Why has The Australian’s hard-hitting sports columnist, Patrick Smith, gone so soft on the appalling state of the AFL’s television coverage? Couldn’t be because he’s employed by News Ltd, could it?

Below this little spray is our original piece on Patrick Smith posted on April 16, where we pondered why Patrick Smith, fearless critic of all things that are wrong with the AFL, has been so reticent to criticise the AFL TV rights deal.

If you haven’t already read it, scroll about a quarter of the way down this page to read it first.

Since we posted the original article, Patrick – obviously fearing the curse of Crikey – has written about the TV rights deal on Wednesday 17 April and Friday 19 April.

They have been most timid, un-Patrick-like offerings indeed

Crullers was almost knocked off his chair when he opened the Australian on Wednesday 17 April and saw an article by Patrick Smith about the AFL television rights fiasco. Dang ol’ Patrick had trumped Crullers by swatting the allegations Crullers had put up on the Crikey site the night before!

Or so Crullers first thought.

No, Patrick still has the kid gloves on when it comes to dealing with the News Limited consortium’s role in the current television broadcast furore engulfing the AFL.

Check out Patrick’s article in full here.

Crullers challenges anyone to find one comment critical of the News Limited consortium by Patrick in his article – and subliminal messages do not count.

Patrick spends the entire column mocking AFL commercial operations manager Ben Buckley (note how Patrick has made Buckley’s existence complete with one of those hilarious nicknames) and blames the AFL entirely for everything that has gone wrong.

Of course, Patrick – News Ltd and its buddies are absolute clean-skins.

Patrick was at it again in his column of Friday 19 April.

Again, not a word critical of News Limited’s role, and again Patrick spends the entire article saying that others are criticising the deal, but doesn’t offer his own opinion – something he is so rarely shy about doing.

Not only that, but Patrick actually DEFENDS the stinker of a deal!

“The AFL will release a document that shows the new agreement is far superior to the one held with the last rights holder, Channel Seven,” Patrick says. “The five-year deal delivers prime-time free-to-air coverage of the Swans matches in Sydney and most of NSW for the first time, as well as prime-time coverage of the Lions’ games in Brisbane and Queensland, again for the first time.”

Yes Patrick, but that isn’t good for the code as a whole. In securing this, it does nothing to attract fans towards the game itself; rather, it just encourages people to support their home town’s team.

Last week viewers in Sydney missed out on the mouth-watering prospect of the 2001 Grand Final rematch between what most pundits are saying are clearly the two best teams in the competition.

It wasn’t even available live on Pay TV, something that never happened last year.

In round one, neither capital city saw a game live on free-to-air on the Saturday afternoon, Channel 10 instead electing to show a Britney Spears special.

But instead, Brisbane and Sydney viewers will get any match their home team plays in prime time, even if it is against a turkey of a side and turns out to be a poor advertisement for the game.

If the AFL pushes this line, then the fortunes of the game in NSW and Queensland will rise or fall with the home team’s on-field success.

That is not a good deal for the game.

The AFL should be pushing to get “neutral” games covered live in Brisbane and Sydney (i.e. games not involving the home team) and cultivating broad-based support for the code, not just the home team.

That way, even if the Swans or the Lions are struggling, audiences in Sydney and Brisbane will still tune in to see a top of the table clash, an ANZAC Day blockbuster between Collingwood and Essendon, or will tune in to see what Adelaide superstar’s Andrew McLeod’s latest party trick is.

Patrick adds that “the media agreement is a good one in that it delivers football to more people. The pay-TV component alone reaches an estimated 785,000 extra people who have the capacity to pick up AFL coverage and brings in an extra $40m a year in revenue.”

Well, no it doesn’t Patrick – not if the game is not being shown live anywhere, even on pay TV. We’re not sure where Patrick gets his number of “785,000 extra people” from (in March it was reported that Foxtel had 770,000 subscribers to Optus’ 270,000), but the important words here are “capacity to pick up AFL coverage”.

They may have the “capacity”, but only if they pay for it. Last year, pay TV customers who had access to C7 didn’t have to shell out an extra cracker to switch on to an AFL game. This year, the Fox Footy Channel costs extra on top of your Foxtel subscription.

