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Will anyone become the A-League’s free-to-air friend?

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Expert
2nd September, 2019
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There are just 38 days remaining until Adelaide United hosts Sydney FC in the season opening A-League encounter at Coopers Stadium.

There are reasons to be excited about what will follow. After three wooden spoons in four years, the Central Coast Mariners are starting to take shape under Alen Stajcic.

Through to the final eight of the FFA Cup, the men from Gosford have appeared far more committed and organised since his arrival late last season.

There are still some issues around defensive shape and after conceding 70 goals in 2018-19, there will be no quick fix, despite some new personnel.

The depth of the talent pool available to Stajcic will again test the squad in times of injury and strife, however, the good news for the A-League is that Central Coast will be a better and more competitive team in 2019-20.

Alen Stajcic

Alen Stajcic (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

The early signs suggest that Brisbane Roar are well on their way back under Robbie Fowler. After scouring the British Isles, the Englishman has a toolbox of talent with which to work and looks to have already introduced a little steel and resolve that has been missing in recent seasons.

Despite membership numbers looking a little light on at Western United, their A-League debut brings nothing but a mood of change and sense of energy.

Manager Mark Rudan has assembled a solid squad and with his astute tactical knowledge and ability to manage people, the club will be hopeful of playing finals football in their inaugural season.

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There are exciting new foreign players. Newcastle’s Wes Hoolahan and Abdiel Arroyo have already caught the eye, as have Brisbane’s Tom Aldred and Melbourne City’s Craig Noone. Most exciting of all looms a pair of Uruguayans.

Javier Cabrera and Adrian Luna may well take the league by storm in what looks a fresh and newly energised City squad.

Throw into the mix Adelaide’s promising 19-year-old Al Hassan Toure, the repatriations of Robbie Kruse and Andrew Nabbout at Victory, Sydney FC’s active and promising recruitment and the arrival of a sprinkling of South Korean talent and there is plenty to discuss and anticipate.

Off the field there is great hope, but also grave fears.

Commercially, the newly independent league stands to bring about real change. Should it be able to broker a new free-to-air television deal that increases the number of matches accessible to those not subscribed to Fox Sports, the way many Australians view the A-League may change permanently.

The need for that to occur is a no-brainer. However, being able to structure a deal with the Ten Network, the likely partner at this stage, will not be simple and the days are counting down to kick-off.

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The latest murmurings have suggested that Ten could pick up the production costs of two matches per week; easing Foxtel’s financial burden. Whether that deal is indeed a reality and in which time slots those matches would be televised are unanswerable questions at this point.

A potential deal offers great hope yet a failure to strike it could be disastrous.

There is no need to read the tea leaves when it comes to Foxtel’s commitment to domestic football.

Their decision to strip back non marquee content, employee departures and whispers that the FFA Cup will eventually find a home away from the cable giant, all suggest they somewhat regret the terms of the A$346-million broadcast deal signed in 2016.

That is a sobering and disappointing reality to admit and makes the next few years of an expanded competition so vital. As first Western United and then Macarthur FC join the league, promoting it and broadening its coverage will be paramount.

Craig Goodwin

FTA TV is the way to get more viewers to the game. (Photo by James Elsby/Getty Images)

Collaboratively, the clubs will have more money in the coffers to ‘sell’ themselves and the league, with the long awaited ownership of their property finally having arrived, yet that guarantees nothing.

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Any suggestion that independence will provide the magic elixir is just wrong and decisions made in the next 12 months could prove some of the most important in the history of the A-League.

Solving the free-to-air challenge would be a vital first step.

One fundamental question remains when it comes to a potential media partner. What is in it for them?

Based on average audience figures from the past, not much. Yet without adequate promotion, advertising and a resolute commitment to the cause, has free-to-air coverage of the A-League ever really been given the colloquial ‘red hot go’? Probably not.

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Helping free-to-air providers see the long term potential benefits of covering the domestic game is the only way a deal will be done. In the past, few have been keen to commit totally and invest considerably in Australian football for the long term, without short term or guaranteed reward.

That could well be the tipping point in the negotiations for this new deal. Getting it done and finding a new ‘friend’ is the A-League’s biggest challenge over the next four weeks.