Doctor Hunter Fujak is a lecturer in sports management at Deakin University and author of the new book Code Wars – The Battle for Fans, Dollars and Survival. In this guest post, the goodly Doc reviews Australia’s footy codes and their attractiveness to fans, broadcasters and advertisers…
The football industry has benefited from a golden era of prolonged commercial growth, largely propagated upon media revenue. COVID provided a circuit breaker to this growth, catalysing a long-called for realignment in sports rights media valuations in 2020.
For each football code, 2021 presents intriguing questions and opportunities, both in the pursuit of viewers for their host broadcasters and the ongoing battle of the code wars.
Australian Football League- Seven/Foxtel
One positive by-product of the 2020 lockdowns for the AFL was a surge in at-home viewing in key markets. The 2020 Grand Final was able to achieve a 30 per cent rebound from a record low 2019 viewership, aided by house-bound Victorians. The Queensland playing hub along with the Lions’ success also grew northern audiences. With AFL matches back to their normal duration and Victorians able to leave their homes, the league will be hoping to consolidate audience gains from 2020. The AFLW has certainly done its part, with record memberships, strong paid attendances, and a 15 per cent YoY increase in digital consumption so far in 2021.
National Rugby League – Nine/Foxtel
The NRL spent its off-season continuing to tinker with rules in the unending search for the perfect football product. Last season’s brave and untested in-season rule changes were widely praised for their positive impact on game quality, although they did not lead to substantive gains in viewing. A particular concern is whether 2021 changes will further increase the gap between strong and weak teams, a trend from 2020 that impacted audiences. Reverting to a conventional schedule should claw back some lost audiences, in particular a mid-season State of Origin series which should rebound from historic low audiences. Administrators will also be praying for on-field improvement from the Brisbane Broncos to boost flagging Queensland viewing numbers.
A-League – Foxtel
The A-League enters 2021 playing their final season of a $32 million contract with Foxtel that was significantly revised downwards. Although the quality of match play has been widely lauded, this has yet to translate into tangible gains in viewers. SportFlicks recent acquisition of UEFA Champions League domestic rights for $20 million per annum illustrates the continued commercial pull of European football, perhaps at the expense of what occurs domestically. With the A-League poised to revert to winter play, the clubs may be faced with a critical decision between what is best financially versus strategically.
Super Rugby- Nine/Stan
The abbreviated Super Rugby competition has made it to Free-To-Air television, albeit 15 years after the code was best placed to maximise its mainstream appeal. Australia’s closed international borders hasn’t stopped the continued migration of leading players to Japan and Europe, leaving Nine with more marketable stars in the commentary box than on the playing field.
The deal to create Stan Sport has the potential to increase competitive intensity in the sport rights markets, and indeed the A-League has been flagged as a potential suitor. Yet, a poor return on rugby union rights could prove Foxtel boss Patrick Delaney’s insight to focus on “Tier 1 sports” prophetic. Although early days, the signs thus far have been hardly encouraging. Aside from bungling access into pubs and clubs and providing a generous free trial period to subscribers, limited public reporting of subscription rates or viewing behaviours does not bode well for Stan Sport uptake. If Nine reaches the end of their three year deal having made a poor return, the longer term outlook for Rugby Australia may become incredibly perilous.
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