Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Football Feeling Flush Down Under

Australian football.
Football's image in Australia has leaped from doghouse to penthouse thanks to groundbreaking investment from pay TV broadcaster Fox Sports. The seven-year $120 million mega-deal caps a remarkable 24 months for the code so often viewed as the poor relation in Australia's crammed sporting cycle.

The terms of the contract truly are a leap of faith from the broadcast giants who come under the umbrella of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. It will see all Socceroo home internationals, selected World Cup qualifiers, the 2007 and 2011 Asian Cups, Hyundai A-League and AFC Champions League broadcast exclusively live from next year.

The landmark outlay will replace the current deal - understood to be worth a miniscule $750,000 a year for three years - which was struck at a time when Fox Sports had no genuine bidding rival and football little credibility.

“Having invested significantly in that potential back in 2004 [for exclusive Euro 2004 coverage], we have been delighted to see the game in Australia exceed all of our expectations,” Fox Sports chief executive David Malone said.

“We believe the coverage and presentation of football we have provided on Fox Sports has played a part in its success to date and we are looking forward to creating an even more exciting 'home of football' over the next few years.

"There has never been a bigger commitment to football from a broadcaster in Australia," he added.

This is in part because there has never been such an abundance of football available to broadcast. With Australia's switch from Oceania into the AFC, the game's potential has exploded. The Socceroos' participation in the 2007 Asian Cup brings with it genuine interest in regional competition for the first time. Meanwhile, A-League clubs being guaranteed two berths in the 2007 AFC Champions League - to be secured by virtue of topping the table at the end of the regular season and winning the grand final - drags forward the domestic competition at the same time.


Despite their fledgling status, the FFA have been canny negotiators. They have settled on a deal which compares favourably with the Super 14 competition - their well-established rugby union rival - which recently signed for $55m per year split three ways between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It does, though, fall some way short of the vast sums paid for the broadcast rights of the NRL ($500m over six years) and the AFL ($780m over five years).

Nevertheless football has never been cared for the way Fox Sports has taken the code under their wing. The last decade has seen the round ball game hopelessly tossed around the free-to-air commercial channels like a screaming toddler as well as enjoying an unpleasant stint on the state-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

Only specialist broadcaster SBS have given football a platform to show Australian sports fans what they're missing - and the stalwarts are now among those rewarded with rejection. Although SBS have sealed the free-to-air rights to broadcast the next three World Cup finals starting with Germany in the summer, the cupboard looks decidedly bare between the major tournaments.

Since the arrival of the slicker coverage from Fox, SBS have been accused of lacking creativity. Their Sunday round-up programme The World Game has a tired feel with midweek coverage of the European Champions League remaining as their sole regular live offering. There is a body of opinion that the traditionally ethnic channel can never provide the mainstream soapbox football now demands.

One thing's for sure - they could never match the deep pockets of Fox. And in a business where money talks, SBS were not even at the negotiating table on behalf of the free-to-air channels. The $17m a year pay TV investment secures the immediate future of the eight A-League franchises which are estimated to have racked up around that amount in season one debt alone.

Going forward, the FFA hope the additional income will encourage clubs to spend the full salary cap - increased by $100,000 to $1.6m for 2006-07 - and indulge in signing more reputable guest and marquee players. Only champions Sydney FC gifted fans the likes of Dwight Yorke and Kazuyoshi Miura using these schemes but needed some bailing out as a consequence.

As Queensland Roar chief executive Lawrence Oudendyk noted after the TV deal was announced: "Whilst the clubs won’t be awash with funds it will certainly help to plug holes in our budget and allow us to concentrate on marketing and bringing the game to more and more people."

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