As Australian soccer clubs find success on the pitch, their fans have to work to find their matches on free-to-air television. Do governing bodies hinder the long-time prospects of their sports by accepting the short-term gain of pay-TV contracts? 

 

(Bruce Turner/Flickr)

(Bruce Turner/Flickr)

 

At the start of this month, in the early hours of a chilly Sunday morning, several thousand people crammed into Centenary Square in the Sydney suburb of Parramatta. They watched as Australia’s newest top-flight Association Football team, the Western Sydney Wanderers, held the Saudi club Al Hilal to a draw in the second leg of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League Final, earning the tournament title. This was the first time that an Australian club had won the Asian Champions League, and the first time that the Parramatta City Council had agreed to host a live viewing site. The need for the live site stemmed from a combination of the popularity of the team and the lack of free-to-air television coverage of the deciding match, played in Riyadh. While football continues to grow in Australia, with 1.96 million people (8.5% of the population) involved in the game, television coverage remains predominantly restricted to pay-TV offerings.

In many European and Australasian countries there is a history of television (and radio) sports broadcasts being free-to-air. However, it is becoming more common for broadcasters to charge a fee for their programs, on either a pay-per-view or a subscription basis. The growing popularity of sports coverage has seen subscription broadcasters acquiring the rights to an increasing number of events. In Australia, only around 30% of households now subscribe to a pay-TV service, while pay-TV accounts for 31% of revenue for the TV industry in the UK. If certain sports events are only available via subscription channels, this would result in the majority of the population being unable to access them on television. Governments in these countries recognise that sport is of such significant interest to the population that they take measures to ensure that key events are available to all television viewers, not just those who can afford the cost of pay-TV. This action might take the form of allowing a live viewing site in a local space, as the Parramatta City Council did, or setting aside specific events as so important that the must be available on free-to-air TV.

Restricted lists

Governments often produce lists of events which are deemed to be of national importance. In the UK, these events are referred to as “Listed Events,” in Australia, this is referred to as the “Anti-Siphoning List.” Anti-siphoning allows the Minister for Communications to specify events that should be available for free viewing to the general public under the Broadcasting Services (Events) Notice (No. 1) 2010. The Australian list has been a source of much debate recently, with pay-TV organisations claiming that the approximately 1300 events currently protected are too many. The Chairman of the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association has even claimed that the list is ”Stalinistic and ridiculous”.

The Anti-Siphoning List recognises the importance of Australian Rules Football and Rugby League by including their elite competitions. Cricket and Netball also receive recognition, as matches played by the senior Australian cricket team (in Australia) and matches involving the senior Australian netball team (whether played in Australia or New Zealand) are also included. However, only three kinds of men’s soccer events are listed on Australia’s Anti-Siphoning List:

  • The English Football Association Cup final;
  • Each match of the FIFA World Cup tournament;
  • Each match in the FIFA World Cup Qualification tournament involving the senior Australian team selected by the Football Federation Australia.

It may be extreme to describe the list as “Stalinistic,” yet these limited events do fail to acknowledge some of the recent changes to the footballing landscape in Australia. Admittedly, the inclusion of the World Cup acknowledges the increased participation and success of the Australian men’s national team in qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in 2006, 2012, and 2014. However, the fact that the English FA Cup Final is included on the list but the finals of Australia’s elite football competitions are not suggests that football in Australia, or media coverage of it at least, is lagging behind the times.

In 2006 Australia left the Oceania Football Confederation and joined the Asian Football Confederation. This has culminated in two key moments, the Wanderers’ Champions League victory this year and the confederation’s selection of Australia to host the 2015 Asian Cup. The Wanderers’ victory in the Asian Champions League also means that the club has qualified for the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco in December. The 2013 edition of this tournament was shown on pay-TV broadcaster Fox Sports, and this year’s tournament is set to follow suit. But football in Australia might again miss out on the chance to increase the exposure of football, as the Wanderers may face Spanish giants Real Madrid if they defeat Cruz Azul and progress to the semi-final. Yet the match will be broadcast only on pay-TV.

Typically, hosting mega-events results in spikes in interest and participation for the host nation. However, Australia is in danger of failing to capitalise on the Asian Champions League and the Asian Cup. In addition to not having free-to-air coverage of the ACL Final, the majority of games of the Asian Cup (the biggest football tournament ever to be staged in Australia) will be shown exclusively live on pay-TV. If the Australian team fails to qualify for the quarter-finals of the tournament, there will be only be live free-to-air television coverage of the semi-finals and final of the tournament. If Australians want to watch any of the group games live, including those of the national team, they will need to subscribe to a pay-TV service. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) recently reached an agreement with the rights holders, Fox Sports, to allow some key matches to be shown on free-to-air TV. The director of television for the ABC stated that the deal had been done as the tournament constituted a “significant sporting and cultural event” that “should be made available to all Australians”.

The Globalisation of Sport

It is not just in Australia that broadcasting restrictions have not caught up with the changing nature of world sport. British viewers who tuned in last month to watch the start of El Clásico between Real Madrid and Barcelona were instead greeted with images of a Sky Sports pundit watching the game on an iPad. Broadcasting restrictions impose a blackout on live football being shown on English TV between 2:45pm and 5:15pm, as the traditional start time for English football is 3pm on a Saturday. Sky Sports’ live coverage of this Spanish match therefore did not begin until fifteen minutes had been played and the first goal had been scored. The expected audience of around 400 million viewers was clearly short in these early stages!

The English 3pm blackout remains firmly enforced and even extends to coverage of overseas matches – despite claims that this is contrary to European laws. This broadcasting blackout was introduced in the 1960s and stems from a fear by the leagues and clubs that football matches on TV would discourage spectator attendance. Blackout rules have also existed in the United States, with cable and satellite broadcasters unable to show an NFL match in the city where it is being played if the stadium is not sold out. However, the Federal Communications Commission recently ruled the Sports Blackout Rule to be “outdated” and eliminated it.

Sports leagues and governing bodies are faced with a difficult decision when it comes to broadcasting rights. While pay-TV broadcasters are often able to outbid their free-to-air rivals and provide welcome income for sports, their viewing figures are typically lower. The lifeblood of sports is participation at grassroots level, particularly by children. If the majority of the population is unable to watch events, then there may be implications on participation.

Consumers are increasingly following sport via television (and other digital media) rather than attending games in person. However, when a viewer needs to resort to attending a cold city square in the early hours in the morning, just to watch a television broadcast of a match, this may discourage all but the most fanatical of supporters. If consumers are not attending games and are also not able to watch them on free-to-air television, there is a danger that interest in these sports will be lost. In the case of televised sports out of sight is very much out of mind.

 

Keith Parry is lecturer in management at the University of Western Sydney. He has published articles in academic journals on football fans and media in the UK and Australian rules football, and he is co-editor of the essay collection Football and Communities Across CodesKeith is on Twitter at @sportinaus.