Last year, a couch potato with a fleeting interest in Australian rules football could have flicked around his C7 stations and settled in to watch an AFL game live on a Friday night, something which might have sparked a growing interest in the game.

This year, those hundreds of thousands of extra Foxtel customers won’t be able to do that, because at the start of the year they decided their fleeting interest in the game wasn’t enough to justify shelling out $50 for a six-month subscription to the Fox Footy channel.

This new pay TV deal will therefore probably never win over those viewers with a fleeting interest in the game, whereas the previous deal had more of a chance.

Patrick then makes the completely irrelevant point that “the difference in free-to-air coverage of AFL compared to NRL is stunning. According to the league documents on a typical weekend in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, 15 AFL games are broadcast compared to five rugby league matches.”

So what? The AFL is a more popular code in those three towns than the NRL – it should have more games covered. Market forces would see to that.

Why doesn’t Patrick just compare the AFL television coverage to that of the NBL, which has a grand total of zero matches broadcast free to air per week – even in grand final week!

Woo-hoo – what a deal!

Patrick’s point about free-to-air coverage proves absolutely nothing about the merits of the AFL television rights deal.

All it does is prove Patrick’s continuing role as apologist for News Limited’s role in the botched TV rights deal.

Sorry, that’s a bit unfair.

Patrick is not even apologising – he’s in complete denial.

Now here’s what we first said on Tuesday 16 April

The Australian’s sports columnist at large, Patrick Smith, is the loudest critic of all things AFL, especially when things go wrong.

Patrick does this extremely well – or at least, as far as some astute judges (the AFL Media Association) are concerned, who bestowed on him the “Columnist of the year” and “Column of the year” awards last year.

Patrick follows a highly successful formula that can be summarised thus.

First, Patrick sinks his teeth into the biggest footy issue of the day. Actually, more often than not it is the biggest footy issue of the day before, or the day before that – you see, Patrick is a new age dude who works from home, where it’s kinda hard to break a footy scoop.

Secondly, Patrick bestows an hilariously quirky nickname on the helpless victim which is repeated ad infinitum. Anyone not heard of Grant “Cornflakes” Thomas or “Calamity Castle” yet?

Patrick then writes 750 words in his irreverent, zany, style, the cornerstone of which is to include more side-splitting similes on his pet topic for the day than Eddie McGuire has conflicts of interest.

Patrick then repeats the yarn, with slight modifications of course, in his next 5 columns until some other issue rears its ugly noggin.

Obviously I’m a keen observer of Patrick Smith, then.

So it has come as quite a surprise to this “Patrick Tragic” that our man has eschewed the old formula on the biggest issue in football outside of Wayne Carey’s nether regions this season – the disaster that has been the Channels 9 and 10, Telstra and Foxtel television and internet coverage of the AFL.

Patrick has written only one column on the issue, in his 3 April spray, and given it a couple of passing mentions elsewhere.

Buried towards the end of Patrick’s piece on 5 April – which was all about Sheeds calling supporters who were not paid up members “lazy and complacent” – was this offering:

“The AFL is taking a battering from disillusioned fans in NSW and Queensland who are living with an inferior television deal. If these people are lost to the sport then the push north by the AFL is in danger of stalling – broadcast millions or not.”

And then on 1 April, Patrick had this to say, again, buried towards the bottom of an article on something other than the TV rights woes:

“The AFL administrators have promised that the $500 million five-year contract with the broadcast consortium would deliver at least the equal of the old regime under Seven. It is apparent from the depth and breadth of anger of fans who cannot see what they once did that the AFL’s promise has not been fulfilled.”

And barely a third of the April 3 “feature” was spent examining the TV coverage farce, the remainder looking at the problems with ABC getting to broadcast the AFL via the internet.

Hardly the depth of analysis (and hysteria) we’ve come to know and love from Patrick in the past!

Of course, it would be extremely cynical to mention at this point that Patrick is employed by News Limited, head of the almighty consortium which has brought these troubles on. But Patrick is not averse to the odd cynical snipe in his column, so what the hey?

