AFL boss, Andrew Demetriou was grinning so much at his recent TV deal that he would make a Cheshire cat jealous. The executive claimed that the Seven-Ten-Foxtel deal was “the best national broadcast arrangements in the history of our game” and that his advice was that he “would encourage people to subscribe to Foxtel.”

The AFL has lost the plot so badly it isn’t even able to provide an honest summation of the deal to its own members. On Friday, the AFL announced that under the new deal, “AFL football will be available to a wider audience with more live matches available to all viewers.” That statement is grossly misleading. More live AFL football will be “available” to those who fork out more than $600 per year for Foxtel. Only four games will be available for “all viewers”, down from five last year.

The AFL’s biggest mistake in recent years has been to head towards the Premier League soccer model, rather than the NFL football model. That is, increase broadcasting revenue at all costs, no matter how much has to be given away in the process.

Since BSkyB acquired sole broadcasting rights in 1992, premier league soccer fans in the UK haven’t been able to watch their club on free-to-air TV. Rather, they need to subscribe to BSkyB for around £40 per month (equivalent to AUD$1,200 per year). The motivation for the premier league being on satellite TV is due to increasing player costs requiring higher revenue. This is because premier league teams are competing for players on an international level and competing in international leagues (Champions and European leagues). UK clubs need the higher broadcast monies to pay the higher player wages so that Manchester United and Liverpool are able to compete with the likes of Real Madrid and AC Milan.

By contrast, AFL isn’t an international game. West Coast is not at risk of losing Chris Judd to Barcelona. If anything, AFL players are probably the best paid sportspeople in Australia across the board (while other sports boast higher individual earnings, the 500th best AFL player would receive far more compensation than the 500th best tennis player, golfer or cricketer). Therefore, unlike premier league soccer, the AFL doesn’t need to make its fans pay hundreds of dollars annually for rampaging player salaries.

A better comparison is the National Football League in the United States. To maximise ratings, whenever an NFL match is broadcast on a cable station (like ESPN), it is also required to be simulcast on local broadcast stations. For example, Bostonians will be able to watch the New England Patriots on broadcast TV, even if ESPN holds the right to show that game all over the US. The prevalence of NFL on broadcast TV certainly hasn’t hurt the code, with the NFL being by far the most popular sporting competition in the US. Last week’s Superbowl was the third most watched television broadcast ever, notching up more than 92 million viewers.

Demetriou and the AFL have sold out to pay TV for more money, which is promptly devoted to “game development”. The only problem is, taking games off broadcast television stymies the very development the AFL is trying to achieve.

Peter Fray

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