Like many Australian soccer fans, I was extremely disappointed to learn of SBS’s decision to on-sell the broadcast rights for a majority of matches at the upcoming World Cup to Pay TV.
As a diehard football supporter, I was absolutely shocked to learn than more than half of the matches in the 2018 tournament will not be screened on commercial TV, and still more shocked to learn that the SBS voluntarily traded away these rights for a relatively small number of English Premier League matches.
While all matches involving Australia will be shown, Australians will only be able to view on free-to-air TV 25 of the 64 matches played. To me, this is a profound tragedy for Australian sport.
The World Cup is the biggest sporting tournament in the world – more widely watched even than the Olympics. Football is the biggest sport in Australia by number of participants, and the World Cup, particularly since 2006, has attracted an enormous following, originally from Australia’s migrant and multicultural community, and increasingly from an even larger section of the community.
Not only is the quality of competition on display at the World Cup of the highest class, the power of the World Cup to conjure emotions of pride and jubilation, and unite the world, at least for ninety minutes, is unsurpassed by any other sporting event.
While we can but make predictions as to which nation may lift the trophy on 15 July, we know for sure that, regrettably, far fewer Australians will be able to experience most of the World Cup than they did in 2014. This is just plain wrong.
It scarcely needs mentioning that not everybody can afford Pay TV – in fact a majority of households do not subscribe to it. This means that a majority of Australians will not have access to a majority of matches being played at the World Cup. Not since the 1970s have fewer World Cup matches been broadcast live into Australian homes.
Consider how far the broadcast of sport has come since that time, and how far Australian soccer has progressed. Yet thanks to the SBS, the 2018 World Cup will have the same coverage as the World Cup did in the 1970s.
Older soccer fans will recall that the SBS first brought the World Cup to Australian screens in the 1980s and since then has won numerous awards for its coverage.
That the SBS believes that it is now more important to show Stoke City vs Burnley or West Bromwich Albion vs Wolverhampton than Argentina vs Croatia or Serbia vs Switzerland is absolutely staggering.
The SBS has always prided itself in bringing the ‘world game’ to Australian television, rather than presenting the sort of Anglo-centric coverage that might be expected of other networks.
The late Les Murray said in his autobiography By the Balls that prior to the SBS’s inception, most Australians would have believed that “Bryan Robson and Terry Butcher were the best players in the world.”
They had not seen or ever heard names like Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Platini or Maradona.
He also noted that people “remember telecasts of mega events like World Cups and major matches involving the Socceroos as being the key vehicles by which SBS put football into the Australian sporting psyche.”
It seems incredible that SBS management in 2018 no longer has much interest in the world game beyond English shores. To equate a Premier League game every week to more than half of the World Cup is laughable, and regardless of the money involved, the ‘quid pro quo’ in this deal is woeful not merely from an SBS point of view, but also from the point of view of the Australian soccer community.
The World Cup is on the government’s anti-siphoning list for good reason. Such a prestigious event should be available to all Australians, regardless of how much money they earn.
Parliament brought in anti-siphoning laws to make this possible, however the SBS has, cynically in my view, exploited a loophole, thus making a mockery of the protections put in place to stop World Cup rights from being siphoned away from the TV screens of ordinary Australians.
To quote Les Murray one final time, when “people in the street thought football, they thought SBS; and when they thought World Cup, they thought SBS as its natural home.” The SBS has forgotten the reason it broadcasts soccer in the first place – to bring the world game to Australian viewers.
Whereas children who grew up watching the World Cup on SBS saw far more of it than their parents’ generation, unfortunately the opposite will be true for those who are tuning in for the first time in 2018.
This decision is an own goal on which the SBS will have much time to reflect. I hope the SBS takes this opportunity to remember the words of Les Murray. Australian soccer fans deserve nothing less.