Darn it, if the failure of the AFL to get adequate television coverage in Sydney and Brisbane isn’t the biggest story early in the season, well I’ll go he (which is fast becoming the biggest cliche51 of the 2002 season – anyone else noticed that?)

And if Patrick wasn’t going to do a decent number on that, well he could have had a go at the new Telstra-AFL website, which is copping much of a maligning by footy fans.

But no, our Patrick has been strangely restrained on both of these issues.

Over the past few weeks, Patrick has reported on the troubles at Hawthorn, Carlton, Richmond and St Kilda, he’s reported on the ill-considered money-grabbing comments by Brendon Gale, he’s reported on Plugger’s injury problems and of course he’s had more than his 2 cents worth on Wayne Carey’s busy fingers.

But barely a peep out of Patrick on the AFL’s disastrous handling of the broadcast deal into the northern states – probably 300 words all up – and nothing at all on the lacklustre performance of the new fangled Telstra-AFL website.

It’s strange, because Patrick hasn’t been shy about writing about the almighty consortium in the past – in fact, he was probably ticket holder numero uno in the consortium’s cheer squad. So perhaps it’s time for a little history lesson…

Cheerleader Patrick

While the thought of Patrick in a tight-fitting cheerleader’s outfit waving pom-poms might appeal to some, we don’t want to conjure that sort of imagery here. But Patrick has certainly been rootin’ (in the American sense of the word) for News Ltd all the way over the past couple of years while the AFL television rights battle has evolved.

Back in June 2000, when talk first started about the re-negotiation of the AFL TV rights deal, Patrick wrote an indignant article about Channel 7 engaging in “anti-competitive” behaviour for demanding that free-to-air and pay-tv rights be bundled into the one package. Patrick even suggested AFL Commissioner and National Competition Council president Graeme Samuel look into this anti-competitive demand.

Although that was well before the TV rights deal was due to be negotiated, Patrick was already fluffing up his pom-poms.

At that stage Patrick was suggesting that Channel 7 would pay $1 billion for a 10-year deal, a prognostication well wide of the mark. Patrick’s effort suggests that Mystic Medusa shouldn’t be too fretful about her job as the Australian’s resident astrologer.

On 15 November 2000, the day after the consortium’s deal had been announced, Patrick wrote a glowing piece which opined that “the AFL Commission has got the media rights deal it dreamed of, the clubs the deal they drooled about”.

In a pecuniary sense, this is still true. Not too many pundits – aside from Patrick, who thought back in June 2000 that Channel 7 was looking to invest $1 billion over 10 years – thought that the AFL could squeeze $100 million a year out of TV rights.

Patrick’s article announcing the deal dwelled at length on the adroit negotiating craft of Commissioner Samuel in pulling the deal together. We wonder if Patrick would repeat his flattery of Samuel after the latter held crisis talks two rounds into the 2002 season to sort out the problems engulfing AFL coverage in the northern states?

Well, we wouldn’t have the foggiest, because Patrick has – as we’ve already noted- been strangely restrained on this particular debacle.

We also wonder if Patrick would stand by this little gem, which again appeared in his column of 15 November 2000:

“Importantly, it addresses all the qualitative concerns the AFL has about growing the code in the northern states, ensuring a maximum of free-to-air broadcasts, while also delivering the best penetration of the pay tv market, promotion and new-boys-on-the-block enthusiasm.”

Try telling that to a Queensland or New South Wales AFL follower in 2002, Patrick!

If it addressed all those elusive qualitative concerns, why did the AFL have to sit the consortium back down at the negotiating table and give them a slap across the wrists, Patrick?

On Australia Day 2001, after Channel 7 had indicated it would not top the consortium’s bid for AFL broadcast rights, Patrick dusted off the pom-poms again and started up a rousing chorus.

“The key to the deal was Channel 10’s involvement for it will broadcast into Queensland and NSW in prime time, something Channel 7 refused point blank to do and something the AFL demanded to help speed the growth of the game.”

They demanded it back then, did they? Again, try telling that to a Queensland or New South Wales AFL follower in 2002, Patrick!

In the same column, Patrick noted that “News Ltd and PBL magazines will offer editorial support, especially in the northern states, where AFL football is at its weakest.”

Come again?

