If insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result each time, then Frank Lowy must be certifiably bonkers.

Since 2003, when he became chairman of Football Federation Australia, the 82-year-old shopping centre squillionaire has kept telling us that soccer is on the brink of joining the major football codes alongside rugby and AFL. All it needed was better management, promotion, privately owned team franchises and bigger budgets. The fans would come, and the media would follow.

They didn’t. Almost a decade later soccer’s showpiece club competition, the A-League, is looking awfully like a basket case and the sport as a whole is being tainted by its scandals and failures. The league is deep into its end-of-season finals series yet general public attention remains lukewarm

In fact, the media are far more interested in nouveau-riche mining moguls Clive Palmer and Nathan Tinkler, who’ve handed back their franchises to the FFA after separate disputes that now appear destined for long and expensive litigation. Lowy is about to discover that these new coal barons — who may, at first, have seemed easy redneck touches – have seriously deep pockets when it comes to settling a score.

Over the weekend, regular soccer columnists Craig Foster and Robbie Slater penned predictably populist pieces pushing the “sport belongs to the people, not the billionaires” line. (It’s revealing that while top-level soccer here is still predominantly played, coached and supported by postwar immigrant communities, most of the mainstream media pundits have Anglo names — such as Foster and Slater.)

All of this power-to-the-people stuff sounds great, but it’s utter twaddle. For more than 30 years major sport in Australia has belonged to whoever owns the television rights. From a commercial standpoint, without prominent TV coverage most local sport isn’t worth owning.

Which makes television the forgotten ticking time-bomb for the FFA.

Next year its TV rights agreement with Fox Sports is due for renewal. The initial cash-and-kind contract — a deal done in 2006 when Fox was still desperate for live sports programming to help drive subscriptions — delivered about $20 million a year to Australian soccer. Not all of that trickled down to the A-League teams as cash, but without significant revenue from television the competition would be unviable.

The bad news for the FFA is that with the exception of World Cup qualifiers, soccer ratings and advertising support have been underwhelming for Fox. From 2013, the network is unlikely to even match its current rights deal with the federation.

An early indicator of this emerging, hard-nosed approach at Fox to negotiating with second-tier codes was the 2010 renewal contract for southern hemisphere rugby union. The current SANZAR broadcast agreement — including internationals and the popular Super 14 competition — came in at $US437 million, a slight drop in real cost-per-TV-minute terms on the previous deal.

Lowy and the FFA would, of course, dearly love to see their code on free-to-air but SBS — the only other credible bidder — is thought to be in severe financial difficulty and would struggle to better any Fox offer, let alone then pay for the weekly coverage of the long home-and-away seasons.

As another guide to just how far soccer is from a seat at the top football table, it must have hurt the A-League franchise holders to watch the AFL recently secure $1.253 billion for the next five years of their competition. Rugby league looks likely to command a similar amount when its rights negotiations conclude later this year. The round-ball elite have been surviving on a tiny fraction of that income, and any major reduction to their cash-flow could be fatal.

Meanwhile, at least government keeps kicking in some dollars.

Over the past eight years soccer has received about $150 million in public funding of various kinds. Even if we take out the $46 million a delusional Kevin Rudd wasted buying one vote in support of our farcical World Cup bid, that’s a significant sum. Labor still pours millions into soccer in the hope that their largesse will turn into votes in the aspirational outer western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

Is that the distant rumble we can hear of Ros Kelly’s whiteboard being wheeled back into the cabinet room?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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