverage.
On Thursday, the telco dropped a bombshell.
No one was expecting Optus to buddy up with public broadcaster SBS, whose future in sport has been under question ever since brutal government funding cuts threatened to instigate widespread change.
Yet SBS, who have always been committed to delivering the FIFA World Cup to Australian audiences, and football in general, appears to be back in the game (kind of), but in bizarre circumstances.
The broadcaster has forfeited exclusive rights to the 2018 World Cup to Optus in return for one measly English Premier League game per week. And it is yet to be revealed how that one game will be chosen.
It is fantastic to see a return to the good old days where SBS screened live EPL games and an hourly highlights package, though it seems like an odd exchange for the golden egg of the World Cup, which pulled almost 14 million viewers in 2014.
The deal will see Optus live broadcast 39 of the 64 World Cup matches exclusively, while SBS will retain free-to-air rights for 25 games. They will only get one game per day, but they get first pick, and are guaranteed all Socceroos matches, four Round of 16, two quarter-finals, both semis and the final showpiece.
There have been legitimate questions marks over whether the deal between SBS and Optus contravenes anti-siphoning laws in Australia, yet they have apparently found loopholes to get around the problem. Otherwise why announce it?
For fans, it is hard to see a downside. Free-to-air viewers get one EPL game per week for the next three years, plus hopefully a highlights show, and they can still enjoy all Australia’s matches at the World Cup, plus most of the finals.
Better yet, is this part of the deal: “SBS will retain daily highlights rights, including every match from the tournament.” This reads as though SBS will be able to show all the goal action, so fans won’t be missing out completely.
“Daily highlights rights” could feasibly also include showing replays, or partial replays, say after Optus has shown their exclusive games live. If so, SBS can be trusted to deliver this footage in a way which Australian viewers will be able to consume at suitable hours – their World Cup coverage has been faultless in the past. And after all, who can honestly say they will get time to watch all 64 games.
Meanwhile, for EPL fanatics, Optus will provide every match live across a maximum of ten channels, including a 24/7 channel, while also delivering through a website and mobile app, as well as a satellite service for those living in remote areas with poor broadband. That sounds pretty epic to me, though a fee is yet to be announced.
One thing is certain, a lot of assumptions have been made with little idea how either of the two deals will truly work. And until Optus announce their pricing scheme the vitriol should perhaps chill.
While in my mind the football fan is not losing out, for SBS to sacrifice the bonanza of exclusive World Cup viewership remains a tad baffling.
Is this a sign that SBS are back with an aim to (partially) reclaim football? Is the venture into a partnership with Optus part of a bigger plan to give them future clout in negotiations for sports rights?
Because online TV is growing ever faster, and Pay TV companies worldwide should be readying for battle. If they are not, they are headed for trouble. Newspapers similarly refused to act promptly more than ten years ago, and their decline in Australia took another depressing turn with Thursday’s announcement of more outrageous editorial cuts by Fairfax Media.
That said, football fans may be the winners from Optus creeping into the sports market.
The only reason I first purchased Foxtel at 16 was for the EPL coverage (before the A-League came on the scene). After a few years I was spending $50 a month to witness Newcastle United largely lose weekly, plus watch a few of the bigger games and enjoy highlights packages. It was money well spent for a football fanatic, even though I was 19, out of home, studying full-time and working part-time to pay bills. Sacrifices had to be made, but it was possible.
Now, however, if I was still living in Australia, it would be an unwelcome dilemma to face buying EPL coverage on Optus and A-League coverage on Foxtel. More sacrifice would probably be the answer, yet it would be beneficial for most football fans if the A-League changes hands too.
It would be rough on Foxtel, their coverage of the A-League is brilliant, yet Optus pipping them to negotiations with Football Federation Australia would mean fans only had to deal with one fee-guzzling provider.
It will make for an interesting next few months as FFA enter the potentially game-changing broadcast negotiations, or at least the most significant in the governing body’s short history.
Do they sell to the highest bidder – which may be Foxtel if they are desperate to hold on to some football coverage – or do they look for maximum exposure, possibly through a deal between Optus and SBS or another FTA broadcaster?
How much do Foxtel want to remain in the football game, given their commitment to the more lucrative NRL and AFL broadcast rights?
Lastly, how much would you be willing to pay for football coverage, Roarers?
How much for the exclusive EPL coverage Optus is planning? How much, as a separate fee, for two months of exclusive live World Cup coverage? And finally, how much for exclusive A-League coverage, if offered as a stand alone product via Optus?