The 16th of November will always be a significant day in the history of Australian football.
The first round of the FFA Cup has thrown up plenty of subplots and potential upsets.
Former NSL heavyweights Melbourne Knights host Adelaide United. A large banana skin for the Central Coast Mariners at Maitland. South Hobart open their doors to Marconi Stallions. There’s history, romance and giant-killing potential.
Where the Cup will be broadcast, though, is another matter.
Last season, when Sydney were drawn against Rockdale City Suns, Fox Sports had an impressive pre-game build-up that afforded the same respect to the Suns as it did to Sydney, before touchline reporter Daniel Garb tucked into a pre-match cevapi.
It was a broadcast by people who were fully immersed in Australian football culture, and all the better for it.
This year, you wonder if Fox’s budget would stretch to a post-match Skopsko for Garb, let alone a full build-up. And given how closely intertwined Foxtel and Australian football are, Foxtel’s financial problems become Football Federation Australia’s problems.
Any plans Foxtel has to dominate the pay TV market are looking as likely as the Mariners storming to the Premier’s Plate next season. Their financial situation also means that the $346 million that Football Federation Australia sold their TV rights for becomes an even more impressive piece of negotiating with each passing stock market statement.
But despite this deal, there’s still plenty of reasons to be concerned. In the words of Fox Sports pundit Mark Bosnich, A-League viewing figures have fallen off a cliff.
And while the FFA Cup has hit some highs, even the basic cost of production during the early rounds isn’t cheap. This makes football especially vulnerable, as the broadcaster looks to scale back on production costs.
In any other market, there would be free-to-air broadcasters queuing up to take football rights. But this is Australia and, domestically, football isn’t the biggest show in town.
This is why there are plenty of advocates for football going its own way. On the Daily Football Show, co-host Tony Persoglia pushed heavily for moving the FFA Cup rights to the likes of Twitter and YouTube, on the basis that the majority of fans already inhabit these platforms.
This is already the model at a state level. Many NPL games are streamed on Facebook and YouTube, with a degree of qualified success.
At the start of the current NPL season, Matthew Galea from Football Today (and now of The Roar) noted that around 10-12,000 people tuned into Victorian state league games. But Galea is also correct in contextualising these numbers – not all of the 13,000 who clicked on the South Melbourne vs Dandenong City Facebook live stream were viewers.
Facebook will typically count a view as three seconds, which is akin to me quickly changing the channel whenever I see Ed Sheeran on my TV screen. I may have seen Ed grinning from behind his mop of ginger hair, but that doesn’t mean I want to stick around and watch the game.
Marketing expert Mark Ritson has also debunked the idea that all viewers are migrating online. At the 2018 World Cup, England’s opening group game drew 3.2 million streaming requests from the UK broadcaster. That’s streaming requests, not average viewers across the 90 minutes, which stood at 13.7 million for the TV broadcast.
In fact, Ritson suggested that typically online streaming accounts for around four per cent of the total TV audience. That number has probably grown in the past 12 months, but is unlikely to have shifted so significantly that streaming matches has overtaken TV viewership.
These numbers matter, especially for a tournament like the FFA Cup. Last year’s FFA Cup final attracted 78,000 and was the top rated show on pay TV. Rockdale City Suns vs Sydney FC didn’t make the top 20 programs for that evening, so would have had an audience of less than 33,000.
If we apply the Ritson rule, then we’d be netting out around 3120 for the final and somewhere under 1320 for Rockdale vs Sydney. These are probably conservative numbers for a free streaming service, but aren’t too far from current NPL figures, and fall a long way short of the available TV audience.
Moving online isn’t without its risks. Would, for example, a partnership between Twitter and the FFA Cup actually make any money for either party? Sports broadcasting isn’t cheap, as Foxtel can attest to. And secondly, how will new audiences discover the game?
Dive in the comments on any piece around broadcasting on The Roar or Twitter and you’ll see plenty of people highlighting the fact that they’ve ditched Foxtel for Kayo Sports, Fox’s sport streaming service.
But these are existing, hardcore football fans who will actively spend their own time discussing the game online. They’re not casual fans who’ve spotted a cup game while browsing their programme guide and decided to tune in. And the harder you make it for a casual audience to discover and tune in, the lower your numbers will be.
Human beings, even sports fans, are nothing if not lazy.
Even successful sports suffer when their audience is constricted. Earlier this month, an average of 550,000 viewers were tuning into England’s Cricket World Cup matches. In contrast, 4.6 million viewers watched England defeat Scotland in the Women’s World Cup on BBC One. Cricket in the UK has suffered due to being locked away on Sky Sports.
Fanatics may watch it, casual and new audiences less so.
The FFA Cup may, at least in the early phases, benefit from the novelty on Twitter or YouTube. But if the A-League and the FFA Cup are to attract casual viewers or entice new fans to tune in, they’ll need to think bigger. And for all the talk of cord0cutting, that means a partner who can reach the largest audience possible, which at this stage looks something like TV.
Streaming is the landscape of the future but it isn’t what is currently squeezing the life out of Foxtel. That can be put down to good old fashioned accounting: namely paying too much money, borrowing too much money, and not anticipating competitors will stop them making as much money as they need to service the debt.
Ultimately football is not what will sell more Foxtel subscriptions. Steve Corica and Tony Popovic battling for the Iron Toilet Seat is a lot less compelling than Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow killing for the Iron Throne.
And if wider Australia has yet to be sold on the joys of cevapi on a Tuesday night in Rockdale, they’re unlikely to actively seek it out on YouTube.