Sunday, March 9, 2008

Australian Football Broadcasting - Part 1

It's great to make the effort and attend a game of football, the experience of live football is like nothing else - and if you are a football fan that would rather watch football on TV than make the effort to attend games, then I would strongly recommend you try to get along to as many games as possible. Of course most of us live busy lives, we can't always make it to the stadium, let alone stadiums all over the world. This is why football broadcasting is very important.

It wasn't that long ago, that it was very rare for a match in Australia's national football league (the NSL) to be broadcast on television. Suddenly we have excelent coverage of every game of the A-league, as many as 10 games a weekend from the English Premier League and a heap of other coverage - all live. That's not to say that I am completely satisfied with the football broadcasting situation here in Australia - if you don't have cable tv, you would certainly agree with this - the only football broadcast on free to air television in Australia is a weekly show on SBS, as well as live coverage of the UEFA Champions league.

In this blog I'm going to be looking closely at the amount of football that is currently shown on Australian FTA television. Throughout some of my next blogs I will be exploring the coverage that fooball gets on pay-television, and looking at the future of football broadcasting in Australia, (and I have some juicy rumors about what we can expect in the next year or so), for now though - the focus is on Free-To-Air television, and Australia's five major FTA networks.

Part 1 - Football on FTA

Unlike many other countries, in Australia pay-television is not the norm. Currently only 30% of people subscribe to cable or satellite television, and although this number is climbing, it is difficult for sporting events to attract major public attention without being broadcast on one of Australia's super-powerful commercial networks. Thus, when the FFA sold the television rights to the A-league and all Socceroos matches, exclusively to pay-tv network Fox Sports, many were unhappy. I think most would now agree that it was the right move, part of the reason that football broadcasting in Australia was so poor only a few years ago, was because channel 7 (one of the big 3 commercial networks) held the rights to the National Soccer league - and treated it it like junk, barely showing any of it.

The move to pay-television has brought comprehensive live coverage, as well as a lot of money to Australian football, but where has that left Free to Air? - and more importantly those football fans who can't afford pay-tv...


Currently the only FTA network that really shows any football is SBS - the smallest FTA network has always supported 'soccer', but it has a lot of problems. SBS is the 'ethnic network' - it has a lot of shows in languages other than English, and generally appeals to the many Australians with an European heritage. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but as far as football goes, many see SBS as 'the way of the past'. Over the years Australian football has struggled because of it's image as the 'ethinc game' - you can see why many would prefer football to be broadcast on other networks, in order to bring the game to the attention of mainstream Australia. Don't get me wrong, I think SBS is a great network, and I apologise if my comments seem even remotely racist, but unfortunately history has shown that Australian's are reluctant to have an interest in a game, that to them does not seem Australian.

So what is currently broadcast on SBS? Well SBS's Sunday afternoon lineup is the heart of it's broadcasts - it's weekly show, "The World Game", is the only weekly dedicated football show on Australian FTA television. It generally has the following format:

2pm - Various football magazine shows, often the UEFA Champions League magazine show, Football Asia or Fifa Football Mundial.

3pm - A game of football, often from a slightly smaller European league or a replay of a midweek Champions league game - for example a game from the French Ligue 1.

4pm - The World Game: an hour of analysis, interviews and reports relating to Australian or World Football.

SBS Also has occasional live coverage - central to this is SBS's coverage of the UEFA Champions league, they broadcast live games every matchday, as well as a review show. Other live coverage includes the UEFA Cup (which SBS broadcasts from the Quarter finals onwards), the FA Cup final and occasionally some international football. Unfortunately this is really all the regular football coverage that FTA viewers in Australia now get.

Of Course there are also major tournaments, SBS has the rights to FIFA tournaments and is Australia's broadcaster of the FIFA World Cup, they will also be showing a small selection of games from Euro 2008 this year. With the FIFA World Cup rights comes the rights to other smaller fifa tournaments, but unfortunately SBS's coverage of these is very limited.

One thing you may notice here, is that although SBS does have a bit of football coverage, they really have no coverage of any Australian football - this must be especially frustrating for those without cable television. One could argue, that if Australian football wants to grow, Australian football needs free-to-air coverage.

