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Is the A-League's broadcast deal now a hostage situation?

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Expert
27th December, 2020
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There were exactly 229 days between tweets for Fox Sports’ executive director Steve Crawley, but what he posted on December 23 should be of interest to every A-League fan.

“Can’t wait to hear Brenton Speed – the voice of football call A-League this coming season on Fox Sports,” Crawley wrote.

“He’s the best caller in this country, no one is better.”

Crawley is as entitled to his opinion as the rest of us are to ours, and as the current head of Fox Sports, it’s perfectly understandable for him to talk up his own talent.

Speed might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s no denying he’s a multi-talented commentator more than capable of calling a wide variety of codes – including the A-League.

But the subtext of Crawley’s tweet deserves some deeper digging on the eve of tonight’s opening game of the season between Western United and Adelaide United in Geelong.

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Because to anyone who watches the A-League, the tweet looked for all intents and purposes like a deliberate dig at the network’s former number one commentator, Simon Hill.

That was certainly the consensus of the 150 replies Crawley received on Twitter, with many struggling to understand the logic of the tweet barely a week out from the new campaign.

But perhaps a closer look at Crawley’s professional background helps paint a clearer picture.

A former head of sport at the Nine Network, he was ostensibly hired by Fox Sports to re-shape their rugby league coverage.

He’s certainly made a decent fist of it, so much so that the network’s NRL coverage is now widely regarded as best-in-class.

But it seems safe to assume that the man who’s written a couple of books on Wayne Bennett, another on the Brisbane Broncos and who hired Brenton Speed because “he grew up with rugby league” might not necessarily have Adelaide United’s new-look strike force at the forefront of his mind.

And Crawley’s snub of the commentator who is genuinely considered the voice of Australian football warrants further scrutiny too.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, Fox Sports shaved about $30 million in value off the A-League’s broadcast deal at the stroke of a pen.

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That came on the back of them farewelling long-time executive producer of football, Murray Shaw, in June 2019.

The effect was noticeable, with last season’s broadcasts plagued by production issues.

Maybe that’s just the best a competition that has seen viewer numbers drop precipitously can hope for? It’s not as though the A-League is bringing in huge audiences.

But if passion is supposedly not a crime, it’s hard not to wonder what the finest commentator Australian football has ever enjoyed behind a microphone has done to be considered surplus to requirements.

And it’s worth questioning whether passionate football fans are something an old-school rugby league journo even values.

Fox Sports television presenter Simon Hill

Former Fox Sports television presenter Simon Hill (Photo by Robb Coxx/Getty Images)

Or is the A-League just filler content to be slotted in alongside the Big Bash League and old replays of the Winfield Cup?

Because if the latter’s the case, then the 12 clubs should probably start creating some Over-the-Top streaming plans of their own.

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Yet weaning the A-League off its subscription TV dependence is going to be tough, not least because it requires the majority of club owners to shun the path of least resistance and engage in some forward planning.

And it should be remembered that plenty of outstanding football talent still resides at Fox Sports, including those working on tonight’s game.

At the end of the day, the A-League wouldn’t exist without Fox Sports’ broadcast money and that income – albeit much reduced – was vital in steering the competition through the coronavirus crisis.

But the culture wars schtick is starting to wear thin.

It shouldn’t be too much to hope that one day football can control its own destiny.

At least Steve Crawley has got us thinking about the A-League again. It’s just a shame it feels more like a hostage situation than the start of a new campaign.