As it stands A-League broadcast arrangements with Fox Sports and SBS are to continue until the conclusion of the 2016-17 season. Though it is rumoured the FFA are seeking to have another free-to-air holder take over from SBS.
Before any deal is signed, though, let’s look at three key points that require some consideration.
In 2013-14, SBS came on board to assist in the broadcast with Fox Sports. It was viewed as a huge step forward for the game.
SBS placed the A-League on their multi-channel SBS2 and already there were cries to have it shown on the main channel as some thought this would hinder the potential growth in viewership.
Fast forward to the conclusion of the 2013-14 season (including finals) and SBS2 provided an additional 3.1 million extra viewers. Fox Sports had 9.25 million viewers. Between the pair, they totalled 12.45 million viewers.
Looking back to the 2012-13 season, Fox Sports on its own had a total of 10.35 million viewers over the course of the whole campaign.
So despite an increase of 2.1 million viewers, which can be attributed to the exposure on free-to-air, Fox Sports had a decrease of 1.10 million viewers.
Did the 1.10 million viewers drop their Fox Sports subscription and become content with the viewing of the A-League on SBS2? Time would tell.
One would hope that due to an increase in exposure on a free-to-air channel that it would create the potential for Fox Sports subscriptions to increase, as fans may have wanted the option of watching all five A-League matches per round.
In 2014-15, SBS ultimately made a decision to move the A-League from SBS2 to its main channel. Many thought this would increase viewership even further.
Once again we fast forward to the conclusion of the 2014-15 season and find that SBS provided a total of 3.75 million viewers, a further increase of 600,000 viewers from SBS2 to SBS.
Unfortunately, this was not the case as Fox Sports totalled 8.1 million – a large decrease of one million viewers. This provided a total viewing audience of 12.23 million viewers which was a further decrease overall.
At this point, some may raise key points such as the marquee factor for season 2013-14 or the Asian Cup factor for season 2014-15, but football is football. Are we establishing that without significant marquees, viewership will decrease to the levels it was previously at prior to marquee arrivals?
Season 2015-16 rolled around and SBS relegated the A-League back to SBS2. Oh, how that backfired.
A total of 1.8 million tuned into SBS2 throughout the course of the season, down close to two million viewers. Fox Sports had 8.3 million viewers, giving season 2015-16 a total 10.1 million viewers – a decrease of 2.1 million.
Many would point to the contributing factors such as the A-League being moved back to SBS2, the dramas between the PFA and FFA and the boycotting of matches by A-League fans. All up it has potential to create an unwelcome feeling and one which may have turned viewing audiences away.
So looking all the way back to the 2012-13 season, Fox Sports’ numbers have dropped from 10.35 million viewers (2012-13) to 8.3 million (2015-16).
SBS came on board at the start of the last TV deal for season 2013-14 and what started out as 3.1 million viewers (2013-14), finished as 1.8 million (2015-16).
Taking the 2015-16 totals from both Fox Sports and SBS and comparing to the 2012-13 season with Fox Sports alone, it doesn’t make for pleasant reading. There has been an overall decrease of 200,000 viewers despite the quality of football improving and greater exposure of the game.
Yet FFA want an increase in the next TV deal. Couple that with the loss of Socceroos matches as a bargaining chip and one can only pray a miracle occurs.
Competition for broadcast rights
Despite the TV viewing numbers, the A-League finds itself in the unusual position of surrounding competition.
Fox Sports chief executive Patrick Delaney has stressed the importance of retaining A-League rights and its importance to the Fox Sports brand.
“We have been an unfalteringly strong supporter of Australian football and specifically the A-League and that dates a long way back to the time when the A-League was only a glimmer in the eye of Frank Lowy,” he said.
“We’re committed to continue to work with the FFA and the football community to build on what’s happened in the last ten years and continue to mission of making football more popular in Australia.”
With Fox Sports’ recent loss of the English Premier League to telco company Optus, Fox Sports have realised the importance of taking football seriously and the retention of the sport for Australian summer viewers.
With the recent acquisition of beIN Sports, which includes three additional channels, and delayed broadcast of six of the top EPL teams’ games, Fox Sports have, despite losing the EPL coverage in its entirety, stepped up its game.
As mentioned before, Optus acquired the EPL rights, which has recently been met with scathing criticisms.
Australian EPL fans feel as though they are being held to ransom to come up with the dollars to be able to view the EPL. Essentially, if you are a Fox Sports consumer and wish to still watch the EPL, you’re left with the dilemma of where it is you decide best to spend your hard-earned money.
It is without a doubt that the deal Optus offer to current customers may be appealing, but for those locked in lengthy contracts with other telco companies, it may come down to the simple fact that even if Australian EPL fans did wish to view the matches, they can simply not afford to make the change.