However, I personally would rather not see coverage of Australian football on SBS. SBS is not a mainstream station. They have been great supporters of football in Australia for over 20 years, but as football attempts to 'go mainstream', it will not be able to bring SBS with it. SBS would be much better off sticking to it's roots and focusing on European football, while Australian football would benifit more from coverage on one of the big commercial networks.

One final thing I will say about SBS is regarding the attitude of SBS's on-air personallities. I'll be frank, I'm talking about Craig Foster and Les Murray. Now I respect both of them, and I'm certain they only want what's best for Australian football - in fact I admire their passion, however both Les and Craig have a serious problem when it comes to getting their agenda's across. You see both of them have some strong views about Australian football, they see the public's interest in English football and they believe that Australia should instead be looking at the more technical European leagues for inspiration. They believe that the A-league has a long way to go when it comes to quality and the technical ability of the players.

These may all be fair criticisms, but the problem with SBS is that they are constantly on about these points. Okay, it's fair enough that occasionally you might want to talk about Australian football, where it's headed and raise these points, but SBS finds a way to inject these agendas into any football broadcasting it does. They need to learn how to analyse football without constantly looking at the bigger picture - they could also learn a bit about being positive - sometimes I get the impression they hate the A-league when they criticise it so much. I'm not saying Les and Craig don't have a point, but give it a rest - especially when you are the only FTA network showing football, you need to have some balance.

Channel 7:

Channel 7, as mentioned previously, held rights to the National Soccer league, as well as Socceroos matches. Throughout the late 90s and early 00s Seven showed quite a fair amount of football. Unfortunately their coverage of the NSL was very poor, generally the only coverage of games would be delayed untill very late night - with maybe the Grand Final shown live. Their coverage of Socceroos games was decent, big home matches would generally be shown in primetime, this included a World Cup qualifying playoff against Uruguay in 2001, where the home leg drew 2,221,000 viewers - Seven's 3rd highest rating program for the year.

What was good about Seven's arangement was that Seven also had a pay-tv channel, C7 Sport. Some Socceroos and NSL were broadcast on this channel, however the major problem here was that C7 was never available to most Australians, this, along with Seven loosing the rights to the AFL (Australian Rules football), forced C7 to close down, and that also meant Seven gave up the rights to any football. The last time Seven showed NSL was the 2002 grand final. They have shown a handful of other matches since, in 2003 they picked up the rights to two Socceroos friendlies - against Ireland and Jamaica, and they also showed a couple of the Olyroos and Matildas matches at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Since then there has been no football on Seven, although they will again be showing the Olyroos games at Beijing this year.

Incidently, Channel 7 was prepared to pay $2.5 million dollars a year for the rights to the NSL and Socceroos matches - compare that to today when Fox Sports pay $17 million a year and you can see how far we've come, mind you when Seven signed the deal in 1998 many were very excited about it - the exposure of a commercial network and the security of $2.5 million a year was enough to give football fans hope for the future - things didn't turn out well back then, but I'm fairly confident that won't be the case now, mainly because the A-league doesn't suffer from the same problems of the old NSL. One thing to note though, if a commercial network is ever again going to take a punt and get involved with football, they are going to need to be more commited than Seven was with it's $2.5 million a year - otherwise the FFA are just going to keep taking Fox Sports' money.

Other Networks:

Channel 9 is generally regarded as Australia's biggest network, though they have little history of showing football. In 2002, however, they jumped on the rights to the FIFA World Cup. This was mainly because the world cup, for the first time, was to be in an ideal timezone for Australian viewers - although 9 didn't show a huge number of games (allowing SBS to show the less significant games), they did get very good ratings - in fact the World Cup final drew 2,702,000 viewers, an all time record for football in Australia - it was also the highest rating sports event of the year (and second highest overall).

When you compare these ratings to the World Cup in 2006, when SBS drew 2.3 million viewers for a Socceroos game at 1am (the World Cup final in 2002 was at around 9pm on a Sunday night - absolute prime time), you just have to wonder how many people may have tuned in had the 2006 world cup been in a timezone more suitable for Australians - surely it would have set all kinds of records. Despite this success, channel 9 hasn't shown any football since 2002 - this shows that football can be suitable for commercial tv, but the conditions have to be just right - if games take place outside primetime, it's hardly going to be worth it for the commercial networks.

