Australian Rules football and most major sports in the country have thrived on television coverage for many decades. The coverage has allowed iconic moments to be broadcast to millions and magnificent displays of heroism and athletic ability to be solidified in history. Without television, football would still be primarily a Victorian game that was played amongst cricketers to keep fit in the winter. This is why the negotiating, planning and distribution of television rights in the AFL world is so vital to its expansion, its national exposure and the popularity of the sport itself. Both mediums need to work together to create a money-making relationship. The AFL recognises the importance of these deals and spends a significant amount of time developing the ins and outs of a contract before they seek out potential investors.
The current deal was put into place back in 2011 and is set to expire in 2016, but discussions are already taking place for future deals. The five-year agreement which broke records at $1.253 billion saw Channel Seven and Foxtel share the coverage of all nine AFL games. The deal was quite dramatic, with the Foxtel portion not being decided on until the eleventh hour. Channel Seven were originally scheduled to join with Channel Ten in showing every single game until Foxtel and Telstra came forward with a proposal that included the relaunch of their AFL channel Fox Footy. When the news came out about this new deal, it polarised many people in the football public. The Pay-TV portion was thought to be unfair as the sport had always been free to watch.
One revolutionary aspect of the agreement was a clause placed by the AFL that saw the players themselves receive a larger revenue cut, citing the fact that everyone was tuning in to see them. The players bargained for a revenue cut, with the major motivation for this coming from the massive jump in pricing for the deal itself. The complicated makeup of this current deal will no doubt be mirrored in the next one, which is set to be negotiated in the next 18 months.
The forthcoming deal is looking like a pretty competitive race between some of the biggest networks in the country. These multimedia corporations see the incredible value in adding live sport to their portfolio. The AFL is probably the number one sport in this country in terms of advertising revenue and television exposure; therefore, it will be a vicious battle to secure the rights. At the current time, Channel Seven and Foxtel would have the advantage due to the success of their past three years at the helm. However it appears as if Channels Nine and Ten are willing to fight tooth and nail to receive the AFL right. Channel Ten in particular has started to reintroduce live sport as a priority, coming off the successful broadcasting of the Big Bash League. The 20/20 cricket tournament drew excellent numbers for the network and they would hope that the AFL would do the same or even better. The powerbrokers at Channel Nine have not held the rights since 2006 and are definitely in the hunt as they continue to struggle with the failure of their original Australian broadcasts.
Despite not always seeing eye-to-eye there is a possibility that Nine and Ten could join forces and attempt a combined bid much like they had when they stole the rights from Seven back in 2002. That rights deal was historic with Foxtel also receiving a portion of the rights. It was also the first time Channel Seven had lost the opportunity to broadcast games since the AFL originally put a stop to live broadcasts in the late 60s. If Channels Nine and Ten do decide to launch a joint bid it could be successful, without free-to-air broadcasting providing much more advertising opportunities for the AFL.
Each network provides its own positives and negatives to broadcasting the AFL but at the end of the day they are all at the mercy of the league itself. This is very important to remember: the AFL has all the power in these negotiations. The fact that the price of these deals has risen with each passing decade shows the drawing power of the sport as well as the financial savvy of the people involved. This foundation of negotiators has been strengthened in recent times, with a significant addition to the AFL board. Former NewsCorp chief Kim Williams was brought into the league earlier this year, and will have a dramatic impact on how these deals will go. Williams’ knowledge will be incredibly beneficial to CEO Gillon McLachlan and the whole board who will strive to increase the price once again. Back in February, an article was published in The Age citing media analyst Roger Colman’s predictions for the upcoming deal. Colman believes that the contract “could be worth up to $1.6 billion”. The fact that there can be this much growth in value over a period of five years once again shows the importance of the AFL to the media landscape.
An aspect that should be discussed in the upcoming deal, but one that is not receiving much attention, is the role that new media will play in broadcasting. Smart phones, online streaming and apps can be utilised so much more efficiently than they currently are by the AFL. Telstra hold the online rights to every game but their streaming service is quite outdated compared to some overseas sporting ventures. Online streaming services for companies like the WWE, UFC and MLB are all up with the current media and technology curve. They are providing on-demand content that draws in more viewers to their live events. It’s a simple business practice that the AFL hasn’t fully caught onto yet. There is a lot of money to be made online for the league; they just need to figure out how they want to harness new media.
So what else needs to be improved in the next rights deal? One major oversight in the past decade or so is the lack of equalisation when it comes to primetime broadcasts. The most viewed and most sought after TV slot for clubs is the Friday night game. Unfortunately for quite a while, the richer clubs have held a monopoly on these precious slots, with poorer teams like the Western Bulldogs and North Melbourne rarely receiving a chance. If the AFL and the prospective network want to keep the public happy, they must share these Friday night games amongst the whole league. Another improvement that needs to happen is the regional-specific broadcasts that have tainted many TV deals in the past. For example, if you live in South East QLD and you want to watch Hawthorn vs. is being billed as the biggest game of the year, you won’t be able to. This is because the Brisbane Lions are playing off for 14th spot against the Melbourne Demons. For some reason, your location always takes preference over the actual excitement or high stakes of a game. This idea has plagued broadcasts for years and frustrates many football fans throughout Australia.
The TV rights deal for the AFL has never been more important than it is right now. The direction that the league goes in is shaped by the success of every single broadcast. Ratings are the lifeblood of the AFL whether we like it or not and the corporate bigwigs will stop at nothing to secure the best deal possible. Whether it goes to Channel Nine, Channel Seven, Channel Ten or Foxtel, what will be definite is that the quality of broadcasts will continue to rise. The reason for this is that at the end of the day, the viewer dictates how successful the network will be. If you don’t like Channel Seven’s coverage of the footy, switch off; use the power of the remote to voice your distaste. The people have the power, and the AFL will make sure to cater to your every need.
Follow Commentary Box Sports on Social Media!