Sport

Missing the mark: could AFL’s new deal leave fewer games on free-to-air TV?

Rupert Murdoch sat behind a microphone, a hand pass away from a yellow Sherrin, and declared, “we have always preferred Aussie rules”. It was August 2015 and Murdoch was speaking at the announcement of a $2.5bn six-year broadcast rights contract signed between the Australian Football League, Foxtel, the Seven Network and Telstra – the richest such deal signed by any sporting code in Australian history.

In far less public surrounds, a new deal between the AFL and broadcasters is currently being thrashed out. There is speculation the five-year deal could cost $600m a season – $3bn in total – and Foxtel claims it has the “capacity” to pay top dollar, after News Corp reported a $1.1bn profit.

Within weeks, footy fans will learn if Murdoch has again stumped up for his “preferred” code or been beaten by another bidder, and whether it will mean even fewer games are available on free-to-air television.

“Anything that reduces the status quo … would be unfair and a bit of a slap in the face to our fans,” the AFL Fans Association president, Ron Issko, said.

“The fans have been unbelievably loyal and [what] the AFL should be doing is making the free-to-air games stay as is, if not increase.”

Currently, three out of nine games are broadcast by the Seven Network during most rounds. Foxtel and its streaming service Kayo have the exclusive rights to the other six matches each week and also broadcast the Seven games.

At this stage of negotiations, few major players speak publicly. Any detail about the proposed deal is generally confined to strategic leaks.

And those leaks appear to indicate a possibility that fewer games will be available for free from 2025 – particularly for fans of teams based outside Victoria.

As it stands, games featuring teams from South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland that are played interstate are broadcast into that team’s home state by Seven (meaning, for example, that a Swans fan in Sydney can see every game they play in Melbourne on free-to-air).

Foxtel may want exclusive access to these games, knowing that it could force fans, particularly in the non-rugby league states of WA and SA, to fork out for subscription services should they want to follow their teams on the road.

“We understand and acknowledge the importance of the AFL looking to maximise the revenue the game can produce,” Simon Garlick, the chief executive of the Fremantle Dockers, said last month.

“But we also support the balance it has managed to strike in previous broadcast arrangements between the bottom line and the growth and accessibility of the game.”

The boss of his crosstown rival, West Coast’s Trevor Nisbett, agreed. “There is no doubt West Australians should be entitled to free-to-air broadcasts as part of the next broadcast deal. It is essential if we are serious about continuing the growth of our game and fanbase.”

Even the WA premier, Mark McGowan, chimed in, saying “it would be a sad day for Australia if people lost the opportunity to watch the football for free”.

The response from other states has been muted.

EPL
In the UK, three different subscription services hold the rights to live English Premier League games. Photograph: Dave Howarth/CameraSport/Getty Images

Those who are cynical about the close relationship between the league and the clubs say they do not expect any major pushback to the deal, even if it makes it harder for the average fan to watch their team.

The prospect of more games being stripped from free-to-air is not solely due to the involvement of Foxtel, though the company has also reportedly flagged an interest in a “Super Saturday”, where it would get rights to every game broadcast on that day in a similar arrangement to that it has for the NRL (currently Seven has rights to a Saturday night AFL game).

Paramount Plus, Amazon Prime and Nine’s streaming service Stan Sport are also involved in negotiations.

Paramount Plus and the Ten Network, and Stan Sport and Nine, are expected to have each made one-company bids, meaning they would own every game and split broadcasting between their subscription and free-to-air services.

But a streaming platform could also gain rights to one particular night of football, in a similar move to the $10bn for 10 years of Thursday night football paid by Amazon to the NFL.

If such a deal is struck, games could be shared across three separate broadcasters or streaming services.

Such fragmentation of broadcasters is not uncommon in other countries, or even for certain sports in Australia – a local fan of English football has to use Optus Sport to watch Premier League games, Stan Sport for European Champions League games and Paramount Plus for the FA Cup.

It is, however, far easier to watch the English Premier League in Australia, where all games are streamed by Optus, than in the UK, where three different subscription services hold the rights to live games and the BBC holds the rights to highlights.

Dr Marc C-Scott, a senior lecturer at Victoria University and devout Hawthorn fan, says that it is a gamble for the AFL to embrace subscription-only services.

“The [AFL] have got to consider who their audience are and who their fans are,” C-Scott said. “If you start breaking it up too much, you’re going to get some really disappointed fans.”

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Photograph: Tim Robberts/Stone RF
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The new broadcast deal is expected to be announced before the end of the year, given it is seen as a legacy item for the outgoing AFL chief executive, Gillon McLachlan.

McLachlan, who was seated three seats away from Murdoch at that press conference seven years ago, has stopped short of an absolute guarantee that the number of games available on free-to-air television would not change.

Only days after returning from meetings in New York with global streaming giants, McLachlan said he would not “compromise” the number of free-to-air games and that “give or take” it would stay the same.

“It’s important that everyone can access our game and the best of our game for free,” he said.

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