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

Mike Tuckerman Columnist

By Mike Tuckerman, 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.

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    The Crowd Says (114)

    • May 19th 2017 @ 8:11am
      RBBAnonymous said | May 19th 2017 @ 8:11am | ! Report


      A lot of people think that a FTA deal will be a game changer, I am less inclined to think so. Will there be an uptick of viewers from SBS, of course there will but not as many as people suspect. I think the FFA should stick to its price point and if they don’t sell the game for at least what SBS paid for the rights then it is an utter fail.

      • May 19th 2017 @ 8:42am
        pauly said | May 19th 2017 @ 8:42am | ! Report

        The A-League’s biggest lure is the matchday experience. People who don’t attend games aren’t likely to watch them on television.

        Live finals are the key to making the FTA agreement work, the ratings for the recent Grand Final were astonishing.

      • Roar Rookie

        May 19th 2017 @ 9:39am
        c said | May 19th 2017 @ 9:39am | ! Report

        mike, a reasonable FTA deal will be a step I the right direction

      • Roar Guru

        May 19th 2017 @ 2:16pm
        Kaks said | May 19th 2017 @ 2:16pm | ! Report

        I agree that we wont see an immediate boost in tv audiences.

        However, if we want mainstream success, we need the game to be watched by the mainstream – and that is currently via FTA tv.

    • Roar Guru

      May 19th 2017 @ 8:21am
      Wayne said | May 19th 2017 @ 8:21am | ! Report

      FTA on a commercial station that takes it serious is a must. AFL and NRL have the balance (more or less) right with some games being offered for free (FTA) and some behind a pay wall. If you are a casual generic sports fan, or just a curious bystander you can try the free offering, and maybe get into the sport.

      By hiding everything behind the paywall, you are providing the service to people who are actively seeking it out. Which is fine, for the people that are seeking it out. But casual sports fans (myself included when it comes for Football), can easily give it a miss unless I go to the pub (and they probably have AFL or League on anyway).

      Getting A-League in front of the masses might have a success rate of 3% new fans. Hit a million eyeballs and get a return of 30,000 new supporters isn’t a the worst proposition

      • May 19th 2017 @ 10:06am
        Footoverhand said | May 19th 2017 @ 10:06am | ! Report


    • May 19th 2017 @ 8:33am
      Chris said | May 19th 2017 @ 8:33am | ! Report

      I guess its a good deal if you want to attract angry white men over 55yo

    • May 19th 2017 @ 8:43am
      pauly said | May 19th 2017 @ 8:43am | ! Report

      Personally I can’t help but wonder if 7 will simply use the HAL to promote its other big-ticket items like the tennis, AFL and My Kitchen Rules. And I’m not looking forward to seeing Home and Away stars being interviewed in the stands during play. Nevertheless, better than nothing. Just ask a Super Rugby fan.

    • May 19th 2017 @ 8:44am
      Buddy said | May 19th 2017 @ 8:44am | ! Report

      Not sure how many casual fans want to sit and watch a full 90 minutes? What about a highlights package on FTA so that the occasional viewer at least gets. Taste for it. When I am coaching, I use A Legue and other games a point of reference and ask who has seen a particular move/goal/ whatever the topic is but sadly the consistent answer comes back that people don’t have paytv despite claims about market penetration.
      Trouble is with showing it live on FTA is that it will need ratings to sustain it and is that likely?

      • May 19th 2017 @ 8:47am
        pauly said | May 19th 2017 @ 8:47am | ! Report

        Pay TV is just too expensive and expect fewer people to subscribe with wage growth now BELOW inflation.

        • May 19th 2017 @ 9:25am
          northerner said | May 19th 2017 @ 9:25am | ! Report

          Pay TV’s actually not that expensive if you have the right package – probably a better deal than most of the mobile phone plans out there, actually, and everyone has a mobile. The thing is, it’s discretionary spending which relies on sports fans paying for Pay’s wide ranging sports coverage – and I suspect Australia isn’t quite the sports-mad nation it once was (or thought it was).

          • May 19th 2017 @ 9:30am
            Jeff dustby said | May 19th 2017 @ 9:30am | ! Report

            It’s very cheap just over a buck a day

            • May 19th 2017 @ 9:42am
              northerner said | May 19th 2017 @ 9:42am | ! Report

              Well, I pay more than that for a mixed package, at about $75 a month but I think I get pretty good value for that – wide range of sports and a few drama shows I really enjoy. .

          • May 19th 2017 @ 9:56am
            Nemesis said | May 19th 2017 @ 9:56am | ! Report

            “Pay TV’s actually not that expensive if you have the right package – probably a better deal than most of the mobile phone plans out there, actually, and everyone has a mobile.”

            1) A mobile phone in the 21st century is not discretionary spending. It’s an essential piece of equipment for communicating when you’re not at home. Pay Phones in Australia are scarce, if at all present. For anyone in business, a mobile phone is essential. For some, the mobile phone is the only means of communicating at home since they’ve ditched their landline.

            2) By every measure done by every analyst, Australian Pay TV is very expensive. It’s one of the reasons why Foxtel has less than 30% household penetration in Australia and that has never changed in 20yrs even though Foxtel is a monopoly. By contrast, other nations have PayTV household penetration as high as 70-90% although this is now starting to fall as people cut their cable *& opt for the flexibility of streaming content they want.

            If I want to watch 1-2 A-League matches per week (50-75 matches per year) plus FFA Cup ad some W-League; paying $900 per year is not good value. It’s expensive & it’s over-priced.

