It was a gamble – one that surprised Fox – but it might be paying off. The recent emergence of Stan Sport (owned by Nine, the publisher of this masthead) means there is now another active competitor for sports rights, and one that is considering a bid for football.
And despite Foxtel chief Patrick Delaney’s claim that he is now “quite fearless of losing a sport”, industry sources say Rugby Australia’s move to align with Nine and Stan has stoked fears within the struggling pay-TV company about dropping another code to a rival broadcaster.
The A-League has been unable to arrest a worrying decline in ratings in recent years, but the competition is no longer football’s big-ticket item.
That tag belongs to the Matildas – and specifically, the 2023 Women’s World Cup, which will be hosted by Australia and New Zealand. FIFA is set to take the rights for that tournament to market mid-next year, around the same time the newly-independent A-League will be looking for a new deal.
FFA chief executive James Johnson said at last week’s AGM the timing presented a “big opportunity”, and the governing body would work with A-League clubs to try and make the most of it.
The process for the 2023 rights will be run by FIFA, not FFA – but Johnson is a former high-ranking FIFA executive and a close ally of president Gianni Infantino, and co-host nation status should give FFA some degree of influence over where they land.
Another entity – Football Marketing Asia, the AFC’s commercial arm – is also in the broader conversation. FMA holds the rights to the third round of Socceroos World Cup qualifiers for Qatar 2022, due to begin in September 2021, but also the 2022 Women’s Asian Cup, the 2023 Asian Cup and the AFC Champions League.
Industry sources say Nine, Seven and Ten have all shown strong interest in the Socceroos matches, but the process has been delayed by COVID-19, while further complicating discussions is the lack of certainty over where they will be played and, thus, what timezones the games will be in.
Football stakeholders are keen for all of the sport’s content to land in one place, if possible. That marries up quite well with the strategy taken by Nine and Stan, who have just bought all of rugby union’s content, from Super Rugby to internationals, intending to be the go-to home of the game they play in heaven.
Optus Sport, meanwhile, is quietly booming. The telco has built an active subscriber base of 868,000 and has beaten its own viewership record for English Premier League matches six times in the last two months. If they hold any serious interest in broadcasting domestic football, 2021 is surely the time to show it.
Sources also say Amazon Prime is keeping a close eye on Australian sport, and that they and several other international parties have spoken to FFA about opportunities outside of match broadcasting – for instance, documentary-style features akin to The Test, Amazon’s series on the Australian cricket team.
But there could be a surprise contender for football’s TV rights – the game itself.
A-League clubs, due to win legal independence from FFA by the end of the year, are being advised by US merchant bank the Raine Group in their search for private equity investment to fund a planned move into OTT broadcasting. They know that the sports rights bubble has burst, and extra competition won’t necessarily drive up prices.
Johnson has previously foreshadowed a football-specific direct-to-consumer streaming service, which would be run in partnership by FFA and the A-League through a ‘special purpose vehicle’ company.
That entity could buy up the rights to World Cups, Asian Cups and international qualifiers, and then on-sell portions of content to other broadcasters or streaming platforms.
“The broadcast market is changing … I don’t think we can just go out and change the broadcaster and get the same amount of money in,” Johnson said at last month’s Football Writers’ Festival.
“I think we need to move into the OTT world, into the digital space. That sounds all good, it’s good blue-chip thinking, but in a practical sense that would require significant investment to set something like that up.
“We would need to look at potentially bringing in capital into the sport to allow us to invest in such a vehicle – but if we were able to do that, that’s something that would set our sport up very well for the future.”
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Vince is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.