A-League under the microscope as new broadcast deal begins

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The A-League is looking for a bigger audience, with its big matches being shown on commercial free-to-air TV for the first time. 

By LAURENCE ROSEN

Does mainstream Australia care about the A-League?

It’s a debate that has raged ever since the league’s creation in 2005, but has never really been quantified.

With the league’s 13th season now under way, the question of just how popular Australian domestic soccer is beyond its hardcore fanbase may soon be answered as the A-League branches into the cutthroat world of commercial free-to-air television for the first time.

Ever since the league began, the game’s domestic element has lacked a blockbuster presence away from Fox Sports. While the pay TV giant should be credited for backing the league when it was rebuilding, the ambition after 13 years has to extend beyond Foxtel’s roughly three million Australian customers.

FIRST DEAL FAILURES

Back in 2012, SBS signed a four-year deal to broadcast a single game on Friday night, which  was meant to signal a new chapter for the league, one where more Australians would be choosing to spend their summer nights watching the A-League.

After one year of supposed low ratings on the main channel, SBS officials moved their game to SBS2 (now SBS VICELAND) and for the next three years, the A-League’s free-to-air presence never garnered the boost for the game both parties would have wanted.

The deal signed in 2012 wasn’t helped by the FFA’s resistance to upsetting Fox Sports – meaning the biggest games of the season weren’t shown on SBS.

It remains puzzling that matches such as the Melbourne and Sydney derbies have never been shown on free-to-air, nor has a single final or grand final ever been shown live outside of Fox Sports. There’s a great unknown at the FFA just how big the A-League’s marquee matches could be if given the blockbuster treatment every only Australian sporting code takes for granted.

NEW ERA ON TV

Entering its 13th year, the A-League is being shown on commercial TV for the first time through Network 10, with the first month of fixtures including both Melbourne and Sydney derbies as well as last weekend’s grand final rematch that kicked off the season.

These fixtures regularly make up some of Fox Sports’ highest-rating sports events in the summer, with the early-season derbies in 2016 notching up 142,000 and 132,000 viewers on pay-TV respectively. While those figures are strong for Foxtel, officials at FFA would be hoping to double those numbers on free-to-air this year while still maintaining the number of people watching the traditional Fox Sports broadcast.

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Devoted fans pack the stadiums, but are casual fans missing out?

But by just how much will the new deal increase the number of eyeballs watching domestic soccer? The real test lies in just how many mainstream fans in Australia tune in when the league’s biggest games are shown on free-to-air for the first time in the coming weeks.

For years both derbies have seen crowds of more than 40,000 watch the games live, but in the process of thrilling fans in the stadium, casual fans who would be keen to give the league a go have been left sidelined. The question has always remained how the league was meant to grow when the most appealing games of the season weren’t being broadcast to the masses.

The Network Ten-A-League relationship can only grow after what was a tepid beginning to soccer’s first foray into the world of commercial free-to-air TV last weekend.

The opening-round broadcast between Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC on Saturday night managed just 84,000 metro viewers and 117,000 viewers in total. That was supplemented by a healthy 107,000 tuning in on Fox Sports, but with two derbies to come in the next fortnight, FFA and Network 10 will no doubt be hoping for a substantial uplift as the season progresses.

OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND

One of the major bugbears Australian soccer fans have is with the lack of promotion the league gets and one only needs to look at cricket’s Big Bash League to see how a move to commercial TV can lift a summer sport from a slow build to an almost overnight smash hit.

Since the BBL moved to Network 10 in 2013, the league has exploded in popularity, largely because of the sheer amount of promotion the network does above and beyond the traditional channels.

In the eyes of the sporting public, the A-League has genuinely loitered in the summer sporting background, occasionally gaining genuine mainstream interest as the season reached its climax. Every major sporting league in Australia is largely built around its marquee games, but few have made their biggest games less accessible than soccer.

The new deal with Network 10 has the potential to herald a new era in Australian soccer – one where the A-League’s marquee games become a genuine staple of the summer sporting smorgasbord in this country. 

The riches of commercial free-to-air TV stands to benefit a competition as bereft of traditional mainstream attention such as the A-League and, in Network 10, the league has found a partner that could elevate the sport to the next level.

Is the A-League as popular as many think? For the first time in league history, we will soon find out.