Channel 10 and the ABC (like channel 7) have also, at times, experimented with football, 10 even broadcast some of the New South Wales Premier League years before the NSL had even begun, more recently they have shown Sydney FC's game against the LA Galaxy. The game rated well, and with Ten's demographic being similar to that of the A-league (they both aim at a younger audience), the A-league may be a good fit for them in the future. The ABC has at times shown NSL games, as well as the occasional Socceroos or Olyroos game, but it has been a long time since they have shown any football at all.

Issues affecting FTA Coverage:

There are a couple of last things I want to mention about FTA coverage of football. Firstly, there is an interesting school of thought that says that football does not work that well on commercial television. The reason? Well football does not have natural breaks in play. In Australia, the sports that are on FTA TV the most are Australian rules football and cricket. In Aussie Rules, goals are frequent, and there is time after a goal for broadcasters to show a commercial, in Cricket there is a break at the end of every over - broadcasters can make heaps of money from advertising while showing these sports - this is more difficult while showing football.

In the past commercial networks have tried to squeeze ads into live football broadcasts, before free kicks, before goal kicks etc. Unfortunately this doesn't work well, and games are often disrupted. Some networks have done commercial free broadcasts, with maybe ads appearing every now and then at the bottom of the screen - this works well, however broadcasters don't make that much money from this sort of broadcasting. It is a problem that any potential FTA broadcaster of football will need to look at, this is why I would suggest it might be better for commercial networks to take delayed coverage of games (and allow pay-tv to show the game live), so that they can just pause the game, and not miss any action.

Finally I want to talk about the Anti-Siphoning list, and the Australian Government's role in all this. The anti-siphoning list is a list, designed by the government, preventing certain sporting events "of national interest" from being sold exclusively to pay-tv. Various sporting events are included, such as the Olympics, Australian Rules football league, National Rugby League and Wallabies (Australian national rugby union team) games. As far as football goes, there are only two things on the list: The FIFA World Cup, and the FA Cup final. Now the world cup is an obvious choice for the list, and I'm happy that the FA Cup is on the list as well (this is why SBS is allowed to show the FA Cup final every year), but to say that the FA Cup final is of greater "national interest" than Socceroos matches, or the A-league grand final is ridiculus (although you may note that the NSL grand final was on the list, but was remove when the NSL folded - and was never replaced with the A-league grand final). The FFA has publically said that they would not like any of these events on the list, they want the freedom to choose whether or not they want these games on FTA TV, and that's fair enough, but I would like to see the government step in - for the sake of the fans.

Interestingly, the Rudd Government did say during their election campaign that they would put the Socceroos back on the anti-siphoning list, but so far they have not lived up to their word. If you agree that you would like the Rudd government to get the Socceroos on FTA, you may like to take the time to contact someone like Kate Ellis (the Labour minister for sport) - it can't hurt!

I know that one of the biggest reasons I am a football fan (I grew up in a house that never took any interest in football) is that I was able to watch the Socceroos play in the early part of this decade, specifically games against Uruguay and England. I was only a young teenager then, and it's not up to people of that age to decide whether or not they subscribe to pay television, there are now many Australian kids, and potential football fans, who can't see their national team play. This is why I would love to see at least Socceroos games back on Free to Air television.

Bye for Now,


Dean k said...

Good post Matt,

One thing I hope I never live to see are the FTA's get the rights for the A-League because all they will do and have ever done to the local competition in bastardize it with commercials, put it on after midnight and not report on it at all. I think it should remain on fox.

But when it comes to the national team, I do agree with it being on the Anti-Siphoning list. The Socceroos should be available to all Aussies. Think of massive WC qualifying matches like that against Uruguay being watched only by those with Fox. It would be a shame.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy your blog, even though I don't post much.

I will be recommending it to others on The World Game.


Anonymous said...

Great blog written with clarity, simplicity and positivity.

The other option for FTA coverage other than delayed coverage is a weekly magazine show regarding the A League and Australian performances overseas. Somthing like Fox's Total Football but on FTA.

In the opening paragraph's you mentioned you had some juicy rumours regarding FTA... Well....


Matt Winter said...

Hey, thanks for your comments guys - I hope to be doing another blog (focusing on pay-tv) sometime this week. I will probably save most of the rumors I've been hearing (and my speculation/recommendations about what should happen in the future) for a 3rd blog.