Those lucky northerners can now just go to the corner newsagent and pick up some glossy new AFL / PBL / News Limited publication thanks to the almighty consortium, can they?

“I’d like to see that.”

Banana Benders or Sin City-ites would have been lucky if they could even pick up a copy of the AFL’s pre-season Footy Record, the bible for footy fans, at a local newsagent.

One would hope that Patrick couldn’t get anything else horribly wrong in the same article, but try this on for size: “Not only has it [the AFL] money now to invest meaningfully in football development, but the long-term future of all 16 clubs is assured.”

Well, we can’t be too harsh on Patrick for that one – as we said before, he’s no Nostradamus.

But it’s just over a year since Patrick penned this masterpiece of prescience, and already one club (the Western Bulldogs) is close to death, another (the Kangaroos) is on its knees, and plenty of others have question marks hanging over them.

When Patrick wasn’t singing the praises of the consortium, he was sticking the boot into poor old Channel Seven as the day of the consortium edged closer.

In March 2001, just prior to Channel Seven’s last season as AFL broadcaster, Patrick wrote a column brimming with suspicion that Channel Seven would trash the consortium’s, err sorry, the AFL’s product.

“We need to know that while the AFL and Seven wait for the divorce papers to come through, that we will be looked after the same as we have been in the past. It is not looking good. The grand-kids in Sydney and Brisbane already have got a rotten deal on Ansett Australia cup telecasts and they have let the AFL know. Grumpy letters pile up on AFL desks at headquarters.”

Well, the grumpy letters piled up at AFL HQ again this year about pre-season coverage, but not a squeak from Patrick about it.

“There is a real danger that it could develop into guerilla warfare. Jackson does not agree, but the signs are everywhere. For instance, a Brisbane Ansett Cup game was programmed for an 11:30pm replay. Unsatisfactory for the AFL and it told the Seven network exactly that. Seven relented and moved the replay forward 2 hours but at such short notice there was no time for promotion. Other officials claim the network says they have not met other commitments to clubs.”

A pre-season game broadcast at 11:30pm would have been a real treat for northern states viewers in 2002!

And what a joy it would be for the AFL if they could order their current broadcasters around and get them to show the footy at a time when the fans wanted it!

You’d think that Patrick would be similarly indignant in 2002, when the pre-season competition was barely broadcast in NSW or Queensland, and when it was, it was on at about the time your truly was coming home from the pub with a skinful and in no condition to stay awake and watch the footy.

Well, Patrick might have been similarly indignant, but he sure as heck didn’t show it.

Maybe the old terrier’s mellowing?

In the March 2001 article, Patrick predicts the AFL will get “a prime time presence in Sydney so it could flaunt its good looks when and where it wanted.”

Well Patrick, Sydney footy fans are still waiting for this elusive stunner to show her stuff.

A month later, Patrick penned a yarn titled “Seven’s guerilla warfare set to damage market”, where once again Patrick accuses those despicable creatures at Channel 7 of destroying the consortium’s goods before they take possession.

“You don’t have to be cynical to make this judgment. Channel 7 appears to be doing its best to trash the AFL market in Brisbane before Channel 10 gets there next year.”

“Channel 7’s position looks to be this: condition the northern market place not to expect AFL matches in Brisbane and Sydney and it will place enormous pressure on next year’s broadcaster Channel 10 to record any substantial ratings when it takes over. It is a very clinical softening process.”

Don’t worry Patrick, the northern market has been well and truly softened, with your beloved consortium continuing on with the tenderiser in season 2002.

“To that end Channel 7, which last year asked for more Saturday games to broadcast live into Brisbane, has abandoned them for live coverage of the Ashes series between Australia and England this winter…The network needs to protect itself for life after football but it has a responsibility not to run down AFL football – something it promised the AFL before the season started. Apparently, much has changed.”

Yes, much has changed.

But not Patrick’s devotion to the consortium.

Feedback to [email protected]

Your feedback on Patrick:

“Well said & Hear, Hear!! If the people can’t get Friday Night Footy “Live” & I’m one of them, the rest of the argument is crap!

