TV rights deals pose problems for FFA

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Football Federation Australia is heading for a crossroads with the A-League television rights due to expire in 2017. The game’s governing body can remain on the path they know with Fox Sports as the A-League’s primary broadcaster and continue to have restricted exposure of their product. Or they can choose a road that has previously been travelled by former administrations with disastrous results, but also presents an upside that simply cannot be matched by subscription television – potentially huge viewing figures.

This second option involves selling television broadcast rights to a commercial network, something that stirs up strong emotions for many Australian football fans on account of the history with the Seven Network. After purchasing the rights to broadcast National Soccer League matches, Seven decided to shelter football from the public consciousness by showing matches on their subscription service, C7 Sport.

Seven’s desire to contain football was clear with Steven Wise, an executive in charge of C7 Sport even complaining in an email that the Australian Football League were not appreciative enough of Seven’s efforts to bury a fellow competitor.

“We have secured the soccer rights and suffocated the sport, much to the chagrin of its supporters (by giving AFL games preference),” he wrote.

We can see from this episode the perils of handing broadcast rights to a network without a true long term interest in football, and yet it also highlights how pay TV can not provide a sport with enough exposure to the public’s eye.

Moving forward to the current day, and the FFA find themselves in an awkward position. The FFA have had a long and dependent association with Fox that has led to contraverse when it comes to scheduling A-League games, particularly since SBS has been at the table.

The fact that SBS has been starved of high profile matches shows the FFA’s penchant for giving preferential treatment to Fox, something that is understandable given that they are the primary broadcaster and offer more financially. This is a position that has been reiterated to Football Central by FFA sources. It is questionable policy however when the growth of the game is at stake. SBS has broadcast just one marquee match since their involvement with the A-League began, Sydney FC vs Melbourne Victory in November of 2014.

To put into context the difference between free to air and pay TV, just over 100,000 watched the inaugural FFA Cup Final available only on Fox while an almost identical number watched Perth Glory vs Melbourne Victory in the Westfield W-League on ABC this season. There have been just six A-league matches this season on Fox with over 100,000 viewers.

Football Central learnt that SBS were eager to show the Melbourne Derby in December in lieu of a rearranged Western Sydney vs Brisbane Roar fixture but were denied by the FFA. The FFA refutes this claim but offered no explanation of specifics.

There are also rumblings that the powerbrokers at Fox may scale back their involvement with the A-League, as the return on their investment is minimal. According to Fox, their average for A-league matches is around 75,000 with their highest ever being last year’s grand final between Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers which had 334,000 viewers. Their figures for Socceroo matches were much more promising with an average of 322,000 viewers per game during the successful Asian Cup campaign.

Uncertainty surrounding the future direction coverage of football would mean it is incumbent on the FFA to harvest as many relationships with potential media as possible.

FFA CEO David Gallop said in December that negotiations over a new broadcast deal had already begun and the existing contract could even be terminated early. He also added that there had been dialogue with the Ten Network.

“All the signs are that Channel Ten recognise the value of live sport,” Gallop said.

That’s the same channel who’ve been criticised for their coverage of cricket’s Big Bash series, with games routinely shown on delay – the exact problem that had Socceroos fans frustrated during the Asian Cup group stages. There is also the problem that the Big Bash routinely clashes with the A-League, and Ten’s priorities understandably lie with the ratings goldmine that is the cricket.

The Nine Network’s involvement in football has been minimal, with their last major broadcast being a selection of matches during the 2002 World Cup. They are set to show the International Champions Cup in July later this year, a friendly tournament between three European giants as well as both Liverpool friendlies against A-League clubs, but have yet to express any public interest in bidding for the A-League rights.

The decision to award Asian Cup broadcast rights to the ABC came out of left field, and the delayed coverage of Socceroos group games angered many viewers who were disadvantaged by such an arrangement. The ABC were given the rights with the belief that a series of good ratings could mean a potential bid for A-League rights, but with huge budget cuts hitting the ABC that is no longer likely.

The other question that arises when discussing the ABC’s coverage of the Asian Cup is just who paid for the rights. Widespread reports of a $250,000 payment from the FFA to the ABC are flatly denied by the FFA, who say that Fox sold a portion of their rights to the ABC with involvement only from the Asian Cup Local Organising Committee (LOC).

However when one visits the Asian Cup’s official website and finds that the “LOC is a wholly-owned subsidiary company of Football Federation Australia” it only raises more questions.

Speaking at the Senate Estimates hearing in December of 2014, ABC’s Director of Television Richard Finlayson said that the FFA had given financial assistance to the ABC in their attempt to purchase rights from Fox.

“They (Fox) deemed that that bid was insufficient. Ultimately, the FFA came in and topped that bid up.”

Speaking at the same hearing, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott reiterated that the FFA had paid the ABC.

“We put in a bid. That bid was insufficient. It was supplemented by the code (FFA) because they were so keen to get it on free-to-air television and they were very keen to get it on the ABC.”

This confirms what Finlayson said in a statement issued by the ABC upon their acquiring of the rights.

“With additional support from the FFA, we were able to work out a deal with Fox Sports to release some key games,” Finlayson said.

Despite the issues with each broadcaster, the FFA and CEO David Gallop believe that the next rights deal can at least double the current $40 million a season value.

“I think it’s realistic to aim for a very hefty increase. It’s $40 million a year at the moment…a doubling would be the least we would expect,” Gallop said in November of 2013.

Unless something changes drastically, that figure appears optimistic at best. One thing is for sure, the next TV deal will be arguably the most critical yet in deciding the direction of football in Australia.

Andrew Cussen

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