The NRL is about to experience what the A-League has been going through all season, namely a sizeable decrease in the number of fans watching it on TV.
There was an interesting tidbit in Danny Weidler’s column in the Sun-Herald yesterday in which he pointed out that 160,000 fewer fans tuned into the Indigenous All Stars game than when it was last played two years ago.
Weidler said it was “too early” to blame “player scandals” as the reason for the decline in numbers, before essentially blaming player scandals for the drop-off.
He might have been better off acknowledging a fact that no doubt has the commercial media spooked – people are no longer watching TV.
Or at least not as much as they used to.
According to Mediaweek’s figures, only 55,000 viewers tuned into Saturday night’s Melbourne derby on Fox Sports.
That’s less than half the number who tuned into the first Melbourne derby last season.
Where have all the A-League viewers gone? Probably to their mobile devices.
There’s little doubt the My Football App – which live streams A-League matches – has cut into Fox Sports’ viewership.
But while some regular A-League viewers have invariably cut the cord – and Foxtel’s new streaming service Kayo Sports will further erode their traditional cable subscription base – there’s probably an even more prosaic explanation.
A lot of people simply don’t watch linear television – the so-called ‘appointment TV’ – the way they used to.
Instead, the rise of streaming services like Netflix seems to have changed viewing habits entirely.
Binge-watching scripted TV series has become something of a cultural meme in recent years, particularly among the sort of under-30 demographic the A-League should logically appeal to.
And in transforming viewing habits from ‘watch this show because it’s on now’ to ‘watch this show whenever you want to,’ there’s been a fundamental shift in the way people sit down to consume such content.
So how does that affect live sporting events?
It’s hard to know, although figures suggest there are still plenty of viewers tuning in. Just not as many as there used to be.
And perhaps there’s some merit to the theory that, having grown accustomed to watching shows whenever they want, often on portable devices, some viewers have given up on traditional TV broadcasts altogether.
Is it a surprise commercial television networks didn’t see this coming?
They’ve done their best to try and tack on their own streaming options, but how much is all this hurting their bottom line?
And where does it end? Presumably with a telecommunications provider streaming live coverage of the English Premier League.
But all that means some hard decisions are going to have to be made about A-League coverage sooner rather than later.
Think Fox Sports aren’t hurting? They’ve reportedly threatened to withhold $5 million of TV rights money from Football Federation Australia because expansion club Western United didn’t include the word ‘Melbourne’ in its name.
And while they’ve long been the target of critics annoyed by the fact the A-League is locked away on Pay TV, some fans need a reality check if they think the A-League is going to continue in its current form without TV money.
What happens if Fox Sports decide broadcasting the A-League is no longer commercially viable?
If you believe some fans, those matches would end up being broadcast on the internet ‘for free’.
And those same fans will presumably be filming said matches on their mobile phones and providing commentary down the line at the same time, because industry professionals certainly won’t be doing so unless they get paid.
But that’s very much where the so-called gig economy is taking us – we all have the freedom to chase our dreams, just as long as we’ve got a day job to pay for it.
Meanwhile, streaming has fractured the live TV sports market.
We’re expected to believe that’s a good thing, but time will tell whether it works out that way in the long run.