In summary though, Fox Sports are serious about football and Optus have changed the landscape, which has provided competition.
But who else other than Fox are interested in the A-League?
Optus, of course. Just days ago, Optus commented saying, “We’re looking at it (A-League) seriously”.
“If it makes sense and it adds value to what we are providing football fans, at a commercial deal that we feel is fair, then we will see how we can bring it across. But, it’s early days and let’s see what happens.”
Though, Optus aren’t the only challengers to a potential TV rights deal.
Earlier in the year, Channel Ten CEO Paul Anderson commented on the A-League rights as well.
“I think what we’ve shown with Big Bash is that we have the ability to innovate and do things differently,” he said.
“We’ve shown that if you have an alignment with the sporting body about the direction of the code and you work together for a mutually beneficial outcome, then lots of things become possible.”
What exactly this means remains to be seen, but there is competition nonetheless and this may prove to be the saving grace for the A-League given the circumstances.
Viewing figures, competition for TV rights, free-to-air/pay TV and TV dollars
With competition for TV rights, the FFA need to strongly consider all options.
Given the backlash Fox Sports faced regarding the loss of the EPL and the competition for pay-tv subscribers increasing with the likes of Netflix and co, can Fox Sports afford to lose the A-League?
With the loss of the Big Bash League a few seasons ago, sporting summer options have dwindled down to the A-League, National Basketball League and other once-per-year events like Formula One and the Australian Open.
Some Fox Sports subscribers may ask themselves whether it is worth remaining a customer if sporting options are limited even further. One might simply unsubscribe until such a time as the winter sports re-start and options are plentiful.
The backlash from a large portion of football and non-football fans towards Optus is a concern. One might fear that if Optus were to acquire the A-League rights that it would be buried away never to be seen again.
Although the EPL viewing audience in Australia might be affected, the EPL does not need to compete as hard as the A-League for attention and a viewing audience.
A strong TV deal is imperative firstly to the survival of the competition but secondly the opportunity to grow.
FFA have expressed a desire to have the A-League broadcast on a free-to-air network that will expose the game to a larger audience.
Looking at the simple viewing habits of Australians, it is easy to see why the FFA want to move away from SBS. It is just a fact that more people watch Channels 7, 9 and 10 significantly more than SBS. Due to this, it is believed that there is a large enough audience out there for viewing figures to increase.
Yet, as highlighted earlier, even when the A-League was afforded more exposure to a smaller free-to-air network, the long-term numbers showed that there was no real benefit obtained.
Viewing figures have not increased dramatically to the point where if I worked for these larger free-to-air networks, I would not be overly confident that purchasing the A-League would benefit my network in the slightest.
The room for advertising is limited when football is broadcast and this is something Channels 7, 9 and 10 largely consider when broadcasting sports such as AFL, NRL and the Big Bash League.
There needs to be a return for investment, otherwise it is throwing money away. And for what? Do they feel as if they need to help the FFA and football continue growing in the country?
Don’t get me wrong, I love my A-League more than anything, but when the numbers stack up, it is very easy to see why the knockers come a knocking and people remain pessimistic. There is no evidence available that indicates a move to free-to-air will prove successful.
Even when the ICC was broadcast, and with what many would deem significantly better quality than the A-League, the most any match could attain was 338,000. Now this isn’t anything to scoff at, but could A-League teams achieve these sorts of figures?
Could these sorts of figures be obtained were the Newcastle Jets, Central Coast Mariners and Wellington Phoenix play on the free-to-air network? No. The figures are easily obtainable and when you look at the viewing habits for these teams on Fox, it is a huge concern. So already our options are limited.
Will Fox Sports fork out top dollar if FFA want to have the best games broadcast on a free-to-air network?
If the general public has access to the highest quality games without the need to pay for a subscription to Fox Sports, one can only imagine the lack of interest to sign up to obtain all other four matches. Perhaps Fox Sports subscriptions would once again decrease.
With other issues regarding expansion, promotion and relegation, grassroots football, quality playing surfaces and stadium management, the TV deal is just the tip of the iceberg in what will shape as potentially the most important broadcast deal made for football in this country.
It is imperative that whatever the FFA do, they consider all factors in deciding who best to hand A-League rights to. Who knows, it may just be that Fox Sports and SBS remain our broadcast partners.
With FFA’s commitment to increase viewership and attendances, are they really serious about bringing a new batch of marquees to the competition?
Would expansion be placed on the table as an offer to increase TV dollars in conjunction with a plan to bring well-known marquees to Australia?
Whatever the plan, there needs to be one that will work, because looking over the course of the past four seasons we’re yet to find the right formula.
*Viewing figures obtained from www.footyindustry.com