The method and timing of the announcement of the seven-year $120 million TV rights deal between Football Federation Australia (FFA) and Fox Sports were clearly designed to elicit a favourable reaction.
The deal was well received by the newspaper to which it had been leaked on the Friday before Anzac Day, the News Corporation-owned Daily Telegraph, which also co-owns Fox Sports. The ABC's AM radio program was seemingly already thinking of the forthcoming weekend of sport when it devoted its last few minutes to proclaiming that the sport of association football (still so subordinated as to be known mostly as soccer in Australia) had at last won the pools.
With the deal makers gone to ground, the national broadcaster got swept up in the hype, neglecting to ask some sceptical questions, such as "why has football in Australia exchanged much-needed visibility for Pay TV money?"
While the deal marks a substantial advance for football in terms of media money, it is both misguided and short-sighted. At a time when the "world game" is belatedly taking off in this country with Australia about to appear in the World Cup Finals for the first time since 1974, its recent admission to the Asian Football Confederation and a newly re-launched national league, it has given exclusive rights to all A-League and non-Finals World Cup Socceroo matches for the next seven years, and Asian Champions League and Asian Cup matches in which Australian teams are involved.
Apart from SBS's coverage of the World Cup Finals until 2014, this means that most football on television is now available to barely 30 per cent of Australian households. As with the UK's Premier League competition, viewers will have to subscribe to Pay TV or go to pubs and clubs to watch most of their nation's association football. Once again, the national public broadcasters which developed the sports TV market (and SBS has championed the broadcasting of this code in Australia) have been priced out of it, and even the commercial free-to-air networks can't match Pay TV for determination and capital when exclusivity is at stake.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Pay TV involvement in association football - or in any sport. Died-in-the-wool fans can watch match after match, or several at once if they have the technology. In the case of football, with its sorry tale of poor handling by commercial free-to-air television in Australia, substantial Pay TV involvement makes considerable sense, not least because many games don't justify taking up currently scarce free-to-air schedule space.
But the major beneficiary of an exclusive deal will be News Corporation, not association football in Australia. Sport is the best and most proven subscription driver. Instead of taking less money and spreading matches and competitions across free-to-air and pay in the interest of developing the code, FFA has opted for instant gratification.
There is, of course, one way of ensuring that association football is covered across several broadcast platforms and reaches the majority of Australian homes. The Broadcast Services Act gives the minister for communications, information technology and the arts "a wide discretion to add events or remove events" from its anti-siphoning list designed "to ensure that certain events are available to the whole viewing public by preventing pay TV licencees from acquiring exclusive rights to listed events".
The Act and minister are there to redress the market-driven excesses that, when media meets sport, are always threatening to sacrifice the acquired cultural rights of citizens in deference to the trading of audiences. Senator Helen Coonan should consider seriously whether it is in the interests of the nation and association football to allow one Pay TV channel to dominate coverage of the sport in Australia.
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