In all their enthusiasm for the AFL northern invasion story, Fairfax media and the AFL seem to be studiously ignoring the realties of TV advertising and viewing patterns in NSW and Queensland. The stories paid no heed to several other developments that will change television not too far down the track; most significantly the advent of all-digital Free To Air TV around 2012 and 2013, a development that will coincide with the end of the current AFL broadcast contract.

Foxtel (or rather Fox Sports) will not necessarily be the other broadcaster competing with the free to air networks. By 2011-2012 there will be 15 free to air channels: 10 high definition digital and five standard definition digital. Foxtel will be in the process of expanding the use of its IQ2 high definition broadband service.

The anti-siphoning rules that prevent the free to air networks from broadcasting sport such as the AFL on their second and third channels only, will probably not exist in their present form. With 15 free to air channels and deep pockets the networks might be interested in using their second and third channels for sport. But because audiences will be lower, the fees the networks can afford to pay will also be lower, which means the days of record AFL rights agreements may be over.

Then there are some conflicts of interest for the Nine Network and News Ltd/Fox Sports to resolve. The AFL has blithely looked through those, but the NRL is well aware. Nine broadcasts the NRL and will until around 2012. It rates well on Friday nights in Sydney and Brisbane (and in NSW and Queensland regional areas).

The AFL can’t delivery the ratings and revenues in those markets that the NRL does on Friday nights, or Sunday afternoons for that matter. The Seven Network won Friday nights in Sydney and Brisbane last winter on a regular basis by not showing AFL games and programming non-sport entertainment. If the AFL and its coterie of football writers in Melbourne can’t understand that, then the second Sydney team has no hope.

Like it or not Sydney and Brisbane (and the regional areas along the coast north of Sydney) are now the biggest TV markets in the country (Brisbane is the fastest growing). Sydney alone generates 37% of commercial TV revenue in the country. Melbourne accounts for around 25%. Brisbane is almost 18%. That makes Sydney and Brisbane responsible for around 55% of TV ad revenues in metro markets. If you add in the regional areas, the share is even bigger.

The two states are NRL strongholds. Soccer can’t reach these markets because it’s exclusively on Fox Sports for the next five years. Rugby Union is struggling and the AFL just battles to make any headway with viewers.

Advertisers do not want to know about AFL in these markets on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons.

That’s why claims by Caroline Wilson in the weekend Fairfax papers that a new team in Sydney would be seen on TV every Friday night is hot air. Ten won’t screen non-Swans games live in Sydney on Saturday nights, preferring to show them on delay from 10.30pm onwards. Seven shows the Friday night AFL games late in the evening. They are not in the business of losing revenue for the benefit of the AFL.

News Ltd owns half the NRL (and won’t be selling for at least 10 years because of the huge losses). It owns the Melbourne Storm and part owns the Brisbane Broncos. It half owns Fox Sports with Cons Media (the media rump of PBL), which Lachlan Murdoch and James Packer want to buy.

The Fairfax story ignored the conflict that News has: does it get Fox Sports to buy the extra games envisaged under the new AFL contract, even if that cuts revenue and viewing numbers to NRL games?

Both the NRL and AFL should have tuned into SBS late yesterday when Frank Lowy, the chairman of the Football Federation Australia, revealed that he wanted to see an extra club in Sydney and Melbourne next year and another two in two to three years time.

And he confirmed that if crowds at A-League games continue to grow at the current rate, the A-League will have more people watching per game than the NRL.

If I was a betting man the real story is that the AFL and Fox Sports are quietly working on a deal that will see an AFL Pay TV network established to be run and marketed by Fox Sports in a profit sharing deal, just as the NFL is trying to do in the US without much success.

Seven, Ten and Nine know they can’t commit to any demands from the AFL until they know the shape of the media landscape with an analogue turn-off date confirmed and updated operating rules for their three free to air channels.

Fox Sports/Foxtel is the only broadcaster that can offer the AFL a deal it can’t refuse because the Pay TV businesses know what they will be doing in 2013 and beyond because they are all digital and growing.

Peter Fray

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