Cheers

Peter”

“Patrick’s mathematics are questionable. How could 15 AFL games be shown on free to air TV in a weekend when there are only eight games played, of which three are reserved for pay-tv? There are seven NRL games each weekend, and five is a reasonable share for free to air. I assume that some NRL games are reserved for pay-tv, considering that the superleague debacle was driven by pay-tv.

There are potentially well over a million subscribers to pay-tv football, as Optus subscribers have the same privelige of coughing up extra to receive the AFL channel. Optus subscribers do not pay any extra to get either form of rugby.”

Now, let’s provide Patrick an example of the sort of column he should be writing if he hadn’t sold his soul to Rupert. This is a column that The Age’s erudite Greg Baum penned on April 2:

Football for the people?

By Greg Baum

No one owned cricket, said Sir Donald Bradman, but was only ever a custodian. Of course, he was just a silly old duffer who was sadly inconvenienced by principles and vision and could not see the riches that were to be made for those who assumed ownership. Vision now is something to be knocked down to the highest-bidding network.

More clearly than ever this week, it can be seen that Australian football has been appropriated by the AFL, its clubs, players and ground managers, and that this cartel is determined to sell, rent and license every part of the game, even now the hot air it generates.

It can also be seen that if this means some of the people to whom the game used to belong miss out henceforth, that is their bad luck. They are losers who can please themselves.

Once it was just guernseys, beanies and car seat covers that were licensed; now it is everything, including news and views. Two cases this week were illuminating. The ABC objected to the AFL’s plan to incorporate its calls of games in an Internet package for which the league wanted to levy a fee.

The ABC felt that its calls belonged to everyone, and that the AFL’s scheme would be unfair to people who lived where they could not otherwise hear broadcasts.

The AFL’s response has been to threaten to put the ABC off the football airwaves. This was not just high-handed, but surely a bluff, for the ABC is the game’s only radio outlet in Sydney, and not even the AFL would cut off its Sydney nose to spite its Melbourne face. Nonetheless, the attitude was clear: the game no longer belongs to the people, just those who can pay.

At the same time, the AFL gave reporters and photographers from News Ltd – the newspaper arm of its broadcast consortium – unprecedented, exclusive access to players immediately after night games. In itself, this is not dramatic, for the post-siren banalities generally are not worth reporting.

But the attitude is again clear: the game no longer belongs to the people, just the people who read certain newspapers, listen to certain radio stations and watch certain networks.

Be sure that this first instance of “managed news” is the thin end of the wedge. Already, it has bought the AFL some acquiescence, for not even a pea-shot has been heard from News Ltd’s big guns on this matter. But soon enough the wedge will drive both ways, for it is already clear that where Channel Seven asked for privileges, the new consortium is demanding them.

Look at what we saw – and did not see – in round one. Fewer games available to fewer free-to-air watchers, and outside Victoria at even less convenient hours than previously. No updated scores were given from contemporaneous games, which meant, for instance, that for the payless there was not a mention of the Kangaroos’ stirring win in Adelaide on Saturday night. The message was clear: if you want it, go and pay for it, cheapskate.

Money has become more than ever the only dynamic in the game. Fans who have not bought memberships are made to feel like traitors; it is no longer a matter of putting your money where your mouth is, but that you are not entitled to speak until you have paid. The attitude is clear: the game no longer belongs to the people, just those with the money.

Did you notice that when anguished Wayne Carey chose to bare his soul, it happened to be in two media outlets with which he had contracts? The message was clear: if you want it, you have to pay for it.

The most puzzling aspect of the Lane/McGuire controversy to Sam Newman was that Tim Lane would forgo all Channel Nine’s money and confine himself to the ABC’s pittance and a “caravan in Carrum”. As so often in jest, a truth was revealed about how Newman divides the world into those who have, or lust after, money, and the rest. He is a man of the times.

Doubtlessly, the AFL and the clubs would say that all they are doing is managing the business responsibly, and doubtlessly they are as far as their charter goes. But they have no business regulating how the game reaches the people because it is not theirs to regulate.

Football no more belongs to the AFL than a landscape to landholders or education to schools. It belongs in the hearts of all in all walks who follow and love it, and the AFL and its clubs are merely curators. If this is forgotten, one day there will indeed be a terrible price.

Peter Fray

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