            • May 19th 2017 @ 10:13am
              Footoverhand said | May 19th 2017 @ 10:13am | ! Report

              Mobile phones aren’t essential, I haven’t had one for 5 years now.
              I do think pay tv is expensive, especially when I don’t want everything else that you have to get, maybe a cheap sport only package would do for me.
              Personally if Optus jumped on board, I would churn my ISP in a flash, at the moment the EPL isn’t enough to change right now.

              • May 19th 2017 @ 10:34am
                Nemesis said | May 19th 2017 @ 10:34am | ! Report

                I’ll repeat what I said:

                “It’s an essential piece of equipment for communicating when you’re not at home.
                For anyone in business, a mobile phone is essential.”

              • May 19th 2017 @ 11:10am
                Footoverhand said | May 19th 2017 @ 11:10am | ! Report

                How would you feel about a streaming service like Optus or someone else, just that they have the EPL already?

              • May 19th 2017 @ 11:31am
                Nemesis said | May 19th 2017 @ 11:31am | ! Report

                “How would you feel about a streaming service like Optus or someone else, just that they have the EPL already?”

                I’d prefer to have the streaming available on a platform that is open access & there are no geo-restrictions. Eg. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube.

                In exchange for the free access, viewers would have to put up with 15 second advertising every 5 minutes; plus ads pre-game; HT and post game.

                The HT ads can be full screen.
                The ads pre/post game would finish 1 minute before kick off & start 1 minute after the final whistle so it doesn’t detract from the spectacle.
                The ads during the match would be “squeeze back” where the football match is minimised but keeps playing in a corner of the screen whilst the ad runs for 15 seconds. (SBS has done this occasionally during ALeague broadcasts & Ch7 did it during the Olympics football match broadcasts)

                Google has the tools to make the ads you watch specifically targeted to each viewer; which means the viewer will actually have a positive connection with the advertised product/brand.

                I’ve crunched some numbers and the advertising dollars would raise more revenue than we’ll get from selling matches to FTA TV.

                This is all possible today. Only unknown is whether the FFA are awake to new opportunities, or they’re asleep at the wheel.

              • May 19th 2017 @ 12:13pm
                Footoverhand said | May 19th 2017 @ 12:13pm | ! Report

                Yep something like that would be ideal, if it wasn’t geo locked even better.
                I don’t think FFA are brave enough to do something like that and would prefer up front money anyway.
                Thanks for the reply, interesting stuff.

            • May 19th 2017 @ 10:52am
              northerner said | May 19th 2017 @ 10:52am | ! Report

              1. Just to be clear, I was talking about pay TV, not mobiles, being discretionary spending. It’s akin to have a daily cappuccino at the local cafe (but cheaper). Not essential to life, but a nice diversion.

              2. Pay TV is very similar in price here as it is in Canada, where coverage is 90% plus of the market. The model in Canada and the US is different to the Australian one, however: first, cable companies started making inroads in the early 60s, and now almost everyone has cable, with satellite dishes only used in relatively remote areas; the original cable companies have morphed into major telecoms providers (landlines, broadband, mobile networks) but are not content providers in the sense that Foxtel is, so the roles are different; and since there are no monopolies on infrastructure, there’s much more flexibility and competition than is the case here. Australia’s predilection for setting up infrastructure monopolies (first Telstra, now the NBN) is a drag on competitiveness and innovation, unfortunately.

              3. If all you want to watch is football, then yes, pay TV is poor value. If you want to watch a variety of sports, some good drama programs (Fargo at the moment) and the occasional classic movie, it’s good value. Better than those cappuccinos, anyway.

              • May 19th 2017 @ 11:15am
                Nemesis said | May 19th 2017 @ 11:15am | ! Report

                All fair point.

                My mistake re discretionary spending.

                I can access just about any TV show – not just USA, UK, AUS; but also France, Scandinavia, etc. – in HD with the click of a button. I can do it for free via nefarious means, or grab a Netflix, or Amazon subscription & binge watch as required without locking myself into an annual fee.

                Don’t get me wrong.

                Foxtel’s entertainment content is excellent – for sport, drama, comedy. However, people who are choosy about the content they watch, need platforms that allow them to be choosy.

              • May 20th 2017 @ 2:44am
                Footoverhand said | May 20th 2017 @ 2:44am | ! Report

                Bet365 is a good legal way to watch matches, albeit at low quality, but it only requires you to put a few dollars in an account, you don’t even need to bet.

              • May 20th 2017 @ 12:52pm
                Nemesis said | May 20th 2017 @ 12:52pm | ! Report

                Pretty sure I read the Terms & Conditions for Bet365 and it stated ALeague matches are Geoblocked in Australia.

                Do you watch via your own VPN?

            • May 19th 2017 @ 11:58pm
              jeff dustby said | May 19th 2017 @ 11:58pm | ! Report

              you can get it for half that price. it has low take up because australians are tight about certain things

    • May 19th 2017 @ 8:52am
      punter said | May 19th 2017 @ 8:52am | ! Report

      The game on Free to air TV will help, as shown by the recent GF, we have the product, we have the interest, this game is mainstream now. However I agree with RBB, this is no game changer FTA TV.
      The FFA has done a great job to get football to the position where it is, but there is no doubt that the FFA has no idea how to grow further, we have been stagnant for 2-3 years now, we are not united, clubs, media, fans, 2nd, 3rd tier clubs, grassroots, FFA, state federations.

      The actions required, well it needs a far more intelligent man then me to discuss let alone implement, but the one thing we need is to drop our agendas & unite as our sole aim to improve the game in the country.

      • May 19th 2017 @ 10:15am
        Footoverhand said | May 19th 2017 @ 10:15am | ! Report

        Well said

      • May 19th 2017 @ 3:26pm
        Lionheart said | May 19th 2017 @ 3:26pm | ! Report

        yep, gets a tick from me punter